A short text for the special feature on ‘Four Decades on Irish Sculpture’ in the recent (100th) issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.
Some scholars of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement hail it as a model of ‘constructive ambiguity’ — an artfully uncertain structure, open-ended enough to invite contrasting interpretations of its contents. Evasive language allowed difficult decisions to be postponed. Definitive plans were not set in stone. For other commentators, any emphasis on the perceived ambiguity of this momentous, multi-party accord is misleading. The Good Friday Agreement is, they argue, a work of skillful specificity: an intricately wrought textual construct that delineates precise and distinct political proposals, using sensitive, subtle language to articulate communal aspirations and shape new political forms.
Shane Cullen’s sculpture The Agreement (2002) — a landmark artistic response to the official resolution of conflict in the north of Ireland, originally commissioned by London’s Beaconsfield gallery — can be read in each of these contrasting ways. It is a work of monumental scale and style: the entire 11,500 word text of the negotiated settlement mechanically inscribed onto fifty-five four-foot-wide polyurethane panels. Massive, and imposing, it gives the appearance of solidity and permanence, resembling an elaborate public memorial, intricately detailed with unchanging, authoritative declarations. As such, it appears to mark the solemnity of an historical milestone with ambition, grandeur and certainty. And yet, this is an ‘uncertain’ sculpture too: made from relatively lightweight material, it is mobile and potentially impermanent. It is not set in stone. Rather than a grounding, durable form, it is a precarious maquette, a promise of a monument-to-come. Cullen’s sculpture, variously staged in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, London and Portadown during the early, anxious, post-Troubles years, is an ambiguous construct: a shifting, unsettled, ‘open’ form, that also, at an important point in Ireland’s recent history, pointed towards the hoped-for potential of closure.