Artist Patrick O”™Doherty’s Alter Ego Laid to Rest

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Patrick Ireland, 36, Dies; Created to Serve Peace
by Michael Kimmelman
The New York Times
May 22, 2008


Dublin “” On Tuesday evening, here on a grassy terrace behind the old Royal Hospital Kilmainham, with the sun still high in the sky and his heart full of joy, Brian O”™Doherty attended his own wake.

After 36 years he put to rest his alter ego, Patrick Ireland.

Sometimes culture and politics intersect in subtle, serendipitous ways. In 1972 Mr. O”™Doherty, an Irish-born artist who has lived in New York since the early “™60s, wanted to do something to protest the events of Bloody Sunday “” that year on Jan. 30 “” when British soldiers killed 14 unarmed Irish civilians in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

He decided to stage a small ceremony here, a kind of performance, before 30 witnesses, at which he swore to sign all his artworks “Patrick Ireland” until “the British military presence is removed and all citizens granted their civil rights.”

It was a token gesture, and not many people noticed, but it was heartfelt. “I felt a great sense of impotence,” he said on Tuesday morning, sitting with his wife, Barbara Novak, an American art historian, over a full Irish breakfast. “The name at least became a reminder. Every work I did after that gained a political context for me and for anyone who may have wondered who Patrick Ireland was.”

Mr. O”™Doherty was born in 1928 into a family of doctors in County Roscommon. “I was always searching for an identity,” he recalled.

His family had “a fractured sense of identity”: two uncles joined the British army, another uncle fought the British and helped capture a British general. Mr. O”™Doherty trained as a doctor, then after emigrating to the United States in 1957, quit medicine and became an art critic, a television presenter, an arts administrator and an artist. His artwork “” conceptual-minded installations, drawings and language games, whose subtexts were frequently Ireland and identity “” sometimes entailed aliases. The work leaned heavily on Marcel Duchamp. (He once took an electrocardiogram of the elderly French artist, then exhibited it as a Duchamp portrait.)

He wrote books, too, under his real name. “The Deposition of Father McGreevy,” a 1999 novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and involved another of his aliases, William Maginn, who happened to be a real-life 19th-century Irish poet, who had used O”™Doherty as an alias. An essay from the “™70s by Mr. O”™Doherty, “Inside the White Cube,” became famous in art circles for describing how modern art interacted with the gallery spaces in which it was shown.

In retrospect, like everything else he did, the essay dealt with identity “” how people and the works of art they make, once decoded, show themselves inextricably entwined with their origins and locales.

Meanwhile, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland continued. “The degree of antipathy and hatred was such that this seemed like one of those struggles with no end,” Mr. O”™Doherty said. “It”™s a miracle it”™s over.”

And so, now satisfied that the peace had taken root, he held a funeral on Tuesday to celebrate. This time a few hundred friends, relatives and others turned up at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in the former royal hospital, which was built during the 17th century to comfort soldiers. It happens that at the National Gallery of Ireland, not far away, there is a painting on loan by Joshua Reynolds, a portrait of a young Polynesian named Omai, which an Irish collector bought at auction in London some time ago. The collector wanted to bring it to Ireland, but the British objected.

It”™s here for the moment thanks to a temporary export license, a truce, a brokered peace. In the same museum is a room of Baroque paintings by Rubens and others that were acquired under British rule during the 19th century, when the museum was allowed to collect pictures with Roman Catholic themes because the British considered them not worthy of London.

Art, in other words, can speak to social conflicts, and not always how you might think. Yvonne Scott, a professor here at Trinity College, remarked before the wake that in 1972 the invention of Patrick Ireland was “hard for people to grasp because for a long while conceptual art wasn”™t understood here.” She added, “Times have changed.”

For which reason Mr. O”™Doherty, dressed all in white with a white stocking pulled over his head like the one he wore for the ceremony that brought Patrick Ireland into existence, trailed six pallbearers into a garden behind the museum, where a fresh grave awaited. Charles Simonds, an artist, had cast a death mask from Mr. O”™Doherty”™s face, an effigy that would be buried in a pine coffin.

“Has the passing of a life ever caused more joy?” Michael Rush, a former Jesuit priest and an American museum director, began his eulogy. Several of Mr. O”™Doherty”™s friends read poems. One was by Stéphane Mallarmé (“And I die, and I love “” whether the glass be art or mysticism “” to be reborn, wearing my dream like a diadem”).

Next, the Irish artist Alannah O”™Kelly keened. The day before, Mr. O”™Doherty had told her he imagined a minute or two of keening. “She told me, “˜Oh, no, two minutes of keening won”™t do,”™ “ he said. So she keened for several glorious minutes, her amplified voice echoing across the garden, into the city.

Finally, Mr. O”™Doherty stepped forward, threw a handful of dirt on Patrick Ireland”™s coffin, tossed his stocking mask into the grave and said, simply: “Thank you. Thank you for peace.” Decades on, a small private act of protest had ended quietly.

Five Irish musicians seated on plush red-and-gold chairs beside the grave struck up a tune. “It”™s the completion of a vow,” Ms. Novak said afterward, red-eyed.

Mr. O”™Doherty had objected at breakfast when she suggested that his artistic cast of mind was distinctly Irish. He didn”™t want to be pigeonholed.

“None of us wants to be put in a box,” he said. Then the pine coffin came to mind. “Except today,” he said, laughing.

Now, here he stood, a little disbelieving beside the grave, talking about “the chance, literally, to bury hatred.”

He shook his head. “You don”™t always get to do that in life.”