- Editor’s Introduction
The photograph on the front of this issue of Éire-Ireland of one sculpture from Dorothy Cross’s “Dish Covers” (1993) is an arresting image of the artist holding a large silver dish cover, which is sutured to a cow’s udder.1 This photograph places an inanimate object (the antique silver dish used to cover food) between the isolated and fragmented body parts from the living artist (the hand) and a dead cow (the udder). The provocative visual juxtaposition of subject and object in the photograph invites a multitude of readings that speak to issues of class (the luxury object suited to the gentry, the cow’s udder suited to the working farm), cultural values (the artist, artisan, and animal, all necessary to sustain life), history (the object from the past, the flesh from the present), place (the interior of the home, the exterior of the field), gender (the female hand produces the art, the female cook prepares the meal, the female cow provides the food), the role of the artist (who creates the photograph, the sculptural arrangement, the dish cover), genres (sculpture, [End Page 7] installation, photograph), and even language (Cross herself has acknowledged the play between the word “udder” and the Irish pronunciation of the word “other”2). The object further calls into question the relationships between seemingly discrete categories such as nourishment and consumption, creation and death, tasting and seeing, process and product, texture and material, art and nature.
“Dish Covers,” two sculptures named for the inanimate objects rather than for the living (or once living) creatures on display, is unsettling. By fusing subject and object, the photograph of the larger sculpture further challenges our familiar ways of understanding the world around us. For instance, in a close-up of the photographic image, we can see Cross’s reflection in the very top of the silver dish cover, near the handle, and it looks as if her torso, hand, and head arise directly from the dish. The inanimate dish cover, ironically, embodies more of the human form than the hand holding it. The photograph, itself another material object, undermines the clear distinction between the human and the nonhuman; from a certain vantage, it’s not entirely apparent where Cross ends and the dish cover begins. Nor is it entirely clear if this is an “Irish thing.” Created by an Irish artist, made with a cow’s udder provided by a Dublin taxidermist, displayed first in a London museum, referencing the work of the Swiss surrealist Méret Oppenheim, the sculpture simultaneously invites readings that place it neatly in an Irish context, or that stubbornly refuse that position.
This special issue of Éire-Ireland similarly intends to demonstrate how objects might unsettle our assumptions about Irish culture and practice, as well as about subjectivity. Entitled “Irish Things,” it offers nine essays examining material culture from strikingly different perspectives. By turning their attention to objects coded as Irish, these essays ask us to reflect on everyday articles, ordinary things such as blankets, buildings, planes, gifts, cake, chairs, toys, doors, and coins as the prompts for fresh considerations of issues including immigration, identity, gender, pedagogy, realism, religious practice, economics, and history. [End Page 8]
The study of material culture has a rich and diverse intellectual genealogy, one that might be situated with the coining of the term “material culture” in the late nineteenth century by anthropologists and archaeologists to refer, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to the “physical objects . . . which give evidence of the type of culture developed by a society or group.” Initially, material culture was the business of those who could excavate and classify objects, though soon enough other disciplines turned their attention to matter and to questions regarding the object’s cultural significance, its circulation and consumption, its role in shaping personal and communal identities.3 The tidy Oxford English Dictionary definition, still standing, fails to reflect the multifarious ways material culture is viewed now by various disciplines. These days, scholarly explorations of material culture, like material culture itself, are everywhere. This surfeit may stem from the fact that we consider ourselves authorities on things because we are surrounded by...