Visualising disaster in Anita Groener’s The Past is a Foreign Country
Aidan Dunne

Anita Groener
The Lab Gallery, Dublin City Arts Office, 1 Foley St, Dublin until August 17th;

The Past is a Foreign Country hinges on an act of symbolic cruelty that helps to drive home its point and conveys something of the vehemence of feeling bound up in Anita Groener’s approach to her subject matter. In The Lab’s main gallery space, 20 spindly birch stems, arranged in a grid pattern, are suspended from above. They have been shorn of their branches, which have been reconfigured into lines of tenuous linkage between them. Their vestigial root balls hover uselessly above the floor.

Groener drew her title from LP Hartley’s 1950s novel The Go Between, in which the title character recalls his uncomprehending role in a series of tragic events during his childhood at the beginning of the 20th century. The installation, which began a tour of several venues at the Limerick City Gallery last year (and will conclude its tour at Uilinn in Skibbereen later in the year), is a response to the experience of war, forced migration, refugee camps, unremitting loss and suffering on the part of so many people, children and adults, mostly displaced by the war in Syria. Groener’s thwarted, uprooted birches with their delicate, peeling bark, grotesquely set adrift, form a brutally effective symbol of human tragedy.

In the mezzanine gallery space, a series of drawing animations, Moments, is based on the testimonies of five children or those close to them, who became victims of Syria’s war. The drawings are five miniature portraits. Groener collaborated with journalist Razan Ibraheem, who reported on the war and gathered the testimonies. The words, which are quietly devastating, are written onto the gallery walls by children at a local inner-city school. As Ibraheem writes: “I have watched mothers kissing the wounded head of their dead children to say goodbye . . . I have witnessed children covered in blood and still asking for a lollipop . . .”

Groener’s Citizen comprises a forest of painted twigs. Look more closely and you see columns of tiny cutout figures making their way along each fragile stem. As with all of her work, this piece deals with highly charged, disturbing events with tact and empathy. Well before the calamitous events she addresses in this exhibition, Groener had been preoccupied with the experience of moving between countries, of belonging and being an outsider, largely based on her own experience.

That is, she moved to Ireland from Holland and became used to being connected to both places via networks of links and involvements. As her family ties to the Netherlands lessened, her Irish ties grew. While associated with an expressionist idiom in painting in the 1980s, she gradually developed works displaying a cooler, more analytical approach to her concerns. That still applies but, while it’s reasonable to describe the work that makes up The Past is a Foreign Country as analytical and even austere, it certainly loses nothing in terms of bite and effectiveness.

This was originally published in The Irish Times, Jun 25, 2019 and can be found here.