• Chris O'Rourke

Textile Tensions: A Retrospective of Eleanor Lawler


Studio work. Image by Eleanor Lawler.


Performance art, like theatre, is dogged by documentation. Efforts to evidence the live event see its immediacy, its unrepeatable nature, lessened in images, texts or film. Ectoplasmic ghosts haunting the original experience, like snapshots from the 1980s, looking long ago and far away. Such is the case with Textile Tensions: A Retrospective Exhibition of Irish Performance Artist, Eleanor Lawler, currently at MART: The Fire Station, Rathmines. A series of visual footprints which say generosity passed this way. The generosity glimpsed on the periphery of vision if you look closely enough. Otherwise all you'll see is a grey haired, older woman in varying stages of undress.


Eleanor's untimely death in 2019 left a void still felt by many. At Ballyfermot Youthreach, a programme for early school leavers, many having had poor life and education experiences, Eleanor was transformative as both artist and arts teacher back in the 00's. Whilst also being crucial in the early days of Unknown Theatre, in which socially disadvantaged young people made work that went on to tour nationally, as well as to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With Matthew Nevin, Eleanor made the short, arthouse movie Brianna with her students, shown at the IFI. The term arthouse used in the loosest sense to describe the sublime mayhem that was Briana. Eleanor, singing as if drunk as she marched down a busy Henry Street in too short, too tight a dress during the closing credits. The message to her students, which she role modelled, made crystal clear; it's okay to make a fool of yourself. Be brave. Don't limit yourself. Go to where scares you. And have fun. Principles married to a life affirming love and an overwhelming generosity which defined Eleanor and her practice. Which she begun to develop with greater earnestness around 2012. Taking the brave plunge to follow her vocation full time, saying goodbye to education.


During her time at Market Studios, Eleanor's door was always open, her studio a tumble of fabrics, with people freely coming and going. Eleanor being sage, mother, sister, friend, nutcase, advisor. Her laughter ringing along corridors where younger and older artists, dancers, theatre makers, musicians, and performance artists shared a collective space. From where Eleanor, along with the brilliant Francis Fay, curated many spectacular Livestock shows, which Eleanor frequently featured in, deepening her practice. Usually followed by drinks in The Hacienda. A short lived, halcyon few years before Market Studios was gentrified into a another existence.

Though her practice was deeply informed by textiles and domesticity, Eleanor's work was endlessly wading deeper. Seeking out places from where she had something she felt needed to be said, seen, or shared. Graciously agreeing to work as set designer for the performance art/theatre hybrid Mirror Me(at) Next, (exploring issues of the female body and weight), Eleanor discussed her ideas on representations of the older female body. Over the next few years a process of robing, disrobing, opening and disclosing began to inform her work. Eleanor creating some of the most profoundly moving performances around the older female body. Taking her staggering work to brave and beautiful places, most explicit in her short film The Invisible Woman. By the time of her death Eleanor was a staple feature in the Irish Performance Arts scene, presenting work internationally to great acclaim. Even so, the sense remains that Eleanor was only getting started.


Eleanor would be pleased MART: The Fire Station is currently hosting a retrospective of her work. She held a deep love for Matthew Nevin and for what he went on to achieve with MART, and for many of her colleagues and contemporaries. Including Amanda Coogan who she hugely admired, Dr Katherine Nolan, who she worked with frequently, and Francis Fay, her partner in crime in many Livestock ventures. Like Eleanor, Textile Tensions is modest in its way. Showing faint footprints for which greater written detail might have facilitated deeper engagement. But look closely and these images reveal secrets. Listen, and you'll hear the artist laugh. Eleanor's playfully serious practice, which began with textiles and ended in the body, forever disclosing new truths and being uncompromisingly hard hitting. Bowling you over in performance, every time, with the assured, overwhelming strength of her smile.


Textile Tensions: A Retrospective Exhibition of Irish Performance Artist, Eleanor Lawler, crated by Ciara Scanlon, Katherine Nolan, Francis Fay, Matthew Nevin and Lorcan Lawler, runs at MART: The Fire Station, Rathmines till June 3, Wednesday to Saturday, 1-6 pm.


For more information, visit MART

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