The writing is on the styrofoam wall

In his memorial-in-progress to the Irish struggle, Shane Cullen redefines the term "hunger artist". Mic Moroney stands in awe
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The Independent Culture
As reactions to Some Mother's Son demonstrate, it's well nigh impossible to be neutral about the 10 Irish republican prisoners in the Maze prison in 1981 who, led by Bobby Sands, completed their shocking death fasts to prove the awful authenticity of their political beliefs. Despite the continued IRA bombing and shooting campaigns outside the prison at the time, their deaths galvanised nationalist support as never before or since, inflamed another spasm of violent unrest across Northern Ireland, and won them near-global sympathy. It also welded them neatly to the martyrological tradition of Irish freedom fighters, all the way back through IRA prison protests since independence in the south, to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Yet another edgy cultural reminder - Shane Cullen's huge, continuing artwork-in-progress, Fragments sur les Institutions Republicaines - has now washed up quietly in the prestigious Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin. Initiated in 1993, a year before the cease-fires, it's an austere, quasi- minimalist memorial; the ipsissima verba of the prisoners' military communiques to the Sinn Fein leadership, hand-painted across acres of high-quality styrofoam; large vertical panels (8in x 2in), squeaked together into blocks of eight. As they are decked up two-high on the concrete-slab walls, you need a flip-top head to peruse them: the white Bodoni typeface buzzing dizzily against the dark-green background.

Spanning the period from 15 January 1981 until late August of that year, the texts were written on cigarette papers and smuggled out internally from the H-blocks; or passed on by a kiss to a visiting relative. For all the deconstructed reality of years on the "dirty protest", the language is clear, officious, religious, humorous, affectionate and desperate by turns, and whispering a fairly clear-headed mindset from the cells where Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, writing to "Brownie" (Gerry Adams), takes over as O/C from Sands, once the latter went on to his hunger strike, five years after the dropping of "special category status" for IRA prisoners.

The prisoners document events through their own eyes and ideological interpretations: the beatings and anal "mirror" searches, the cell-trashing protests; the biographies of strike volunteers for dissemination by Sinn Fein; Sands's election as MP; the shock waves of his death within the prison; Bik's dilemmas in choosing replacements as the protest escalates. However self-conscious the words, and the strikes can be seen as traumatised performances, the "comms" were a big part of the operation in terms of sustaining morale and unity of purpose: information as organising principle.

Seeming to belong in some distant future museum, it's problematic to see them dubiously aestheticised in an art gallery, yet although still incomplete, they have had an interesting history. Twenty-four panels went to the Venice Biennale in 1995, after the artist was selected by the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin to represent "Ireland" as defined, presumably, by the Irish Constitution - an irony of cultural diplomacy to which few commentators have drawn attention.

The piece is a kind of history painting - self-appointed, rather than a state commission - and if the concept of the nation is a kind of necessary fiction, Cullen's past work has highlighted this by hijacking emblems of the French, American and classical republics. More recently he used the harp, the official seal of the Republic of Ireland, as a logo for his promotional Council for the Preservation of Public Monuments to Martyrdom and Resistance. For Venice, the title was translated into Irish, and remarkably, a new Irish word, frithansmacht, had to be cobbled together for "resistance".

Three panels were exhibited in the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast, as part of the Exchange Resources group show last November, with the artist in situ painstakingly working on a fourth. Panels one to 48 were exhibited last June by the Locus+ people in Newcastle, in an old printing works, now the Tyneside Irish Centre. An accompanying booklet, aping an official Irish government publication, contained a lengthy essay, in parallel columns of Gaelic and English, about the history of the Irish community in the North-east of England the same week the doomed peace talks began in Northern Ireland, followed by the Manchester bombing. Locus+ are now looking to find a non-gallery space in Belfast to exhibit the 96 panels when they are complete.

If it all sounds like a kind of politico-conceptualist hoax, the very fact that the panels have been exhaustively painted over three years to the pristine geometry of newspaper columns renders them a complex, ambiguous homage. Scratching at the reality of the situation through enforcing a contemplative act of public reading, they seek to bypass powerful images of the hunger strikers that dominate devotional nationalist art and mural work in Belfast, or even the work of artists such as Richard Hamilton and his famous painting of an H-block blanketman, The Citizen, with its brooding Christ-like aspect; or his 1982 visual cut 'n' paste of Raymond Pius McCartney with Finn McCool, the mythic warrior-hero of Irish legend.

Cullen, who hails from Longford, a medium-sized, mid-western town in the south of Ireland (also home to Albert Reynolds, ex-Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fil, the mainstream Republican party in the south), has always produced work that sites itself in a symbolic area of radical masculine protest. Here, he ambiguously probes a taboo area of contemporary history - concentrating, despite the scarcely mediated austerity of the work, on a human tragedy of Grecian proportions. Yet the virulence of its political content, within virtually any context, will ensure that the shadows of on-going events will roll darkly over these panels for some time to come.

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