Last Friday I had the pleasure of opening an exhibition of art by Mags Harnett, Scribe2Scribe, which explores an imagined dialogue, written in the language of text messaging, between two scribes who are writing the Book of Kells. The exhibition, on display in the Trinity Long Room Hub until the end of November, is intended to provoke thought on the changes which have occurred in the communication of the written word over the past twelve centuries.
Over the years I have become accustomed to seeing re-creations of pages from the Book of Kells. Generally such work aims to be as close as possible to the original, and some artists are more successful in this respect than others. This tradition goes back a long way. In the 19th century, one of the principal exponents was Helen Campbell D’Olier. Everyone marvelled at her work, but many years later it became clear that her accuracy was achieved in a very simple way: she stencilled copies directly from the precious manuscript. More recently, Misae Tanaka, an artist from Tokyo, has produced very faithful copies of the major pages. She has great insight and energy and technical skills, to the extent that at first glance, it is easy to confuse her work for a photograph, and she has an openly reverential attitude towards the Book of Kells.
Mags Harnett is quite different. She has produced a series of homages that are inspired by the manuscript but they are far from reverential. This is disruptive, and it makes us do a double-take at what seems familiar at first glance. We learn a lot about the Book of Kells from her work: we can see how the letters were formed; we learn that the monks were attacked by Vikings and left for Kells; and we learn that the scribes had cold hands; but we are also asked to believe that, for example, the Virgin Mary was in text contact with her son, and that is quite unsettling.
What Mags does is that she draws our attention to just how poorly we understand the book and its images. She mentions the difficulty posed by the language – by Latin – but the pictorial language and the way it works with the words is just as problematic. I feel that Mags has picked up brilliantly on the incongruity of how we look at works of art that we do not understand.
Mags Harnett was interviewed by RTE One’s Nationwide at Trinity College Library and the Long Room Hub (the interview is available here from 09.40 into the programme)
For further details, go to http://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/events/details/2014/2014-09-19scribe_2_scribe.php