Lycia Trouton: Irish Linen Memorial

The Linen Memorial to Lives Lost in Northern Ireland’s Troubles

“My mobile counter-monument” is artist Lycia Trouton’s description of “The Linen Memorial”. Conceived in early 2001 with Canada Council of the Arts funding, the large-scale textile installation was prompted by Trouton’s reading of Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland troubles. Published in 2000, the text represents eight years of research by authors David McKittrick Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, and it details in a chronological, non-hierarchical order rather than partisan record the lives lost during the forty year conflict between the country’s Nationalist/Republican (Catholic) and Unionist (Protestant) communities (1966 – 2007). To date the total number of those killed stands at 3,712. A devolved legislature or power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland was established on Good Friday, 1998. After various suspensions, arms decommissioning and protracted negotiations in the intervening years, elections took place again in 2007 with the resulting power-sharing government made up of former ‘enemy camps’: the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fèin (Republican).

In its structure, “The Linen Memorial” acts as a quilt of remembrance that represents, on a symbolic level, the beginning of recovery. But unlike the family narratives often presented by the quilting tradition, Trouton has unified – without homogenizing – the loss of strangers lives. Each linen square is embroidered with a name and attached lightly to the next, forcing individuals that in life may never have met eye to eye to now sit side-by-side. The format creates a new order that eloquently captures both the scale of life lost and the individual and isolated experience of grief each and every name represents.

“The Linen Memorial” has circumvented the globe, traveling from volunteer needle worker to artist and then into the public domain through exhibitions in the U.S.A. (where the work was first displayed, September 7th 2001, under its original title, The Irish Linen Memorial) and Australia, as well as Northern Ireland. This peripatetic realization closely echoes the artist’s own life. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Trouton immigrated to Canada in 1970 and, after undergraduate and graduate studies in the States, she went on to complete her doctorate at the University of Wollongong, Australia in 2005. Thus the journeys “The Linen Memorial” has traveled suggest the contemporary realities of the artist’s own existence. Perhaps more crucially, they also reflect the many communities overseas that have felt the impact of sectarian violence.

Much like the team necessary to research Lost Lives, construction of “The Linen Memorial” has also been a team effort. Trouton’s aunt, Margot Damon, who was born in Belfast and now lives in England, and sisters Nerida and Glenys Richmond Benson who are based in Australia have contributed to the embroidery and a further volunteer, Edith Morriott, has begun to tat and sew spots of hair onto the handkerchiefs’ edges. Trouton suggests that these blemishes of stitched hair “act as a sign of mourning, marking the pure, white cloth and creating crisscross patterns that symbolize a new pattern of fragile and still difficult ‘kinship’ in Northern Irish society.” Each linen handkerchief included in the work not only provides a physical representation of each life lost, but also suggests links to Northern Ireland’s colonial textile industry. Historically linen has been used as material for bandages needed to staunch the flow of blood as well as dry tears. Trouton adds that the shape of the handkerchief also alludes to the gesture of good-bye made by the countless individuals that now make up the Irish Diaspora.

Trouton situates her work in the genres of both performance art and large-scale sculptural installations made of earthworks and/or textiles. “There are important contemporary associations inherent in the sculptural use of textiles,” she explains. “First, both textiles and performance art can represent common forms for expressing the contemporary migrant experience. Second, textiles may represent simultaneously both the sacred (in their historic, ceremonial, or religious use, for rituals of life’s defining passages) as well as the profane (in the use of cloth to care for a body inflicted with wounds or debased by violent acts). Finally, textiles are symbolic of interconnectedness, as touch is an inherent component of cloth. Textiles metaphorically illustrate violence and trauma inflicted upon the body, loss of life and the rupture of the fabric of social order that violent sectarianism or civil strife involves. Cloth can be used as a reminder of displaced persons, the migrant identity and, in a fabric’s fragility, the plea for global stability.”

To date, “The Linen Memorial” has also been on display in gallery settings in the United States, Canada and Australia. Its most recent exhibition occupied the heart-shaped Crói building at the Corrymeela Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, near Belfast, during June 2007 in recognition of the first Private Day of Reflection on the conflict in Northern Ireland. Earlier versions of the work took on a multidisciplinary nature and included a soundscape by the Australian composer-violinist, Thomas Fitzgerald, and performance by the contemporary choreographer-dancer Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. In each version the artwork marks a fundamental difference between the experience of reading a text, a private endeavour which allows for the text to be closed when the pain becomes too personal, and viewing the memorial, a public and in many ways inescapable national experience. Wherever displayed “The Linen Memorial” requires viewers from both sides of the conflict to confront the loss of life shoulder to shoulder in a public space. Regardless of public response, the work is testament to the social conscience contemporary textile art offers society today. and

FiberArts magazine (Nov./Dec. 2007: 44-45)