Patricia Cronin’s installation revives the histories of countless girls on holy ground. It consists of three piles of clothes within a chapel. Katrina Larkin (1996: 88–89) has argued that Esther may be understood in relation to Exodus: a fruitful path for interpreting Cronin’s work. A longed-for release from persecution and injustice infuses each thread of Cronin’s trio of tragic heaps.
Esther’s plea to the king is structured as a poetic repetition that announces her strategy and appeals to his power: ‘if it please the king, and if I have found favour in his sight, and if the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written…’ (Esther 8:5). She links her own self with the suggestion she offers, uniting her own identity wholly with the identity of her people and her royal role, recognizing all these elements as contingent and frail in relation to the king’s royal power. Dazzling and subversive, Esther’s plea is also fragile and submissive.
In Cronin’s installation, the fragile beauty of textiles laid sacrificially upon the altar press questions of memory and identity. The garments refer to three groups, who together fuse into an allegory of oppressed women: gang-raped and murdered girls in India, the 276 girls kidnapped in 2015 by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and girls forced to work in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. While not generalizing women’s suffering (aware of the distinctiveness of each of the three histories it invokes), this weaving together of three narrative strands emphasizes a shared human problem. Cronin weaves a threefold cord of female pain.
Abuse and exploitation mark each item of clothing. Combined in this context, they acquire a capacity to confront and pierce our consciences. The colours of the clothes are vivid; their forms recall the folds of Esther’s luxurious garments in Old Master paintings like Guercino’s, and yet the girls that these inanimate textiles represent must plead for their people differently from her. Cronin, in laying out these objects and images, calls for justice by memorializing and honouring those whose stories are too often forgotten.
Larkin, Katrina J. A. 1996. Ruth and Esther (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)