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)
8 On that day King Ahasu-eʹrus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Morʹdecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her; 2and the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Morʹdecai. And Esther set Morʹdecai over the house of Haman.
3 Then Esther spoke again to the king; she fell at his feet and besought him with tears to avert the evil design of Haman the Agʹagite and the plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4And the king held out the golden scepter to Esther, 5and Esther rose and stood before the king. And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agʹagite, the son of Hammedaʹtha, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. 6For how can I endure to see the calamity that is coming to my people? Or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7Then King Ahasu-eʹrus said to Queen Esther and to Morʹdecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he would lay hands on the Jews. 8And you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
9 The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written according to all that Morʹdecai commanded concerning the Jews to the satraps and the governors and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, a hundred and twenty-seven provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, and also to the Jews in their script and their language. 10The writing was in the name of King Ahasu-eʹrus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. 11By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, 12upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasu-eʹrus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 13A copy of what was written was to be issued as a decree in every province, and by proclamation to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to avenge themselves upon their enemies. 14So the couriers, mounted on their swift horses that were used in the king’s service, rode out in haste, urged by the king’s command; and the decree was issued in Susa the capital.
15 Then Morʹdecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. 17And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.