Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Galway Arts Festival 2009

‘A pastiche of unconnected things’

Galway Arts Festival 2009 Visual Arts programme

July 2009

by Áine Phillips

The Galway Arts Festival (GAF) visual art programme was thin this year. Rejecting many of the local arts organisation’s proposals for inclusion or partnership, the festival even dropped the University’s gallery show from the list in a development that shows a swing away from involvement with contemporary art, socially engaged arts practices and the work of active local art groups and individuals. It is a move towards a lowbrow visual art that encompasses design, advertising, entertainment and easy accessibility - not work that offers critiques of art, society or of festivals for that matter.

The GAF trophy exhibition in the – as usual, unsurprising and unbefitting – Merchants Hall on Merchants Road was a medley, a sort of pastiche of an art fair or the equivalent of a food-fusion restaurant serving curried sweet ‘n sour pizzas. Amidst a maze of false walls, Ger Sweeney (authoratitive abstracts; he really can paint) took over the entire ground floor with Sean Cotter (stark ornamented abstracts) filling every imaginable corner. These work were good, but a lack of curatorial selection or critical judgment allowed an overfilling of the space which ultimately devalues the work and leaves the viewer with a case of visual and mental indigestion. Too many of the one painting gives the impression that the artist churns them out, or like Damien Hirst, is the rich and happy owner of an art factory. John Brady’s monumental sculptural cart would have been perfect for the space if it weren’t for the plywood dividers (employed to hang the over abundance of paintings), which disallowed a full experience of the piece. This sculpture could have been epic in the ground floor hall if given a little breathing space around it.

An overcrowded ground floor gave way, up the fussy art deco stairs, to a mystifying and mismatched collection of bodies of work. Along the central aisles, the viewer was assailed by vivid and shocking journalistic photographs of child soldiers in Africa. To me, these images functioned like pornography, explicit violence depicted for the purposes of arousing a type of voyeuristic horror-excitement or sadistic-excitement. Powerful emotions were provoked (horror, disbelief, impotence) for their own sake, without mediating the experience or translating it in any way. Who were these children, abandoned and debased? No information was provided about the people involved, about the depravity pictured or about the political context of this terrible theatre of oppressed and dehumanised youth.

Reeling from these ghastly but compelling images (like pornography, the visceral effect means you can’t peel your eyes away), I staggered upon David Hockney’s demure and lyrical prints, which would have been delightful in another context. How is it possible to encounter two utterly different sets of work in the same moment? Some of the plentiful dividing walls could have been better employed upstairs in this building. Even if there had been dividers, the two bodies of work repulsed each other, made each other redundant and cancelled out the potential meanings of each. An art exhibition that carries no meaning, or a corrupted meaning, is not an art exhibition anymore. It is not a text conveying a coherent set of ideas , a conclusion or even a question.

To add insult to injury, flanking the other side of the child soldiers section were bright, humorous and well-designed ‘commissions’ advertising Absolut vodka. If you were still upset or unsteady from witnessing the violation of human rights on an epic scale, the act of reconciling the three disparate themes on the top floor along with the prospect of indulging in the pleasures of Absolut's alcoholic eye intoxication was difficult to swallow.

My burning question was ‘Where’s the curator?’ Where was a unifying vision, a coherent voice mediating this selection of work, explaining it and showing us why the show was constructed? It is impossible to imagine a theatre without a director or an orchestra without a conductor. The actors or musicians, exquisite as individuals in their own art forms would degenerate into anarchy (and not in a good way) without a unifying principle.

In Galway, there is a resistance to the function of curation in the visual arts from the arts establishment in the city. There is a lack of understanding of the importance of the role of a curator, a fear of her/his power to translate culture, to moderate it and deliver new versions of culture through visual art. This resistance to curation effects a dumbing down of art and disaffects audiences who find no way in to the ideas and languages of art put before them.

If art is a text, a language that attempts to communicate something, this show, which is representative of the GAF visual art programme, communicates titillation, visual pleasure without responsibility, lightweight engagement with ideas, inappropriate attempts to balance meaning with amusement and the dominance of commercial art market forces. These unrelated bodies of work; this set of disconnected things, leaves us empty as thinking and feeling viewers. A show like this ultimately gives visual art a bad name and renders it meaningless and shallow. It alienates the public from art as potential philosophy, as an intellectual catalyst to understand the world or as a form of narrating human lives. It is no wonder the public complains of not understanding contemporary art. In this show no rationale or purpose to the display of this art is given. The work was chosen for superficial reasons and is thus emptied of all meaning except for its form and aesthetic. All form and no function makes art a dull toy. The Galway cultural scene needs to advocate and enable curators as visual arts professionals to do their job.

Burren College of Art MFA show 2009

Place Placeness Perception

Chris Attenborough and Angel O’Leary

Burren College of Art MFA Show, Co. Clare

April 2009

by Phillina Sun

This spring’s earliest and smallest MFA show was to be found deep in the west of Ireland at the Burren College of Art. The two graduates, Angel O’Leary and Chris Attenborough, find common ground with a reduced, if not post-minimal, aesthetic at times, but unsurprisingly they diverge on subject matter and approach. Indeed, this is the nature of all degree and graduate shows, however it is highlighted here by the intimacy and modest scale of the programme.

The territory shared by the two is self-described in the exhibition’s title of Place Placeness Perception. O’Leary takes an autobiographical route with her introverted expression of remembered spaces, while Attenborough explores the impact of globalization on our aesthetic relationship to space and history.

Angel O’Leary’s installations set out to describe the psychology of interior spaces. Nets for Shadows occupies one small room where a half-dozen large wire “nets” glint from the soft reddish light cast on them. These hand-woven sculptures are comprised of the finest wire and resemble the nets mass-packaged onions or garlic come in. As the viewer moves among the nets, shadows collect and dissolve in a delicate play on contingency. The work’s construction is uneven, imperfect, hinting of struggle; whatever these once contained has escaped.

Formal simplicity marks O’Leary’s work. My House is a ramshackle patchwork of broken sheets of plywood, which have been tied together to form a 4+ meter high arrow. Pointing up, it resembles the traditional icon for “house”, conspicuously without the door and windows, and it also suggests shanties with its haphazard construction. Intriguingly, a noticeable orange glow emanates from behind the piece, which is mounted just in front of the wall. Curiosity beckons the viewer to inspect the fluorescent radiance. The back of each sheet of broken ply is painted, the glow is its reflection.

The use of humble, everyday materials is carried into The Cage I Caught Myself In, which employs a high modern formalism in its expression of the existential paralysis that confronts those who create. A chair and table occupied the corner, their construction familiar to anyone who has attended an arts college. Mounded carmine powder atop the white plastic chair overflows onto the floor, black ink streams from the worktable leg across the floor. But O’Leary keeps us at bay. Using her material of choice, fine wire, an impenetrable web blocks the table and chair, subtle shadows are cast on the wall, flashes glint from the direct lighting. With this work one wonders if we are supposed to derive universal meaning from the use of these materials?

Everything I Love (in 2 Rooms), an admittedly autobiographical installation, deviates from O’Leary’s work. A long corridor connect two identical rooms. The corridor is filled with one door following another. Each is framed by simple exposed timbers, recalling unfinished house construction. Coupled with identical destinations on either end of the passage, the effect is disorienting and reminiscent of Mike Nelson’s 2007 Turner Prize installation. The rooms each contain a table casually piled with photographs. “Take any you love,” a sign urges, inviting the viewer to commit to an exercise in futility, seeking the punctum--“the accident which pricks me” , as the philosopher Roland Barthes famously wrote--amid the artifacts of someone else’s memories. Sound recordings--of a family party in one, a site-specific string composition in another--lend a melancholic aural ambiance. The participant embarks on an archaeological investigation of the artist’s life, of her youth, her culture, her life as it was. Here, youths at a costume party. Here, a man on a motorcycle. Autobiography is ever an exercise of asserting one’s identity, which is constantly being extricated from circumstances of location and history. This work unintentionally highlights the problems that accompany public representations of the personal, of intimate times and spaces that recede even as their artifacts--material memories--accrete.

Chris Attenborough is interested in location and place, especially as aesthetic expressions of modern utopian desires, or the fleeting promise of. Dominating the main gallery is Liquor and Poker, a collaborative work by Attenborough and fellow MFA student Sean Naftel under the group name Peacock. The installation plays on the fictionality of place in its version of a ramshackle, hybridised Ireland called the ‘Git Inn’. Here art school meets local pub via images, reconstructed signage and found sculptures arranged via a non-hierarchical, democratic process of layering. Icons of black resistance abut sports memorabilia and postcards of the Irish coastline. A poker table is set up in the corner under goat skulls and an Irish flag. A poster of Obama Barack hang under the window, next to a poster declaring Guinness: For Strength. “Does the ‘Real Ireland’ still Exist?” asks an Irish Times article tacked to a bulletin board next to the bar where a photo of JFK hangs under the blue and yellow checks of the Clare County flag. The ‘Real Ireland’ may be a romantic, nostalgic utopia, overtaken by the postmodern kitsch of “I’ve got Irish roots” baby bibs and other tourist paraphernalia. This installation is visually stimulating but, due to its sheer scale, overwhelms the rest of the exhibition; with its authentic smell of last night’s party, it also makes me wonder: Is this the last haven for American art students? Is the walk to the local pub too far?

The rest of Attenborough’s work is a sharp, elegant contrast. Gas Petrol Pavilions is a series of large giclée prints. Each photograph is composed of two horizontal strips, one of sky and one of signage, which have been closely cropped to reveal only its essential parts, blocks of vivid color. With individual titles like Topaz, Texaco, Top, Maxol, Shell, Sunoco, and BP Attenborough hints at their origin: petrol station awnings. These landscapes evoke numbingly isolated, paradoxically ubiquitous spaces which, nevertheless connote the postmodern traveler’s anticipation of a utopian elsewhere. Using a post-minimal aesthetic, Attenborough creates images of beautiful formal simplicity and appropriately hangs them at an uncomfortable height.

This detached inquiry into industrial capitalist space, and ostensibly our role in it, continues with Flatscape 2 and Flatscape 13. Two flat columns, placed side by side, are dedicated to excess: white space predominate over flattened digitised freeway overpasses. The representation of capitalism’s utopia, when deconstructed to its parts, is an inert, dystopian vision; the lexicon of postmodern architecture is revealed as both visionary and numbingly static.

Airport Blackholes is a series of black square images. Black ink printed on black paper and simply hung on the wall, they only reveal form upon close inspection. The imagery is ambiguous, flattened shapes overlap each other. Are these diagrams or microbes? These abstract amalgamations of airport layouts are more exactly revealed only in the titles: CDGSNN, LBAGWY, BWIORL, MUCPRG, ATLBWI. Arcane maps of nowhere real, they recall the esoteric etched patterns of circuit boards. Or, more appropriately, they are prototypes, now inscrutable remainders of a recondite civilization, no longer expressions of a mass produced, standardized dream of better, efficient living.

Place, Placeness, Perception takes two routes in the exploration of space. The first, O’Leary’s, is personal and intimate, refracted through light, that natural agent that stimulates sight and makes things visible. It is the visibility of these things that allow the sighted to negotiate terrain, familiar or not. What is a photograph but an image burned into light-sensitive material? While it seems that O’Leary is more interested in personal symbolism, her play with light arouses the viewer's fascination with the relationship between shadows and objects, light and memories. Meanwhile, Attenborough’s approach is a detached ontological exploration of hypermodern utopias, where even the utopia of ‘real Ireland’ is revealed as a postmodern phenomenon, uncertain in an age of deterritorialized bodies and capital. Within postmodernism, belonging is uncertain; identity--that thing we attach to place, or placeness--is revealed as integral to the ambivalent process of perception.

Tulca 2008

Tulca 2008
i-podism: Cultural Promiscuity in the Age of Consumption

Curated by George Bolster

November 2008

by Phillina Sun

TULCA, Galway’s annual visual arts festival, usually a time of great excitement in the shortening days of November, was an occasion for disappointment in 2008. The curatorial decisions were bold, but fundamentally conservative, despite a few interesting choices.

Still from Jun Nguyen Hatshushiba's video Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex

I had initially assumed that TULCA was a critique of I-Podism (i.e. the super-saturation of images, videos, and music via such technologies as the I-Pod in a period of globalalised capitalism). According to curator George Bolster “the curator acts as a visual DJ, representing mix-tapes of separate areas of interest within contemporary practice.” But if curators are DJs, does that mean they are merely entertainers, shapers of popular taste, rather than arbiters of ideas?

The main exhibit at Merchants Road was titled Shuffle, but under the conceptual dressing of this edgy title was scant substance. TULCA, instead of presenting sharp-eyed analysis, or sticking to a bold, if not dangerous, curatorial strategy, turned into an uncritical exercise in “cultural promiscuity in the age of consumption.” TULCA is apparently for Bolster a “temporary storage device”, like an I-Pod; it “[reflects] the way we enjoy art in the same way that we enjoy music.” The notion of criticality has been conspicuously avoided in the pursuit of entertainment, circumventing the possibility of an alternative imagining of cultural engagement.

In another setting, the premise would not have elicited the resentment that I shared with others in the local arts scene. Bolster describes Shuffle as “an a-contextual show”, i.e. an exhibition needing no frame of reference. Is TULCA supposed to represent or respond to the West of Ireland? Tulca means wave in Irish. Is it a movement or vision from the West? Or is it just another biennial on a self-contained, globalised arts circuit for established artists, where art travels from one node to the next, cut off from the particulars of its exhibiting locale?

Bolster unsurprisingly chose to exhibit established, not emerging artists. Most were Dublin-based, recognizable names, enjoying gallery representation or with significant solo shows already under their belts. A few, like Allan Kaprow, were of major international significance. This is not to say that I oppose the exhibition of Dublin-based or international artists in Galway, but rather I disapprove of the particular exclusivity of Shuffle. Contrary to the catalogue’s conceptual attitude, Bolster’s curation panned out to be fundamentally conservative and, as such, is nothing new; it is much aligned with the status quo of the bourgeois sphere of art. Indeed, it seemed to be an exercise in career development, coupled with inexperience.

The organisation of the exhibits themselves was the festival’s most startling aspect. A tremendous amount of time and energy, not only precious space, was given over to reflect what we experience everyday: the ephemerality and haphazard organisation of culture. The gallery space tended to reflect asymmetry, as well as poor organization. Shuffle was inexpertly laid out, with pieces vying for space in one section on the ground floor, while only a single piece, a video installation by Jun Nguyen-Hatshushiba, was shown upstairs, leaving the rest of the vast space perplexingly empty. This emptiness is especially galling when we consider the relegation of emerging artists to a castle in Athenry, Henry St. and Cluain Mhuire. Couldn’t their work have occupied this space, and been viewed by a wider audience? Instead, this arrangement physically replicated the relationship between the West and the Pale; the so-called periphery and the metropole; the rural and the urban. This dynamic was also reflected by the absence of 126, MART or Artisit? from a talk on artist-led initiatives. Another strange maneuver was the use of the Galway Arts Centre’s ground floor for an archive piece on Derry’s defunct Orchard Gallery, yet last year the same venue hosted the Artist-Led Archive. One wonders if Bolster had bothered to do his homework on the Galway arts scene.

Perhaps my frustration is only symptomatic of the confusion regarding TULCA’s vision. What will differentiate TULCA from the Galway Arts Festival or from EV+A in Limerick? The organizers of TULCA need to rethink their vision for the festival, especially with the current economic crisis. With less money available to emerging local artists, shouldn’t TULCA assist in bringing their work out to a wider public, as well as highlight exciting ideas and imaginative alternatives to the flows of capital that bring the usual suspects to our galleries and museums? To me, Bolster presented an apolitical, entertainment-based curatorial vision that reflects the festival’s inconsistent vision of itself.

Installation views from the opening night. Images courtesy of Tulca.