‘A pastiche of unconnected things’
Galway Arts Festival 2009 Visual Arts programme
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.