Thursday, December 31, 2009

The State of It

The State of It

The Top 5 Best and Worst of Galway’s Visual Arts 2009

By Jim Ricks

As 2009 draws to a close this evening it’s a perfect time to review the city’s successes and failures in the last 12 months. The year was mainly characterized by the shadow of recession and more specifically Arts Council cuts. Unfortunately, the generally marginalised role of the visual arts in the Galway arts scene was the first to be challenged and see support diminish. The limitations of the Irish system for supporting the arts comes to light, but so does the inefficiency of the previous years prosperity. That is, throwing money at projects, festivals, museums, etc. doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy art scene, nor a well-thought out regional funding strategy.

In any case, here are my picks for the peaks and the troughs for the last year of the noughties.


1. 126’s new Queen Street location in the city centre. The gallery struggled along in the industrial outskirts of Galway for the last few Tiger years but, after long appeals, a nationally significant programme, the Arts Council and new found backing from the Galway City Arts Office, the artist-run initiative relocated to the heart of Galway. This was long overdue and hopefully demonstrates a change in the City’s strategy for supporting dynamic new initiatives. The new location allows greater access for this voluntarily run and cutting-edge exhibition space. This is a win-win scenario.

2. Sarah Searson as the outside consultant for the City. Artists and groups active in the Community Forum pushed for an outside consultant to draft the Galway Arts Strategy 2010-2013 and got it. Sarah Searson, a visual arts curator, arts officer and tutor from Dublin was chosen. This in itself is a coup for the visual arts, which lags behind other art forms in organisational and institutional representation. It is also key that someone from outside of the region was chosen. After a series of public meetings, lets see where Searson takes this and what the long-term impact will be.

3. The Galway Arts Centre programme continues to exhibit interesting and significant shows. The Arts Officer Maeve Mulrennan knows contemporary art well enough to put together an engaging year round programme.

Showing the work of established artists like Guy Ben-Ner, Aideen Barry, Clare Langan, Lars Laumann, Connolly and Cleary, Cao Fei, Louise Manifold, Dorothy Cross, etc. keep the bar raised for Galway visual arts. The danger here is that the Arts Centre becomes a conveyor belt for artists touring their work around and not a place for new or experimental works and emerging artists. Additionally, as a city venue it has its hands tied for several months of the year and shows a good deal of community based projects or commercial-ish shows that are not of a high standard. What exactly is the Arts Centre’s remit?

4. Tulca Season of Visual Art remains an ambitious and interesting festival. Its continued existence is a huge contribution to the visual arts in Galway. There is something fantastic about making the rounds to different venues on short and wet November days and discovering an assortment of new artists.

Personal gripes aside, there is also a lot of room for structural improvement in this nebulous organisation. If Tulca wants to continue spending a good chunk of public money, they will have to find ways to become more transparent, frugal, accountable and representative of Galway’s unique environment. Significantly, the strength of the programme has been offset by a shift in the last two years away from diverse media and regional artists. Is Tulca just another biennial or can it capitalise on its and the regions strengths?

5. The GMIT Degree Show always proves to be interesting. This year the annual exhibit was limited to only the Cluain Mhuire graduates, leaving 3rd years scrambling for alternative venues. Making a point of arriving early, I made the rounds, saw it all and think limiting the show to graduates makes complete sense. The sculpture department had two particularly interesting, and not particularly sculptural, spaces. Out of that, Ann Maria Healy and Tim Acheson’s works come to mind immediately. Elsewhere, Gráinne McHale’s video work was memorable, but my pick for the show was Eimear Twomey’s subtle and playful installation. The ambition of undergrads is never to be taken lightly. Now, how do we keep them in Galway?


1. The absence of a purpose built visual arts centre. Alas, the Celtic Tiger has come and gone. It has left the country with many things, including new purpose built art centres dotted around most counties and cities… except Galway. Galway is a city that capitalises on its creative and cultural industries, but while there are numerous venues suitable for professional level theatre and music, there are none for visual arts. Cavan, Carlow, Cork, Letterkenny, Sligo, Dublin, etc. have all moved forward and invested in their cities' cultural fabric with new purpose built art centres. Galway has not, nor has any concrete plans to. Perhaps this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as we can learn from other’s mistakes. But it is primarily a bad thing.

In the last few years the Arts Festival and Tulca have rented an old hardware shop or cavernous, cold and empty commercial unit behind the bus station. GMIT has no gallery and NUIG might as well not have one. The Arts Centre’s building is simply inadequate. The absence of a landmark arts centre, a Glucksman if you will, is the single biggest issue preventing the visual arts in Galway from moving forward.

If and when the City, NUIG, GMIT and/or private interests decide to move forward they will need to think of this as an investment in the region’s and the population’s future. They will need to move cautiously, ambitiously and intelligently in their plans and they must get local contemporary artists involved from day one.

2. The City Museum remains a regional embarrassment. Due to poor planning and ongoing leadership issues the museum lacks a vision and more importantly a purpose.

Each time I enter this new €6.8 million building I cringe in a new way. Galway is a city that has been incorporated for more than 500 years and was constructed several hundred before that. Yet from the looks of the displays and boat reproductions that dominate the galleries, nothing has been painted, crafted, written, constructed, printed, embroidered, photographed, etc, etc, in this time. So the Museum wasn’t built to museum standards. What are the costs of achieving this?

And finally, the feeble attempts at some type of curated season of art are numbingly bad. What should be a dedicated space for the regions history and culture has turned into a community catch all for some of the most tired and mediocre exhibitions the city has seen this year.

3. The Galway Arts Centre as a visual arts venue is average at best. Occupying Lady Gregory’s listed former residence, it is greatly limited in what improvements can be made. Four fireplaces and storage heaters dominate the various galleries and overused or neglected plugs, switches, cables, fixtures, etc. adorn the walls and ceiling alongside the original architectural ornamentation. Until recently the care taken (or rather lack of) in installation was so abysmal that hooks, tape and unpainted patching were visible throughout the galleries. But, the Arts Centre also lacks staff support: the galleries receive no invigilation or security.

However, the most visible setback was the decommissioning of Gallery 3 on the 2nd floor of the building. This smaller gallery in the past often provided emerging artists with a venue to show alongside large group shows or more established practitioners exhibiting downstairs. It also served as an ideal black out room for video and film works. The decision to convert it into a classroom for theatre students is unwise. No one art form should compromise another. We need to work together to create a more creative and interesting city of culture. The myopicism of this kind of decision is surprising.

All in all, the Arts Centre’s commitment to teaching ‘how to’ classes in its exhibition spaces, its unabashed bias to theatre and often palpable disdain for visual art keep it relegated to mediocrity. Again, what exactly is the Arts Centre’s remit?

4. The Galway Arts Festival tightened their belts this year as private and public funding shrunk and guess what… they cut support for the visual arts. Overall the Festival looked out of touch. The strange and conservative exhibit at the Festival Box Office (McDonagh’s, InStore, Merchants Road, Meadows & Byrne…) featured several interesting artists, but they were crowded into a senseless maze of false walls, with little thought put into the overall layout or relationship of the works on each other. The lasting visual image I have is of the documentary photography of African child soldiers situated next to the crass and commercial Absolut art collection.

Another ongoing issue is the Festivals inclusion of smaller projects under its umbrella. While keeping curatorial ownership of these events, the festival failed to financially support them in 2009, the best example of this being MART. And the Galway Arts Festival completely missed the ball with their failure to support the most significant and talked about visual arts exhibit on at the time: Hank Willis Thomas’ Its About Time, located just around the corner from the Box Office at 126.

5. The press. What can I say? Its bad. Very Bad.

The Advertiser and the Independent have reduced their visual arts coverage, have missed numerous news-worthy exhibitions, don’t give contemporary art enough ink, print incorrect information, don’t do reviews, don’t print enough photos and generally don’t understand visual art. Galway Now offers a pay-per-interview service and the others are good for local Confirmation photos and that’s about it.

‘Ireland’s leading magazine for contemporary art and visual culture’, Circa, remains mysterious to me. How do they decide what is worthy of review? They have missed many of the important shows in the west of Ireland, full stop. Seriously, what exactly constitutes a printable review? The Irish Times’ Aidan Dunne comes to Galway twice a year. First to pick a few highlights for the GMIT degree show review and second to write an upbeat piece on the Arts Festival. In both cases, we are really talking about something that is symptomatic of a larger national problem: the Dublin-centricity of art. But, sure with the new motorway its only two hours to Dublin, maybe things will change for the better.


Well, there you have it. 2009, It was a roller coaster ride and a lot of hard work, there is a lot to be said and even more to be done. I firmly believe Galway has enormous potential as a city of visual arts and culture. I don’t think it will be easy, but with time and organization, Galway will step up its game and enter a new phase of cultural development. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brian O'Doherty

Brian O'Doherty, Fort in a Fort, Fort Charles, Kinsale, Co. Cork

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tulca 2009

Tulca 2009

Our need for consolation is impossible to satiate

Curated by Helen Carey

November 6 – 21, 2009

by Simon Fleming

Working my way through this year's video heavy Tulca I couldn't help but think what a strange theme for a festival. How was Tulca going to address this and why is it impossible to fill? And what did it have to do with this year's roster of artists? So, with that insatiable need for comforting in mind I began my tour.

On the Tulca website it informs us that this year's “…festival will put Galway on the map for those looking for a fresh approach to the way they experience art.” I'm not sure in what sense they meant, but I found the festival poorly mapped out and lacking in supporting literature. The pamphlet that accompanied the festival gave only a very brief artist background without specific descriptions of the work shown. This left the viewer at a disadvantage with a lot of the work. I am a strong advocate for the accessibility of art to the general public. Creating an environment that encourages people to interact with contemporary art practices is challenging, but necessary. Artists, curators and organisers need to balance uncompromising work with approachability, even if a point of entry for those without an art background is a tough trick to pull off. For this year's Tulca, it didn’t always work.

Galway Arts Centre

I began at the Galway Arts Centre where four works were being shown. The ground floor had work by Dennis McNulty and the team of Anne Cleary & Denis Connolly. Cleary & Connolly’s RVB is a multi-video installation that touches on a variety of circumstances that surround them while living in a Paris flat. I didn’t see any write ups on the video, but a description here describes the piece as follows:
“This narrative piece, [is] somewhere between home movie, documentary and experimental film... Using a series of loosely connected texts and images, RVB was filmed over three years. The events take place in our home on Boulevard Barbès in the north of Paris. RVB tells three true stories: R is a murder story, V is a nature story and B is a children’s story. Each story takes a couple as its subject: René and Claire, two local shopkeepers; Vera and Igor, two Japanese nightingales; and Bo and Lotti, our twin daughters.”
I re-watched parts of this work from their website (as my experience watching it in the Art Centre was disturbed by one of the staff choosing that moment to do a bit of hoovering… a bit distracting to say the least.) The secretive camera angles allowed the viewer a vague almost distracted glimpse of life at their home on Boulevard Barbes. The fly on the wall viewing reveals a piece that is visually attractive in its layout, and interesting in its narratives. Ultimately, the video was a little like watching a reality TV show or social documentary.

Dennis McNulty's wall mounted location/ translation was a very minimal work in the large front room comprised of photos with audio. The photographic work was presented in a narrow accordion-like display. Headphones hung to the side provide a voice-over of the artist explaining his process. Based on the scope of McNulty's other works and the available space I would have liked to have seen more.

On the 1st floor we find two more video pieces: Second Nature by Guy Ben-Ner and Metamorphosis by Clare Langan. I was enthralled by Langan's polished cinematic piece. Rich cyans, gothic dream-like visuals and a sparse industrial audio composition create a dark, almost post-apocalyptic world. Whether you read that world literally or from the point of view of the video’s lone seated character is up to the viewer. I always feel guilty with accrediting various video work with painterly compliments (Why assume one would want to be like the other?), but there are some beautiful moments here that have a wonderful painterly quality. As it turns out Langan does hand paint some of the filters used in Metamorphosis. This technique creates a rich and layered depth to Langan's empty winter-quiet landscapes.

Guy Ben-Ner's Second Nature was in another room to the rear. It is a single screen projection about the filming of a version of Aesop's fable The Fox and the Crow. Animal trainers, cast (Fox and Raven) and crew (artists as director + camera and sound crew) make up the characters in the original piece. It is punctuated by a reading of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by the animal trainers.

St. Nicholas' Collegiate Church

“As the Artist in Residence will explore the roles of the ornamental and decorative in establishing the dominion of a spiritual space. Through the processes of drawing and research she will make a series of work reflecting upon the formation of spatial identity”
– Tulca 2009 programme
Unfortunately I failed to see how Kitty Rogers Relic...Artifact reflected the churches spatial identity. I found the installation unfocused and I couldn't see the relationship between the two video works and the drawings. I found the video (I couldn’t find a title for this work) quite interesting, but in a Discovery Channel kind of way. The drawings were lost in the church; randomly stuck to pillars it quickly became a game of hide and seek. I sat with it for a while trying to find those points of connectivity but became more interested in the church’s architecture and left after a short while.

Fairgreen Building

The Fairgreen building had a couple of great pieces on display. The building itself, located a bit off the beaten track is a large, stark and cold unfinished commercial unit. The first one I had a chance to look at was American Theatre by Maryam Jaffri. It is a slide show projection with a sound component. The audio is a recreation of a McCarthy era trial by the US Government House Committee on Un-American Activities. Visually interesting, the viewer gets a power point like arrangement of historical theatre imagery. However, the presentation itself was a little unimaginative and I didn’t understand the placement of the projection nor its relationship to the subject matter of the imagery.

I saw Ann-Sofi Sidén’s In Passing briefly at the opening and noted that I had to come back. I’m glad I did. Sidén's work requires the viewer to stay with it to the end. I'll explain… Upon walking into the darkened room one could be forgiven for thinking unrelated videos are being shown under the same roof. Two separate 2-screen projections operate kitty-cornered from each other, a pillar with monitors mounted in, occupies the centre. Sidén's video travels from one set of projections (dual screen, colour) to another (Dual screen, BW) very smartly. Transferring the central subject matter, a baby, from one video to another via the two monitors located on a pillar in the centre of the room (very clever). This piece does demand a bit of time investment from the viewer, but is well worth it. Although, I wish there had been some seating available. The sense of discovery once the viewer understands what is going on is wonderful, even though the narrative is an all too common real world experience of infant abandonment. The 1st of the two is a beautifully complex video that creates a sense of constant motion through a sliding montage of shorter clips. While the second is security camera footage located in a hospital. The first is organic, fleeting while the second is clinical and controlled.

A third piece displayed at Fairgreen, which seemed a little arbitrary, was a neon piece by Elaine Byrne titled Whistle. Her work was also on display at the University Hospital.

126, Artist-run gallery

126 presented a visual response to the Galway region by American artist Ken Fandell titled Between Me and Galway Bay. The central piece, a digitally stitched together photograph measuring 6 inches by 35 feet, dominates the length of the gallery. A blown up Google map shows North America and Ireland and the inability to provide directions to Galway Bay from the artist’s residence in Chicago. Good show over all, from the postcards of a temporary palm tree near Lake Michigan, to the looped video of a 180º digital spin of a currach from Man of Aran. An overall sense of play permeated Fandell's show while still addressing interesting issues of cultural appropriation and travel.

Nuns Island

I missed the Amanda Coogan performance titled Yellow but had hoped to catch the installation. Unfortunately the installation was only up till the 14th (Tulca runs from the 6th to the 22nd) and I was presented with locked doors at its location.


The open submission aspect of this year’s Tulca was reduced to a call for participation in an evening of video screenings at Bar No. 8. Live@8 has for the lat year and a half been an interesting and entertaining place for video and, sometimes, live art. However it is not a good place for quieter or more intimate pieces. It is a bar, people are drinking, and conversations are being had. This one enjoyed a large crowd and exhibited a lot of artists (20, I think). Many were on monitors, but manoeuvring around the crowd proved difficult and I was unable to see most of them. A piece on a monitor, The Rite of Spring, Limerick 2007, by Katarina Mojžišová stood out. The projected works seemed to get better as the evening went on. There was a particularly strong bunch at the end that included Tom Flannagan, Austin Ivers, Stephan Gunning and Áine Philips. Music by Vivienne Dick at regular intervals was also a highlight.

Galway City Museum

The last work I got to see or hear actually was Andrew Dodds audio piece Adrift, at the Galway City Museum. It was located on the 1st floor at a point where one can look out onto Galway Bay. Appropriate, considering the work, which was based on the BBC's radio shipping forecast. Dodds removed everything from the broadcast except the word “Falling” this was then repeated at different pitches in a 16 minute loop.

So, in the end was I consoled or satiated? Over all… No.

A few pieces will stay with me. From Sidén and Langen's video work to Fandell's tongue in cheek take on commodification. Beautiful, intelligent engaging, but they didn't have the ability to carry the festival. I felt there was something missing overall and a couple questions must be asked. With such a small number of works exhibited overall why such a heavy video representation? Where were the emerging artists or open-submission artists? Why they were all at the Live@8 event I don’t know, but I can't help to think it was a last minute "Where do we put them?" scenario. What was the story with the story in the programme? It is pretty unusual for a visual arts curator to insert a short story in lieu of a curatorial statement. Especially one that concludes that refugees should act as guests and put the needs of their hosts before theirs. Is it a political statement?

One has to admire the work that goes into organising a festival of this size, but in the end I believe the continuity certainly could have been tighter, the video bias was too heavy, the accompanying literature a little too light and there could have been a bit more wine at the opening. Next year maybe.