Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland
Isabel Nolan, Stephen McKenna, Poly Morgan, Dan Hays, Alex Rose, Djordje Ozbolt, Ben Long, Francis Upritchard, Yuriy Norshteyn, Martin Healy and Garrett Phelan. Curated by Stephen Brandes
Eigse Carlow Arts Festival 2013 Visual Art Open Submission
66 individual works selected by Stephen McKenna PPRHA & Emilia Stein RHA
7 June – 8 September 2013
Review by Darren Caffrey
In the local sense, festivals and their associate art trails follow the scent of remuneration. Art spaces are key focus points for public expression, and this itself establishes a political content. In a world where natural disasters or even clemency must be quickly guesstimated into a rounded figure of noughts, the show of art in Ireland’s public galleries is, in these terms, a show of worth. This worth is paid for by a series of beneficiaries and sponsors, all of which serve to identify what form expression will take in the public space.
VISUAL in Carlow is currently host to two group shows. While Eigse Carlow Arts Festival 2013 Visual Art Open Submission is almost exactly what it says, Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland is comparatively cryptic. The beasts in question maybe refer to the selected artists, or it may be a reference to the commonplace ecologies of what is local in terms of global citizenship. In fact, this exhibition “considers some of the ways animals have been deployed symbolically within contemporary art practice”.
If you haven't yet been, VISUAL has room for you, boasting as it does of over 3000 metres square of dedicated cultural application. Sitting on the grounds of Carlow College, it too is an instrument of education. Unlike the nearby college, it is a place where the standards of education are not set but rather fluid. At times seemingly trend based and indeed trend biased, contemporary art practice is nothing if not contemporary. John Berger has written well about why we look at animals, contending that “the treatment of animals in 19th century romantic painting was already an acknowledgement of their impending disappearance”. Elsewhere Berger references Levi-Strauss' observations, citing the diversity of species to be employable also as an elective strategy for social differentiation. And so by virtue of the concept of species there arrives the necessity of class.
VISUAL was sited at a time when local commerce had been found in need of a diversification all of its own. In the same year that sketches were released of VISUAL (The National Centre for Contemporary Art and Performance Theatre), Carlow's long standing sugar plant finally closed. Upstairs in the Lobby Gallery, essentially a landing–cum–hallway space, one particular work characterises something of this very contemporary transition. Rosalind Murray's Sugar Woz Ear appears on screen in a work which assumes the clichéd vernacular of youth; married to simple wordplay, as rendered via a performed gesture in front of the camera involving flower petals. A large flat-screen TV stands portal–like before an architecture of industrial scale phwoar, and on screen the wind scatters these petals which spell out the letters, W, O, Z, as if to replay the passing of. While headphones play back the artists own rendition of 70's pop gem Sugar Sugar, the element of wordplay further extends into the narrative itself, leaving as a final shot, the artist standing behind a steel gate in a field of what appears to be rape.
A viability report prior to construction of VISUAL noted that families, tourists, students and firms would be attracted to the town's greater national visibility. Broadly speaking, the development of industry to not only reflect but include the arts generally, and even more specifically the visual arts, has in turn given rise to a redistribution of creative activity. Considering the landscape that is public sector construction, there is no doubt local knowledge about the cost which does not show up in the official rhetoric of projection, yet none of this may be relevant to the facts. It is this framing of everything under the one staggered roof which makes the case for intentionality beyond public expression. So too it is this manner of selection which distracts from what might be otherwise useful in asserting a community of artists both locally and nationally.
What Eigse offers to VISUAL is a selection of artists, sourced both locally and nationally, peppered with a few anomalies to force the rule. The five 'invited' artists for this annual show were Gary Coyle, Richard Gorman, Eithne Jordan, Jim Savage and Dorothy Cross, with the bulk of the works contributed by lesser known practitioners. The collection as a whole was standard for a show of this sort but worth mentioning for its collective value and staging. Surely it is right that artistic activity of all kinds be regarded as complimentary to a local identity, and indeed who better than those who live within and work for that very community image.
The works in Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland may all have benefited from being shown according to their respective qualities, utilising perhaps just one wall of the space to create a tableau of cut and paste iconographies, each work a personal affect of sorts. Naturally leaving three walls bare would not reflect the convention and so it is that each work has been taken, only to be drowned soon after. As part of the open submission exhibit presented in conjunction with Eigse, an interestingly titled work by Helen Robbins sees dried lichen and wool fashioned into the shape of a girl's dress, and curiously it all appears to question the nature of selection itself while being simultaneously contained in a wooden box with a glass front. Make me a coat of Rich Moss and I will return to the forest to gather all that I lost is satire in verse while Mens Rea by Mark Leavey is funny, possibly in ways other than intended. Consisting of a child's desk from by-gone parish schooling which has now been reconfigured to more closely serve as a one person pew at which to kneel, the abuse in each case is clear. Directly above this prop a neon light makes explicit the title as well as the actions and inaction from which we might learn. The title of this work is of course latin, translating as literally 'guilty mind', it is also the legal term which refers to criminal intent. On the rest where countless elbows have waited, a switch has been added so that the viewer is responsible for lighting the Mother Mary, so that she may say something of the Christian narrative.
“So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” This is the quote arrived upon by researching Veronica Nicolson's 2:15 sign. Simple presentation allied with rich cultural instinct frames this biblical passage as though a statement of the people. The question of why scripture came to be referenced at GAA matches is an interesting one, but whereas the popular JOHN 3:16 sign highlights the main thesis of christianity, namely that Jesus was sent to prove God’s love, here the crucial change is that even Jesus didn’t accept the abuse of the people’s faith.
Sheep and cattle, along with a host of other farm animals were present also when Old Major's rousing speech of revolt opened the first chapter of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland takes its name from a song which follows this speech, the wisdom of the past foretelling of a future choice. If the shows title sets a political tone, the work selected merely rationalises its own fantasy. Produce being the final mark, it is as if producing work for the viewer/consumer is all that either the supplier (artist) or the distributor (gallery/curator) were concerned with. And so in a lustily high-ceilinged space, where filtered light pours in from the top like water, the mark reached by much of the work appears only as unwanted ends which have been afforded far too much space to breathe.
The charge sanctioned to hold the focus of the exhibition and our focus alike is the work of Ben Long, flatly titled Horse Scaffolding Sculpture. Steel and aluminium bars form the basis of what is essentially a hollow evocation of heraldic past. This literal hollowness is also what permits the illusion of depth, as though every sense of its power is visible yet also far out of reach. The stand from which Long's horse figure rears is like the figure itself. Intricately constructed and meticulously worked out in the round, it stands firm against concept, taking of construction only that contact which is bound by structure. The simplicity of its stand suggests that it probably travels well and so it will no doubt rear once more when the show has ended.
In any case, the conceptual shadow which this sculpture ensures leaves even the humble scrappy works below to be found wanting of attention, even empathy. Animals do indeed feature prominently, from the ways we keep them when they’re alive to the ways we keep them when they die, and perhaps more notably, their straightforward likeable-ness. A mix of paintings and a few photographic prints placed low on the wall to shake things up, the curator perhaps did not consider the work relative to the space until it was too late. The idea of viewers getting down on their hands and knees to see their kind in the heads of horses is perhaps too much, even so, these various works by Alex Rose suffer little.
To be clear, the room swallows everything in one standardised gulp. Effort has been made to reconcile the size issue by staging a sort of school setting where monkeys learn by watching people watching a hedgehog on a quest. The Hedgehog in the Fog is contributed by Yuriy Norshteyn, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW0jvJC2rvM) while the monkey assemblages were supplied by Francis Upritchard. The entire presentation of this show may be understood by noting that the monkey figures, fashioned from furs and leather, are forced to compete for your vision with a ventilation grate which cuts their visible space and dispels the making of each monkey into component parts. While seemingly an innocuous intrusion, the resulting separation of these monkeys from character to object appears as contrary to the anthropomorphic act. Given this psychological function, it can only be concluded that the conceptual break serves some higher purpose. What is truly disappointing is that this purpose only appears to concern the monkeys where it is that they fit within the near geometric format of the over all scheme as printed on the gallery handout.
And so that which was laid out has in the end prevailed, order featuring above creative action. The fact that this all takes place in such an exceptional art space as VISUAL is itself an issue beyond the contributing artists, the curator or even the gallery as institution. There is a question regarding animal in man which the economic reality of fabulousness simply does not answer. Perhaps society will soon be capable of accepting that there is no farm in the country, only the fact of death.