Amid much hype and anticipation, Dublin Contemporary - an ambitious new international contemporary art event staged in Dublin city - opened its doors to the public on 6th September.
The initial idea was conceived four years ago prior to the economic recession and subsequent controversial bailout of the Irish economy by the International Monetary Fund. So it seems fitting that lead curators Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné chose as their theme ‘Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non-Compliance.’ Their agenda; to create a discourse based on the local and global impact of the economic recession and resulting political instability.
The quote ‘Terrible Beauty’ is taken from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ refrain from his famous poem ‘Easter 1916.’ In it Yeats laments the doomed Irish uprising of 1916, a turning point in Irish history which acted as the catalyst for instigating change in Irish politics in the early 20th century.
‘all changed, changed utterly… a terrible beauty is born’
Change is central to the thematic conceit, and it appears the curatorial intent of Dublin Contemporary is to effect change by creating a forum for social and politically engaged art of which ‘The Office of Non-Compliance’ is a major aspect. Located in Earlsfort Terrace, the initiative is dedicated to the discussion of ideas and promotion of artistic proposals through lectures, seminars and performances. Earlsfort Terrace, an 18th-century Victorian building which previously operated as a site for the University College Dublin, hosts most of the 100 artists participating in Dublin Contemporary. Many of the small exhibition spaces still retain traces of this function - some are equipped with blackboards, office signs and office furniture which further intone the intention of Dublin Contemporary to instruct and educate its audience.
Often the works included are so overtly political that there seems no room for critical manoeuvring, and in other cases the exhibits present a very literal interpretation of the theme of ‘terrible beauty,’ often incorporating the tools of war as a medium in the work itself. The prominence of monumental large-scale sculptural installations as a device to encourage audience participation, such as Wang Du’s ‘The Cradle’ (2007) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘The Green Coffin’ (2006) is not necessarily a successful one, as the sheer scale of the works can dominate the gallery space and encroach on the viewer.
The works which generated the most critical thinking were those where there was no explicit or determined ideal evident. Instead, more complex readings were encouraged through subtle nuances. Omer Fast’s ‘Five Thousand Feet is Best’ (2011) a newly commissioned film exhibited concurrently at the Model, Co. Sligo was one of the prime examples of this. ‘Five Thousand Feet is Best’ dramatises the experiences of American pilots who operate unmanned drone planes over the war zones of Afghanistan. Edited with real-life documentary accounts and re-counting of obscure analogies, Fast raises questions of the authenticity of factual narratives through the manipulation of the media and a broader consideration of the effect of conflict on the human psyche.
Doug Fishbone’s take on a contemporary African soap opera, ‘Elmina’ (2010) spoke volumes about racial prejudices. ‘Elmina’ is a feature length film featuring well-known Ghanian celebrities where Fishbone’s deliberate inclusion of himself, the only white actor, in the role of the chief protagonist was a simple but effective method of highlighting stereotypes.
Many of the other successful works were contributions from Irish artists. Niamh O’Malley’s film ‘Quarry’ (2011) sumptuously captures the barren landscape of a stone quarry. Beautifully shot in gradient tones of grey, each still frame reveals the austere landscape through the gradual re-focussing of the camera lens or the drawing back of a camera filter.
James Coleman’s multi-channel video installation ‘2004-11’ in Gallery II at the Royal Hibernian Academy is a re-working of the Classical Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Played out like the acts of a theatre, the interaction between the two characters is recorded and presented from multiple angles, giving the tragic love story a contemporary twist while lingering on the subjects of loss and separation through sparse dialogue.
In less subtle but no less effective terms, Nevan Lahart’s whimsical take on the recession, ‘Wankruptcy’ offers a more humorous and theatrical response to the severity of the current economic climate, albeit underpinned with a political message. A cardboard installation replica of the Hollywood hills encompasses the entire room. Rubber missiles bursting through the flimsy mountain ridge are directed at a furry limbed life-size globe strapped with dynamite. A spontaneously erupting geyser of empty beer cans adds to the blatant spectacle.
Dublin Contemporary’s first incarnation is not without its flaws. The decision to rely on large scale sculptural work as a method for audience engagement may not have had the desired effect. What has been proven is that as a vehicle for the promotion of contemporary art, the quality of Irish artistic talent on view is on par with that of the international artistic community.