‘What Else?’ On Dublin Contemporary [full essay]

‘What Else?’ On Dublin Contemporary (The Irish Review, Issue 45, Winter 2012)

Checking his stance as he prepared to take a critical swing at a collection of pre-millennium prophesies by Conor Cruise O’Brien, Christopher Hitchens found himself pondering a problem of tone: ‘few things are harder to write’, Hitchens suggested, ‘than a sincere treatment in the style of “more sorrow than anger”’. The Cruiser, once a hero for The Hitch, had turned in a stone-cold dud: this was a book, Hitchens believed, that was ‘a cause for disgust and depression’. At his best, O’Brien had been for Hitchens a model thinker: ‘a voice attuned to the discourse of reason … an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur’. And indeed for anyone engaged in contemplating the convergence of history, criticism and public affairs, a debt would always be owed to the author of Writers and Politics. But how to acknowledge the achievements of this prestigious past — and the high expectations arising from it — while facing the unpleasant facts about the present? By stressing sorrow over anger, Hitchens suggested, ‘one will be suspected of masking (beneath the regret) a covert relish. The fulsome style of the obituarist may creep in, causing one to be sanctimonious about the virtues in order to appear generous about the backsliding. Hypocrisy awaits at every intersection.’[1]

Despite these combined hazards of sanctimony and hypocrisy, an expression of sorrow may well be one appropriate response to the recent phenomenon of Dublin Contemporary 2011 — a large-scale, lavishly funded exhibition of art from Ireland and around the world that was staged at various locations (indoor and outdoor) across the capital city from September 6th to October 31st 2011.[2] Curated by New York-based critic Christian-Viveros Fauné and Franco-Peruvian artist Jota Castro, this debut manifestation of Dublin Contemporary (it is planned as a five-yearly event) came with the elaborately vague subtitle of Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change and The Office of Non-Compliance — a convoluted collection of catchphrases and generically topical tags that (somewhat desperately) declared from the outset a desire for socio-political relevance and claimed for the exhibition a specific capacity for cultural dissent. (In a short introductory note on the exhibition Castro and Viveros-Fauné wrote of their wish to ‘profile new art that connects actively with the world’, and argued that ‘in our own stubborn terms, art constitutes non-compliance’.[3]) The opening allusion to Yeats was arguably, though, an apt cue for these broad curatorial aspirations — ‘Easter 1916’ is, after all, a poem anxiously arising from a ‘dialectic between aesthetics and politics’.[4] But this is also a poem that has profound sorrow at its source (in a letter to Lady Gregory, Yeats wrote of how the Easter Rising had been for him ‘a great sorrow and anxiety’[5]) and in quoting the most famous phrase from ‘Easter 1916’ the curators perhaps attempted to force and foreground a connection with the complex tragedies of Irish history. To a degree, this could have been thus viewed as providing valid preliminary grounding for the titular construct of ‘Dublin Contemporary’: framing the current cultural moment in relation to the awkward persistence of a ‘present past’, potentially allowing contentious elements of Ireland’s history and politics to play against the project’s more cheerful, future-oriented marketing speak (among the ‘cultural ambitions’ identified for the exhibition, for instance, were the hopes that it would be ‘a catalyst for cultural tourism in Ireland’, and that it would demonstrate ‘the resilience and forward-looking confidence of Ireland Inc.’[6]). Yet the title ‘Terrible Beauty’ is too ready-to-hand in Ireland, too hackneyed, to indicate any properly considered relation to historical or present-day contexts: it offers a surface gloss of seriousness, but in its corny familiarity, it too becomes a piece of PR-friendly phrasing. The once-resonant quotation is reduced to ‘polite meaningless words’ — a neatly ambiguous slogan for the promotion of putative artistic edginess. For an exhibition that hoped to celebrate ‘innovation, creativity and imagination’, this was a frustratingly obvious opening reference, one that brings to mind Hitchens’s comments on the introductory remarks of O’Brien’s Eve of the Millennium essays: ‘he begins with — what else? — Yeats’s “Second Coming” … [and] … is content to lard his tired prose with a few “rough beasts” and “mere anarchies”, much as any hack might do’.[7] One can only wonder at the extent of the deliberations that led Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné to ‘Terrible Beauty’ as the title and core theme of Ireland’s first major international art exhibition since the last of the seminal Rosc shows in 1988. What other options, dare we ask, were scribbled on the back of that envelope? More dispiriting still is the fact that in 2011, Dublin Contemporary was not the only large-scale exhibition to draw on these anguished lines from ‘Easter 1916’. Prior to the release of information on the final form and focus of Dublin Contemporary, it was widely known that the 11th Lyon Biennale had opted for ‘A Terrible Beauty is Born’ as its title. And, of course, the same criticisms concerning the timeworn condition of this Yeats citation could justifiably be leveled at Lyon curator Victoria Noorthoorn — even if Yeats’s reflections on political violence have a fundamentally different significance in France than in Ireland, principally because they have so much less overt significance. But it was notable, sadly, how much more space was given by the French team in their accompanying exhibition texts to careful consideration of how the historically specific signs and symbols of the poem take on meanings relevant to our own contemporary predicament.

All of which is, let’s say, disappointing. So little subtlety and sensitivity, so little in the way of distinctive ‘vision’. But also, perhaps, so little time. For in mitigation, Castro and Viveros-Fauné could certainly refer to the short run-in they had as curators of the project, their employment having come relatively late in the process, allowing them a planning period of only seven months: a challenging time-scale for preparing any exhibition of significant size. (And yet we might add by way of further counter-argument, if this is too tight a time-frame to meet the proper standards, why choose to take on the role?) Prior to their appointment, Dublin Contemporary had been in development for some time, led by founding artistic directors Oliver Dowling and Rachael Thomas — the former, a prominent independent visual art specialist, and the latter, Head of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. As a means of improving the global presence and strengthening the credibility of this new venture, an additional panel of consulting curators had also been established, consisting of some of the most high profile and influential figures in the international contemporary art world. This starry supporting cast included: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the prolific and inventive curatorial dynamo currently based at London’s Serpentine Gallery; Okwui Enwezor, who was at that time a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, and who had formerly been artistic director of Documenta, the most authoritative survey exhibition of contemporary art which had, with its five-year cycle, provided the model for the Dublin project; Christine Macel, Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Gerard Byrne, credibly considered by many to be the most important Irish visual artist of his generation. However, in January 2011, for reasons that were never quite clear, Rachael Thomas (as the official Dublin Contemporary history has it) ‘returned to IMMA to take up new projects’. [8] And following her unhappy departure, the esteemed team of supporting curators also chose to withdraw their support and imprimatur. Whatever it was that had gone wrong, and whoever was to blame, this was a mess; and certainly, it was a cause for mounting sorrow — edging towards anger — about the prospects for this long-anticipated event. And just how bad was the dramatic cutting-of-ties by some of contemporary art’s most sought-after and listened-to curators? Well it wasn’t good. Writing in The Irish Times, Aidan Dunne suggested that it was now time to rethink the whole troubled project from the ground up.[9] Instead, the Dublin Contemporary board acted quickly to appoint Castro and Viveros-Fauné as their new ‘lead curators’: two busy, diversely experienced, but not especially well-known art world characters who had, alarmingly, not curated anything on this daunting scale before.[10] But, by February, the new plan was in place: the curatorial personnel and thematic direction had changed utterly — and ‘Terrible Beauty’ was born.

*

In a blog posted on the website for Art Review magazine a short while after the commencement of Dublin Contemporary, Christian Viveros-Fauné made a passing reference to a brief meeting in Dublin with, of all people, Bob Geldof ‘at the opening of a biennial I co-curated’. [11] No doubt resisting the urge to directly plug his particular professional commitments in a column devoted to exploring trends and topical debates in the wider art world, the former lead curator’s incidental reference to his then-current job, could, nevertheless, have jarred a little in its apparent indifference to detail — Dublin Contemporary having been planned, we can pedantically recall, as a quintennial event. But Viveros-Fauné’s throwaway comment is also consistent with the increasingly flexible use of the term ‘Biennial’ in contemporary art discourse. As Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø write in their introduction to a collection of essays analyzing the Biennial form and phenomenon, the term now ‘refers less to a specific periodicity … than to a type or model of large-scale perennial, international manifestation that has become so common in the landscape of exhibition-making today’.[12] ‘Biennial’ is thus often used nowadays merely as ‘shorthand for many wildly different recurring exhibitions of contemporary art, including triennials and even Documenta, which occurs every five years’.[13] ‘Wild difference’ might apply just as well, however, to the range of critical perspectives on biennials — for if ‘biennial’ identifies a capacious category of contemporary art production and presentation, the word is also a catalyst for extreme divergence of opinion. Having spread rapidly across the globe over the last two decades, biennial exhibitions are now viewed sceptically by some commentators as a particularly problematic outcome of cultural globalization. As Filipovic et al suggest, there is a widespread belief that

the word biennial has come to signify nothing more than an overblown symptom of spectacular event culture, the result of some of the most specious transformations of the world in the age of late capitalism — in short a Western typology whose proliferation has infiltrated even the most far-reaching parts of the world, where such events are little more than entertaining or commercially driven showcases designed to feed an ever-expanding tourist industry.

[14]

This is what the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl witheringly calls ‘festivalism’ — and its outcome (so the argument goes) is a style of exhibition that ‘commands a particular space in a way that is instantly diverting but not too absorbing … the drill is ambulatory consumption: a little of this, a little of that’.[15] For others, however, Biennials mean a great deal more. Former Documenta director — and former Dublin Contemporary curatorial consultant — Owkui Enwezor is a committed champion of the Biennial model, and has argued, for instance, that today’s large-scale exhibitions can ‘create possible uses for spectacle’, allowing artists and curators to make ‘interventions in culture’.[16] As curator of Documenta 11 in 2002, Enwezor made a determined effort to foreground reflection on the political conditions of globalization, demonstrating commendable self-awareness about working within a specific exhibition structure that had been established as part of the promotional apparatus for Western values in the wake of the second world war (Documenta was, as Niru Ratnam has noted, founded as ‘a Cold War project designed to … showcase Western capitalist culture to those living under Stalinist rule’[17]). Despite the manifold constraints of their diverse historical and political contexts, the scale and reach of such exhibitions can, in Enwezor’s view, enable the articulation of radically plural and progressive cultural propositions: ‘when done properly, large-scale shows create the conditions for introducing new possibilities in artistic practice, and for rethinking prevailing conditions of production’. Biennials are, he says, ‘unique laboratories from which we constantly learn’.[18]

Without being conceived of, or officially named, as a straight ‘Biennial’ exhibition, Dublin Contemporary was nevertheless realized in ways that relate to both of these divergent Biennial tendencies. Many of its main features and accompanying statements quickly brought to mind opposing arguments about the purpose and potential of such art extravaganzas — to the extent that this was a large-scale exhibition that often seemed ready to collapse under the extreme stress of its competing claims. As has already been noted, for instance, this venture was explicitly framed as a vast marketing exercise for ‘Ireland Inc’ — a version of the ‘commercially driven showcase’ identified by Filipovic et al as one dominant Biennial model. And as such there was an understandable desire to dazzle: Dublin Contemporary, we were told, ‘set out to transform the city into a vibrant gallery’. It was planned to be ‘one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever held in Ireland’. It would be indisputably large-scale, ‘showcasing the work of more than 114 Irish and international artists’.[19] (Which means how many exactly? 115? No matter: in the ecstatic striving for promotional superlatives, ‘more than’ is what counts.) Who, principally, the work was being showcased to remains a matter for debate: in some of the background information on marketing plans for Dublin Contemporary (material that was readily accessible online) one of the targets identified with regard to ‘economic impact and audience profile’ was that there should be ‘150,000 visitors of which 62,500 are expected from overseas’.[20] However, at the conclusion of the exhibition, Irish Times reporter Ronan McGreevy commented, in an interview with Dublin Contemporary Project Director Lesley Tully, that ‘Dublin Contemporary had set a target of 2,500 overseas visitors to come specifically for the exhibition, but an estimated 3,200 made the journey’. The pleased Project Director cheerfully added: ‘We’re very surprised we were over the target’.[21] The first figure could, perhaps, have been a mistake in the original overview — and my understanding of these apparently contradictory before-and-after statements may be based on a misreading — or almost 60,000 expected overseas visitors went missing along the way.

At the same time as the project was being set up to succeed in terms of scale and visual vibrancy, Dublin Contemporary’s curators also sought to shift the emphasis away from visual spectacle alone, employing a version of Enwezor’s ‘laboratory’ language to support what they termed the exhibition’s ‘chief organizational engine’[22]: the aforementioned ‘Office of Non-Compliance’. This ‘collaborative agency’ was proposed as a space to establish ‘creative solutions for real or symbolic problems that stretch the bounds of conventional art experience’ (though whether it was the solutions or the problems causing such stretching was, alas, unclear). These claims certainly sound somewhat similar to Enwezor’s aspirations towards ‘introducing new possibilities in artistic practice’ and ‘rethinking prevailing conditions of production’ — but a lot hangs, of course, on how such things can be, as he hopes, ‘done properly’. We might reasonably ask, therefore, how meaningful a staged scenario (and curatorial stance) of ‘non-compliance’ was in the context of a project so intimately connected to state-led cultural tourism and inward investment agendas — a project, it is worth noting, that had its generous state funding guaranteed with the proviso that the development and delivery of the exhibition be overseen by the team responsible for managing Irish tourism’s pivotal annual event, the St. Patrick’s Festival. On its own terms, the latter is undoubtedly ‘done properly’; and as Enwezor argues, there may well be ‘possible uses for spectacle’. (Similarly, as curators Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova have argued, establishing a practical position on the economic background of Biennial-making can mean searching for ways to ‘say no while still saying yes’.[23]) However, given the pronounced, overarching ‘festivalist’ priorities of Dublin Contemporary, Castro and Viveros-Fauné’s defiant curatorial invocation of ‘non-compliance’ had a resoundingly hollow ring. Aspiring to facilitate the emergence of ‘non-conformist art proposals’, the ‘Office of Non-Compliance’ was itself a rather run-of-the-mill, unremarkably conformist proposition: a series of talks and seminars, more or less equivalent in form to any that might be offered by a mainstream European contemporary art institution (and in fact, such occasions of notional criticality are even de rigueur nowadays at straightforwardly commercial events such as the Frieze or Basel Art Fairs). This was a very orthodox piece of parallel programming — framed, nonetheless, in absurdly hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing terms — rather than, say, the basis of a thoroughgoing questioning of ‘the prevailing conditions of production’. The proclaimed interest in pitching ‘solutions’ was hardly helpful here — cringingly calling to mind (for this writer at least) a former section in Private Eye magazine that quoted unintentionally amusing and nonsensical uses of the word ‘solutions’ in business slogans (for example, ‘Christmas Ornament Storage Solutions’ for cardboard boxes; ‘footwear solutions’ for socks). The Dublin Contemporary curators’ rhetoric of solution-based non-compliance was similarly windy — more appropriate to corporate ‘blue-sky-thinking’ than to a process of grounding art in real world concerns — and indeed, as Slavoj Zizek has recently argued in relation to the role of the philosopher, an essential task in addressing contemporary circumstances of crisis and change may be precisely ‘not to propose solutions’ (emphasis added). Instead, Zizek suggests, the aim of philosophy — and so too, perhaps, of ambitious thinking in the milieu of art — should be to ‘reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto perceived the problem’.[24]

*

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the full, unexpurgated title of Castro and Viveros-Fauné’s Dublin Contemporary exhibition tended not to appear on the advertising posters — whatever the virtues of ‘Terrible Beauty’ as a branding label, the marketing people could surely be forgiven if they found ‘Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non-Compliance’ a less than catchy concept. The actual strap-line chosen for the posters displayed across Dublin was ‘See the World through Different Eyes’, a very general invitation that nevertheless appeared alongside a very specific, and very striking, image: a shot of a soldier in Eastern Congo taken by the talented Irish photographer Richard Mosse. Rather than a ‘straight’, realist, documentary record of this conflict, however, Mosse had captured the scene using a type of infra-red film developed by the US military in the 1940s: a technology that was designed to expose anything hidden in the landscape and that here transformed the dense foliage surrounding the camouflaged soldier into an otherworldly landscape of bright crimson. ‘Seeing through different eyes’ was thus evident in the strategic application of a powerful, aggressive mode of viewing. At the same time, however, if this was proposed as a situation in which this soldier’s world could be seen ‘differently’, it was impossible to ignore the centrality of his own point-of-view, insofar as his gaze from within the freakishly lurid landscape was fixed directly on the camera — and so too on the viewer of the photograph and poster. A dual sense of ‘difference’ thus emerges in relation to the advertising message: on the one hand, there are the ‘different eyes’ of an army surveillance system, and on the other, there are the ‘different eyes’ of a staring Congolese soldier. The ad’s offer to adopt a fresh perspective on the world presents possible positions that are both — differently — difficult. Mosse’s photograph involves an astute problematising of looking: this is a highly tense meeting of viewpoints. But when inserted into an advertising frame, other complications emerge: such as, for instance, the serious question of how the public assertion of ‘difference’ in relation to an image of a black African might be received as a visual statement within contemporary multicultural Dublin. Equally, it seems worth asking if Mosse’s military photograph was merely considered edgy and eye-catching enough to work as a visual aid in selling the show, or if any particular thought was given to the implications of choosing to market ‘Ireland’s International Art Exhibition’ — as it was here described — with a picture of armed conflict? In Ireland there has been, after all, some debate down the years about perceptions of men with guns.

If one of the characteristics of Dublin Contemporary was a rhetorical contrast between marketing agendas and curatorial aspirations — compliance with top-down requirements playing against a pose of cultural non-compliance — the use of the Richard Mosse photograph as part of the promotional campaign was also one instance of an odd, disconcerting clash between upbeat messages about the exhibition and downbeat, troubling art in the exhibition (Mosse’s Congo picture featured as part of a substantial display of his haunting and weird work from Africa). For though there were appeals to festive vibrancy in introductory comments and media communications around the ‘spectacle’ of Dublin Contemporary, the exhibition itself was often a markedly melancholy affair — in apt accordance with the topical themes of ‘crisis and change’ (though it might be tricky, of course, to identify a moment in modern history when such non-specific issues would not have been topical — the paired words ‘crisis and change’ surely in fact providing the basis of a broad definition of modernity). Indeed, some of the show’s most successful selections were, crucially, those that were less celebratory than, yes, sorrowful in spirit — works across different media that variously stressed situations of loss, disappointment or failure and that appeared to make distinct cases for the pathetic, the humble and the precarious as artistic virtues, in preference to qualities of visual allure and authority (a feature of the exhibition that perhaps recalls Robert Smithson’s belief in how ‘futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement’[25]). In part, this doleful impression of the art may have been an atmospheric effect of the main exhibition venue itself: Dublin Contemporary having taken up residence for its two-month duration in the former UCD Medical School at Earlsfort Terrace, a venerable but (since 2007) vacant building that brought a degree of desirable historical gravitas to the festivities, but that also, in its state of desuetude and sporadic disrepair, prompted the mournful sense of dust gathering on even the most up-to-date contemporary interventions and insights. Such a setting certainly suited, therefore, a work such as Cologne Overnight (2010) by the Dublin-born, Berlin-based artist Declan Clarke: a film installation that solemnly reflected on different types of architectural ruin, presenting information and images pertaining to the catastrophic collapse of the civic archive building in Cologne (this modern, concrete structure suddenly fell to the ground in April 2009, taking with it documents relating to almost one thousand years of the city’s history) and placing these alongside recently shot footage of an abandoned famine-era village on Achill Island. Clarke’s link between these scenes of devastation is the writer Heinrich Boll, whose entire collection of papers was destroyed in the Cologne disaster, and who had found in his many visits to Achill a world ordered according to a temporality altogether different to that of modern society, but one nevertheless shaped ceaselessly by the inevitability of loss. (Boll wrote in his Irish Journal of how ‘the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the open sea, crumb by crumb.’[26]) There is a process of idiosyncratic construction in Clarke’s work as much as there is a unique contemplation on collapse. But these correspondences between ruins are not presented from a position of confident hindsight. Rather, the piecing together of history here is purposefully ‘weak’. Clarke’s filming is always deliberately unsteady, doggedly ‘amateurish’: his personal record of these past events is characterized by precisely calibrated imperfection. Cologne Overnight was, in these ways then, a good choice for the exhibition, and especially for the run-down rooms of Earlsfort Terrace. This was a work that asked us to slow down, to concentrate our drifting attention on representations of destruction and dereliction — refusing us the consolations of orthodox filmic accomplishment as it did so, stressing vulnerability within a situation of straining spectacle.

Clarke’s work was one of several commendably gloomy and awkward works in Dublin Contemporary that told stories of historical tragedy or that were pre-occupied with scenarios of frustrated progress. Elsewhere in Earlsfort Terrace, for instance, Irish artist Mark Clare’s DemocraCity (2011) offered an animated journey through the history of architectural modernism — a series of interconnecting computer-aided drawings showing iconic structures suggestive of once-optimistic views of historical change — before taking us forward in time towards speculative designs for a future building project, but one based only on the need to find suitable storage for the world’s abundant nuclear waste (and all the while , an accompanying soundtrack played a series of moving, melancholy sequences from Arvo Part’s ‘Fratres for Violin and Piano’, a composition partly deriving its pared-back form from a profoundly despairing attitude to the cultural conditions of modernity). Artworks by some of the established international figures featured at this venue proposed still more provocatively distressing and depressing varieties of ‘crisis and change’. Theresa Margolles, for example, invited a locksmith from the notorious Mexican border city of Juarez to temporarily base himself within the Dublin Contemporary exhibition, making personalised keys for visitors as he spoke with them about the horrors of life in his violence-ridden and gang-ruled hometown. This was at once a simple social set-up and — understood as a displayed ‘artwork’ — an intriguingly unsettling occasion of staged encounter, an almost perversely inappropriate form of artistic presentation within a large-scale exhibition principally realized (from the perspective of those providing the funds) as a means of reaping the economic benefits of ‘cultural tourism’. Israeli artist Omer Fast also introduced a level of high anxiety into what could have been a casual viewing experience, his film 5000 Feet Is The Best (2011) consisting of a series of richly cinematic episodes based around the real-life experiences of the ‘pilots’ of unmanned drone planes used by the US military in Afghanistan. The military personnel operating these aircraft are unusual ‘soldiers’: they are office-based, nine-to-five, non-contact combatants who survey the enemy territory on a computer screen — and from the safe distance of their home base in the United States. Fast’s film is a remarkable reflection on this form of aggressive, alienating vision — but it is a work which in its intense interest in a form of distanced watching, inevitably calls into question our own detached, leisurely consumption of these seductive, sophisticated images of conflict. Shown in a former lecture theatre of the neglected university building, 5000 Feet is the Best was an ambiguously powerful lesson on contemporary realities that was perfectly pitched to catch the paradoxes of the ‘Biennial’ viewing experience.

*

At times, then, Dublin Contemporary seemed an intentionally sorrowful show. Many of its numerous works responded to situations of genuine anguish: a video installation by Bjorn Melhus was based on accounts of post-traumatic stress; paintings by Brian Maguire referred to peripheral victims of murderous criminal feuds in Dublin; decorative pictures made by Italian duo Vedovamazzei were created from the ashes of a man sentenced to death in the United States; photographs by American documentarist Nina Berman showed heart-wrenching scenes from the wedding of a badly injured Iraq War veteran. Even some work that hinted at playful conviviality had an anxious undertow. Brian Duggan constructed a model of a fairground ferris wheel — but one from the abandoned vicinity of Chernobyl. The giant ‘Cradle’ by Chinese artist Wang Du offered, on the face of it, a kind of family-friendly fun — this was a ludicrously oversized bed that exhibition visitors could clamber onto and laze around on — but the bedclothes were printed with images of old newspapers and the twenty TV monitors hanging above enforced non-stop real-time viewing of channels from around globe, allowing no escape from the disorientating pleasures and pressures of the contemporary media-sphere. A lie-down here could feasibly intensify feelings of exhaustion rather than bringing about rest and relaxation (as well as failing to provide any prospect of ‘recovery’ — this was, after all, a ‘cradle’ that might also have been seen as a giant and oppressive hospital death bed).

But if some of the art in Dublin Contemporary was, by design, dejected in its tone, enervating in its effect or even self-consciously ‘weak’ in its form, there was also the possibility that one’s mood might slump in response to several other aspects of the overall exhibition — features of the show surely not planned to prompt a wholly disheartened, frustrated reaction. While the curator’s efforts to highlight art that ‘connects actively with the world’ often enabled encounters with works that were genuinely involving and powerfully melancholy takes on current circumstances, there were multiple other moments when stagey provocation stood in for aesthetic and political sophistication — such as, for instance, a razor-wire installation by Wilredo Prieto, or a circular display of adjusted machetes by Patrick Hamilton. These were meretricious varieties of ‘political’ art, allowing us to enjoy a short-term buzz on evocations of ‘crisis’ within Dublin Contemporary’s ‘vibrant gallery’. Here was ‘crisis’ as an edgy accessory, as this year’s daring must-have. Exasperating exhibition content of this kind was nevertheless made more problematic in places as a result of particular ways in which the exhibition context was used. Earlsfort Terrace has been rightly celebrated as a choice of venue (its strength as a setting for art is further confirmed by the fact that the Irish Museum of Modern Art has since moved in while renovations are underway at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham) but one downside of its use within Dublin Contemporary was that in the determination to show a huge number of artists, the scores of small rooms along the building’s long corridors became, in most cases, claustrophobically enclosed mini-exhibition spaces for sometimes very slight representations of work by the individual participants. Occasionally these compact one-person rooms were adequate — especially where projected video was the medium, such as in pieces by established presences such as Javier Tellez, Superflex and Jaki Irvine — but the separate spaces left many less well-known artists seeming too lost, too isolated, too disconnected from wider possibilities of curatorial conversation. Maybe a greater number of artworks by fewer artists would have helped open out these sometimes obscure practices a little more, granting audiences at all levels of engagement the necessary time and space to gain more than a superficial snapshot of an artist’s interests, and creating opportunities for establishing more substantial and meaningful correspondences between divergent ideas and processes. As it was, the exhibition’s staging was at once desultory in form and ‘festivalist’ in orientation: ‘diverting but not too absorbing … a little of this, a little of that’. Here and there, inevitably, there were moments of modest intensity (Niamh O’Malley’s contemplative black and white film Quarry stands out: a curiously compelling, slow-moving study of a crumbling limestone landscape) and in the limited number of larger rooms one or two worthwhile connections were proposed (a pairing of the young US sculptor David Adamo with the veteran Arte Povera pioneer Jannis Kounellis was a successful occasion of formal compare-and-contrast). But just as some small-scale decisions by the curators were arguably questionable, there were a number of larger-scale gestures that were surely catastrophic. Leaving aside the aforementioned ‘Office of Non-Compliance’, the wild idea of having street artists spray graffiti tags on the walls of the National Gallery (as part of a parallel exhibition) was one such failure — tiresome, irrelevant faux-radicalism that, once again, highlighted the too-often superficial instincts of this curatorial duo. Worst of all, however, was the largest of all. In the enormous atrium area of the old Earlsfort Terrace complex — a grand, high, open space with a wide surrounding balcony, easily the most dramatic display setting within this historic building — a single, specially-commissioned sculpture had been assembled. One gigantic piece of newly constructed art, in what could reasonably have been viewed as the most auspicious area of the main exhibition. And who was granted this singular honour? Step forward Jota Castro, co-curator of Dublin Contemporary 2011. Given that Castro had been appointed following the controversial departure of Dublin Contemporary’s founding directors (and of its illustrious curatorial panel) choosing to select himself for inclusion in his own exhibition was not, perhaps, the most diplomatic decision that could have been taken.

The sculpture itself (entitled ‘Us’) was a monumental folly — a series of tilted, interconnecting mirrored pyramids reflecting back a woozily warped vision of the wandering visitors. It was a grand-standing but undemanding presence. And yet, perhaps, Castro’s immodest sculptural statement might also have been a perversely apt centerpiece for this ‘Terrible Beauty’ experience. For here was a shiny, over-sized spectacle that was accompanied by over-reaching claims. (A wall text beside Castro’s work argued that in this situation ‘the normal rules of spectacle need not apply — criticality and viewer participation stand in for entertainment and passivity’ and ‘installations like these raise the bar on the power and engagement of large-scale pieces’. All of which is hugely helpful — saving us the trouble of making our own minds up.) Castro’s ‘Us’ was initially eye-catching and head-turning — but when viewed up close it seemed unstable, somewhat hurriedly put together, and as you looked over the balcony edge into the open space in which it was presented, it appeared to lack secure foundations. Despite the attempt it made to dazzle, this central ornament of the first Dublin Contemporary was a sad thing to gaze upon.

Such significant problems — such sources of sorrow at the standards reached in this costly and much-anticipated exhibition — almost overwhelmed the genuinely interesting art in Dublin Contemporary. But it is worth noting as a concluding point, that the ‘festival’ also included parallel exhibitions in several of the city’s most important publically funded art institutions — and without doubt these locally grounded elements of programming added considerable depth and credibility to the entire venture. Commissioned work from an ongoing project by James Coleman was, for instance, presented at the Royal Hibernian Academy — a multi-screen video drawing on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that involved gripping, confusing up-close scenes of several people attempting, and failing, to communicate effectively with each other. Also, an exhibition of old and new films and photographs by Willie Doherty was created for the Hugh Lane Gallery — a well-prepared representation of Doherty’s studied and stirring lens-based engagements with conflict and post-conflict landscapes that was a highly appropriate, even essential, addition to ‘Ireland’s international art exhibition’. Each of these was, in different ways, substantial — as was an impressive exhibition by the major American painter Alice Neel at the Douglas Hyde Gallery (though I’ll declare an interest here as a DHG board member). Each of these exhibitions was separate to the curatorial involvement of Castro and Viveros-Fauné — Coleman, for example, had become involved at the earlier, Rachel Thomas stage and Alice Neel was a dedicated Douglas Hyde Gallery show that merely received supporting funding and additional publicity via Dublin Contemporary. As the relative merits of this first version of Dublin Contemporary are debated — and we should hope that the debate will be serious and ongoing, just as, for all its faults, we should hope that this is only the first and not the one and only version — perhaps these ‘parallel’ (and earlier-initiated) successes suggest there should be further discussion of the value of using short-term-contract international curators of this kind and under these conditions. Perhaps there needs to be greater trust in the work of institutions already involvement in programming to a high international standard in Ireland. And perhaps, then, some renewed discussion is also necessary of how ‘Dublin’ might properly prepare itself for such a necessarily collaborative ‘contemporary’ venture next time round.

1. Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Cruiser’ in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (London: Verso, 2000), p. 335.
2. The formulation ‘Irish and international’ was frequently applied in publicity material relating to the exhibition. This coupling is quite standard in press release descriptions of group exhibitions of contemporary art in Ireland, but it often makes artists from ‘here’ uneasy about a perceived relation to ‘there’: as if ‘Irish’ is somehow separate to, rather than a subset of, ‘international’. Used in the context of Dublin Contemporary, there is surely also a defensive PR purpose in making this distinction clear. The first Rosc exhibition in 1967 (Ireland’s first major group show of modern and contemporary art) caused considerable controversy by featuring no Irish artists at all, the introduction of ‘the international’ to Ireland being the sole priority. By comparison, in the Dublin Contemporary case, there was evidently a need, given the straitened times, to stamp ‘Guaranteed Irish’ on the product, both for the benefit of a local audience potentially anxious about the economic merits of this enterprise, and to provide marketable regional distinctiveness to an ‘international’ art audience who, it was hoped, would travel to Dublin for the show.
3. Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Faune, ‘A Note From the Curators’, Dublin Contemporary 2011 Guide Book (Dublin, 2011), p. 9.
4. From Edna Longley, ‘Helicon and ni Houlihan: Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ in Jonathan Allison (ed.), Yeats’s Political Identities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), p. 213.
5. Quoted in Terence Brown, The Life of W.B. Yeats (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1999), p. 227.
6. From an ‘overview’ presentation on Dublin Contemporary available at http://www.biennialfoundation.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/DC_Overview2.pdf. [Accessed 17th April 2012].
7. Hitchens, ‘The Cruiser’, p. 337.
8. See http://www.dublincontemporary.com/about/history. [Accessed April 17th, 2012].
9. Aidan Dunne, ‘Departure of artistic director shines light on troubled festival’, The Irish Times, Wednesday, January 19th, 2011.
10. Neither, it might be added, had Thomas or Dowling, but both had run important long-term exhibition programmes in Ireland, and the decision to involve the consulting group of highly experienced and established curators from outside Ireland was based on the need to ensure that this first version of the Dublin Contemporary project would be both viable and credible.
11. Christian Viveros-Faune, ‘What are Curators For?’, http://www.artreview.com/profiles/blogs/what-are-curators-good-for. Posted by Art Review magazine on October 13, 2011. Last accessed,[Accessed April 17th 2012].
12. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, ‘Introduction’, in The Biennial Reader (Ostfildern: Hatje Kanz & Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), p.4.
13. Filipovic et al, ‘Introduction, p. 4.
14. Filipovic et al, ‘Introduction, p. 4.
15. Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Festivalism’, in Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), p. 200.
16. Tim Griffin, ‘The Medium and the Message: Tim Griffin talks with Okwui Enwezor about the Gwangju Biennale’, Artforum, September 2008 [online] Available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_1_47/ai_n35574108/ [Accessed 25/01/12].
17. Niru Ratnam, ‘Globalisation and Contemporary Art’, in Gill Perry and Paul Wood (eds), Themes in Contemporary Art (New Haven/London: Yale University Press/The Open University, 2004), pp. 277-278.
18. Ratnam, ‘Globalisation and Contemporary Art’, p. 278.
19. These are some of the main claims made about the exhibition featured on the ‘Exhibition’ page of the Dublin Contemporary website (www.dublincontemporary.com).
20. From the ‘Overview’ presentation on Dublin Contemporary available at http://www.biennialfoundation.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/DC_Overview2.pdf. [Accessed 17th April 2012].
21. Ronan McGreevy, ‘Lure of the Damp Squid: Dublin Contemporary Exhibition Ends’, The Irish Times, Tuesday, November 1st, 2011.
22. The following series of quotes concerning the Office of Non-Compliance are also taken from the Dublin Contemporary website’s ‘Exhibition’ page.
23. Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova, ‘The Making of “Once is Nothing”: How to Say No While Still Saying Yes’ in Open 2009/No. 16/The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon —guest editor: Pascal Gielen (Rotterdam, NAi Publishers), pp. 94-105.
24. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters’, http://www.lacan.com/zizfrance.htm. [Accessed 17th April 2012]. Comparable here is Alain Badiou’s argument that the work of the philosopher is to ‘invent new problems’. See Alain Badiou & Slavoj Zizek, Philosophy in the Present (Cambridge: Polity, 2009)
25. Robert Smithson, ‘An Esthetics of Disappointment’, in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 335.
26. Heinrich Boll, Irish Journal (Melvyn House Publishing: New York, 2011 [1957]), p. 73.

One thought on “‘What Else?’ On Dublin Contemporary [full essay]

  1. Gosh, honestly, someone mentioned someone had written something against DC2011, but this is pathetic. Did you compose while sleeping?

    This is the longest, most pedantic, least enjoyable case of sour grapes since Mitt Romney’s concession speech. As Clive James once wrote about Leonid Breshnev’s biography: If you were to recite even a single page of this in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.

    As butchery of the English language (and committed onanition with curators as pinups) it is not quite beneath contempt, but certainly beneath commentary. I’ll deeply savor the schadenfreude of knowing that after many, many hours of footnoting this is the best you could do.
    Good luck with your “career” mate,

    Christian VF

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