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Welcome to the Neighbourhood, Resident Group Show, Askeaton Contemporary Arts, 11-23 July, 2011

27.09.2011 (3:24 pm) – Filed under: Reviews ::

Welcome to the neighbourhood is an invited international residency programme where five selected artists spend two weeks working and living in the local town of Askeaton, Co. Limerick. Now in its sixth year, this residency programme, co-ordinated by Askeaton Contemporary Arts and curated by Michele Horrigan, was developed from an initial desire to provide a centre for contemporary art outside of the urban environment, and to bring contemporary art to wider ‘non-art’ audiences.

Oswaldo Ruiz, Askeaton Contemporary Arts,2011Oswaldo Ruiz, video still, Askeaton, Co. Limerick, 2011; image courtesy Askeaton Contemporary Arts.

There is no remit for the artists to create work in relation to the location of Askeaton, however, the participating artists in this latest edition have all chosen to do so, producing work in response to the direct environment, the local community history or the historical architecture of the town. The resulting output is exhibited at the end of the residency period in communal spaces around the town.

Influenced by the history of the Franciscan Friary and the practice of the order, Elaine Byrne’s film documents simple interventions she pursued with the friary’s ruined architecture. By placing green transparent vinyl screens against the window frames, she references the Franciscan monks belief that green was a contemplative colour. Historically, the monks cultivated a well-maintained grass lawn in the courtyard of the cloisters of the Abbey, which was regarded to instill pious reflection. Again this ideology is re-manifested as green fabric attached like curtains to the cloisters arches. Byrne has captured this sensitively on film; the gentle movement of the fabric casts a green hue onto the ground and surrounding stone walls, transforming the space.

Elaine ByrneElaine Byrne, Franciscan Friary installation, green vinyl, wood, 2011; image courtesy Askeaton Contemporary Arts.

Next door, located amidst the wood veneers of a closed down hair salon, Oswaldo Ruiz’s film plays on a flat screen. Ruiz is a Mexican photographer and filmmaker who cites Seamus Heaney’s “Sweeney Astray” as the influence for this work. The poem is based upon the re-telling of the legend of the medieval King Suibhne who, having threatened Bishop Ronan, was cursed to behave like a bird and roam the Irish countryside as an exile.

In Ruiz’s film, he traverses the uninhabited urban spaces at night, shooting still images of the derelict and abandoned spaces around the town. Illuminated only by the streetlights, the cinematography of each seemingly banal scene is engrossing. Among local advertising notices stuck to the salon door, Ruiz also presents watercolour interpretations of the recounted tale.

Allan Hughes, Askeaton Contemporary Arts, 2011 Allan Hughes, video still, pillboxes, Askeaton, Co. Limerick, 2011; image courtesy Askeaton Contemporary Arts.

Located in the Civic Trust building, Belfast based artist Allan Hughes’ work considers moving image and aural methods of representation. For the residency, Hughes focused on the remaining pillboxes located in and around Askeaton. Pillboxes were strategic defense fortifications located along the Shannon estuary, designed as vantage points to monitor the river Shannon for German u-boats during World War II. Constructed from concrete, these could house up to two volunteers of the Local Defense Force (LDF) and the Local Security Force (LSF) appointed to keep look-out. Hughes interviewed three men from the locality about their experiences in the volunteer forces during the 1940’s. These conversations are replayed as an audio narrative from a speaker on a mount stand. Adjacent to this, a tv monitor shows alternating views of the River Shannon from the interiors of pillboxes, and is spliced with footage of its rough waters.  By recounting the experiences of the volunteers as two separate works, Hughes seems to comment on the fractured nature of historical narratives.

Alan Counihan, a sculptor who traditionally works with stonemasonry, enlisted the support of the local aerobord factory Kingspan to produce a site-specific work in response to the architecture of the ruined friary. Counihan carved a white plinth from aerobord, and installed it in the open courtyard of the friary, with a glass bell on top. The use of the lightweight, commonplace aerobord is a playful contrast to the fragility of the glass bell. The shape of the plinth echoes the formal Roman architecture of the cloisters arches, yet the durability of the sculptural materials negates their functionality in the open space – a possible indication towards the slow decay of the friary itself.

Amanda Gutiérrez, Askeaton Contemporary Arts, 2011Amanda Gutiérrez, transcribed screenplay, Askeaton, Co. Limerick, 2011; Image courtesy Askeaton Contemporary Arts.

Chicago-based Mexican artist, Amanda Gutiérrez’s work looks at social, political and personal effects of migratory displacement. For this project she conducted separate conversations with four individuals from different native backgrounds who have settled in Askeaton. They are known only by their first names: Rita (India), Marianne (Denmark), JJ (Limerick), Raymond (England – of Nigerian parents). The conversations are transcribed into a screenplay, printed onto A4 sheets of paper, and pinned to the green felt notice board at the entrance of the local community hall.

Different categories within the screenplay parallel similar experiences of each of the individuals through their emigration, or immigration into the country. Under different headings – Labour, Interaction, Homesickness, Motherland – each participant describes their hometown. Departure describes their reasons for emigrating or immigrating, and Adaptation discusses their final assimilation into their adopted community.

On a small monitor in the corner of the entrance, anonymous hands type the accounts of each character. On the stage of the community hall, footage of the local countryside is projected onto a suspended screen. The screenplay, read by a local Askeaton resident, serves also as an accompaniment to the film.

aaAlan Counihan: aerobord, glass, installation, Friary, Askeaton, Co.Limerick; Image courtesy Askeaton Contemporary Arts.

The different modes of presentation, and the format of a screenplay, converted to video raises questions as to whether the characters are in fact real or fictitious and if the emotions expressed in text and through audio are unique to these four individuals or represent a universal feeling of displaced people. The fact that we are never presented with their visual identities or that their original sentiments have been presented by a third party, mirrors the act of displacement and establishes their loss of identity through immigration.

I was impressed by the well-considered and resolved work featured in this edition of Welcome to the neighbourhood.  This residency provides an alternative model for a community art initiative where social engagement between the local community and the artists is achieved through other methods. The success stems from the artistic freedom given to artists, and through the community’s support and interaction with the artists to facilitate the production of the work, often providing the source material with which to begin a discourse. May it run and run.

Ruth Hogan is an Irish freelance curator based in London.

Helen Horgan: The Horse’s Mouths, PP/S, 29 July – 6 August, 2011.

20.09.2011 (3:38 pm) – Filed under: Reviews ::

In late July, Pallas Projects/Studios (PP/S) presented two solo exhibitions side by side: Helen Horgan’s The horse’s mouths, and Angela McDonagh’s Small ways of observing, multiple possibilities. This was the second last show in the PP/S summer programme, a schedule of five artist-initiated projects that had previously hosted an excellent exhibition by Fiona Reilly.

The new PP/S gallery constitutes two ground floor rooms of an old Georgian house; both are around twenty feet squared, with worn timber floors and a ceiling edged with plaster mouldings. The room occupied by The horse’s mouths is bright, its two windows face out onto the street.

The horse’s mouths featured six large, brightly coloured sculptures, each made with foam and wood. Five of the six works were electrically powered. Titles such as Hermes revisiting, Two-faced lyre and The boat Amphion make obvious reference to the gods and imageries of ancient Greece.

Helen Horgan: Helen Horgan: The boat Amphion, fire alarm, foam, wood, bell, car battery, 2011; Image courtesy the artist.

Walking into the room, I could hear the asynchronous clicks of two ticking devices. One of these, a carved foam face entitled The boat Amphion, swung from side to side in one-second intervals. The face, mounted to the wall, was about as large and thick as a car tyre. Horgan cut its eyes and nose into haggard tribal patterns, and pierced the back of its head with a light bulb that beamed up towards the ceiling. The face was fixed to part of a fire alarm, which created its noisy tick and wobble. This alarm was positioned below the face with its bell dislodged – it was powered by a car battery that sat on the floor beside it.

In a short text accompanying the exhibition, Horgan explained that Amphion was a name given to the pleasure craft of King Gustav III, and, despite its dubious seaworthiness, the schooner was used as a command vessel during the Russo-Swedish War. In this context, the wobbling ticking sculpture seems caustically witty.

The second ticking artwork stood in the corner of the room; a black wooden clock entitled Two-faced Lyre, a pendulum shaped like an oak leaf swung from its underside. Horgan ran a light bulb through the back of the clock, its wiring was wrapped up in insulation tape, and it shone yellow light through hundreds of holes drilled through the clock’s enclosure. Peering through a crack I could see a set of quickly rotating mechanisms. One cog had a black plastic bag tied to it. The bag was full with an unknown liquid, and it hung between the clock’s four legs.

Helen Horgan:Two-faced Lyre, black wooden clock, lightbulb, wire, insulation tape, plastic, 2011; image courtesy the artist. Helen Horgan:Two-faced Lyre, black wooden clock, lightbulb, wire, insulation tape, plastic, 2011; image courtesy the artist.

Mounted directly onto the wall of the gallery, overlooking the room was a meter-tall black apostrophe. It was wrapped in ruffled fabric that had solidified under a deep coat of black paint. The apostrophe’s tail looked as though a smirk had been carved into it. The apostrophe signifies possession, although illogically, it also connotes an omission. I asked myself how one could ‘have’ what is no longer there? I thought of the sunken Amphion.

The largest and most impressive work in the exhibit, entitled Hermes revisiting rested on the floor directly beneath The apostrophe, occupying a central portion of the gallery. Horgan had formed the work from a large triangular tank, made from clear inch-thick Perspex. The tank – which sat on top of a foam base, dressed in bright red fabric, contained two mock pylons, and two red lightships beached on three foam icebergs. Icebergs, which had been formed as sheer, geometric shapes, and wrapped in black plastic below the waterline. The bottom of the tank was dotted with dumbbell weights, paradoxically mooring the icebergs. Neither of these red lightships had a floor and through their voids a bright electric light shone up from the deep.

The wooden pylons overlooking the boats were capped by incandescent light bulbs. The bulbs reached eye-level, their wires ran out from the pylons, and up into fixtures in the ceiling of the gallery. Horgan encased each bulb in a rotating tubular window, which gave the effect of a lighthouse. The wiring from the rotating windows ran between the pylons, over the water, and down onto the floor where it was nailed into superficially haphazard loops.

hhHelen Horgan:Hermes revisiting, installation shot, Perspex, foam, fabric, lights, plastic, 2011; image courtesy the artist.

I spent some time puzzling over how to interpret the title: The horse’s mouths. Its press release began by recalling “the discovery of two stones whose facing profiles mirrored each other in outline and form,” and was directly alluded to in another work titled Two wise horses. In the same text, Horgan mentioned Vasa,  a Swedish warship that was too heavy above water, and sank, a mile into its inaugural journey. This sort of history aligns well with the spectre of Greek tragedy – a gift that is generous, but consumes its recipient.

Hermes was the Greek patron of boundaries, travellers and commerce. Perhaps as a mimetic gesture, the artist journeyed across Europe in search of the histories of the vessels Vasa and Amphion, and saw their hubris for herself. The two were present on her icebergs as analogies to one another.

Hermes revisiting offered an encapsulating view of Helen Horgan’s style; her installation is profuse. It wears its colours and wiring on the outside, and is top-loaded with references to an idolatry that has long since passed.

Seán O’Sullivan is a Dublin based artist and writer.

* Hermes gave Amphion a golden lyre, a godly instrument that allowed Amphion to build the walls of a city by playing music to the stones; these glided into place at the lyre’s sound. His more practical brother struggled along by hand. Later in life, Amphion’s wife insulted the gods, and she and their children were killed for it. Consequently, Amphion killed himself.

Artists and the State and the State of the Arts

12.09.2011 (7:11 pm) – Filed under: Essays / Articles ::

This article was first delivered as a lecture at the National Sculpture Factory in Cork, Ireland on the 27th of July, 2011.

Gemma Tipton, writing in the Irish Times, commented recently on the lack of art being made about Ireland’s economic collapse. She noted: “go looking in Irish museums and galleries of contemporary art, and you’d be hard-pressed to find artists addressing the collapse of the banking system and the economic downturn. The recession has emerged as a, for want of a better word, rich theme in drama, literature and music, but why have Ireland’s artists been so slow to take it on?[1]

In July 2007, the Irish economist Morgan Kelly warned of imminent economic collapse in Ireland. The then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern responded: “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide…” In 2008, economic pandemonium struck. Kelly was doing what economists do. He was responding to economic data and reporting his views. So what should visual artists do in times of economic pandemonium?

Maybe we can learn from history. Go back to December 1846, to a letter written by N.M. Cummins to The Times in London describing harrowing scenes on South Reen Peninsula in west Cork, Ireland. This is where I now live. Shortly before Cummins’s harrowing letter was published, 340 people lived on this picturesque peninsula. A few months later, nearly all were dead. An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) killed them.

R.G.Kelly: An ejectment in Ireland, oil on canvas, 1848-51, Burns Library, Irish Room, Dublin; image held here.

In 2009, I attended a lecture by Catherine Marshall entitled “Visualising the Unspeakable; An Unresolved Dilemma for Irish Artists.” Marshall addressed the fact that there was a scarcity of visual art relating to An Gorta Mór: “Irish artists did not paint their history because of a perception (so widely held that it was not always documented) that such work would not be acceptable to the establishment.”

In a strange coincidence, as An Gorta Mór was decimating the population of Ireland, Henry Tate accumulated wealth from his string of greengrocer’s shops in Liverpool, later selling those shops to invest in the sugar-cube patent, the success of which allowed him to become the great collector and benefactor of British art. But there were no images of An Gorta Mór in his collection of 19th-century art or later in the Tate Gallery. To explain why, Marshall recounts the story of R.G. Kelly, “an Irish artist who exhibited a painting of an eviction scene at the British Institution in 1853″:

“Strickland, in his Dictionary of Irish Artists, records that the painting, ‘An Ejectment in Ireland’ or ‘A Tear And a Prayer for Erin’ was ‘much criticised as a political picture, which the artist never intended, and was actually discussed in the Commons.’ Kelly got the message and appears to have avoided such subjects for the remainder of his career. . . The problem was not the depiction of poverty, but rather the politicisation of that poverty in a colonised country.”

Just as during, what the Irish call ‘The Emergency,’ artists and the state often interact. It is no different today with the production of contemporary art and culture post WWII. As Guy Rundle stated in his essay “The Culturestate”-

“…the debate over whether the arts should be state-funded has been won more decisively than just about any liberal-left victory of the century… parties of both sides now simply assume that the state will fund a degree of cultural production, an idea that parties of both sides would have dismissed as out of the question some decades earlier.”

Public museums and galleries are the keepers and promoters of our cultural heritage and with the rise of the publicly funded and oxymoronic ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’ and other community art spaces, they have moved into not only looking after our heritage, but are now also intimately involved in the production of contemporary art. These institutions form the intersection between artists and state and public.

The former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, expressed succinctly what  I imagine many leaders might think, but generally do not declare publicly when funding Arts Councils. In 2001, in launching a Saatchi and Saatchi report on the arts, he said that from it he hoped the Australia Council would: “…mould the presentation of the arts, the content of what is produced, the way it is communicated…”

These words are quite astonishing, and deeply concerned me, especially when the Australia Council created a strategy of ‘Branding the Arts’ based on the report. I put forward my concerns to the Prime Minister. This is the poem I made from the several responses I received.

Dear Mr Kelly
the Prime Minister
would like to thank you
for your correspondence…
regarding Saatchi and Saatchi’s review

Mr Howard appreciates
the time
you have taken
However he regrets.
he is
unable to respond

To ensure that issues
receive the attention they deserve,
I have referred your correspondence
to the Minister for the Arts
given that he is responsible…

Dear Mr Kelly
Thank you for your letters
to the Prime Minister
the Saatchi and Saatchi review

The Prime Minister
has referred your correspondence
to the Minister for the Arts
he has
portfolio responsibility for this matter

The Minister has asked me to respond on his behalf
Your comments….have been noted
and will be conveyed to the Australia Council.
Yours sincerely

An intriguing aspect of the Saatchi and Saatchi report was that it was unable to define exactly what art is, although it could tell us that advertising might well be considered art. Maybe Mr Howard’s comments make sense only if we understand that governments have realised it is impossible to control something that can not be defined and it is more effective to influence artists’ production rather than control it.

Advertising agencies and arts councils are very good at influencing behaviour even of the most difficult nonconformists. Guy Rundle tells us that: “…from the mid-eighties onwards, the state became not only a support for artists, but also a producer of them and a consumer of their product. This was the era when local networks of arts communities became state-funded…”

Coincidentally it was around this time that the Kremlin began to crumble and organisations such as Cork’s National Sculpture Factory came into being. Twenty-five years ago this organisation did not exist. Now it is an institution that adds to the cultural fabric of our city and the state, but from which the state also expects a return. It might be in the form of educational courses or work experience programmes for the long-term unemployed. It could also be simply a refuge, so that nonconformist individuals can be supervised in an environment where the director will report to government if Molotov cocktails are being assembled on the factory floor.

sculpture The National Sculpture Factory in Cork city, photo: D. O’Donovan; image held here.

Arts organisations and studios such as this have proliferated worldwide. They are often on a long leash from central government, one or two times removed, with arts councils in between.

Depending on personalities, some become fiefdoms of an individual director’s power and influence; in other cases, they become exciting cultural centres of excellence with curatorial policies that encourage diversity of opinion and quality of work. We might not always agree with what these organisations do; however, we want them to exist and prosper, knowing that, if the arts councils stopped funding them today, they would cease to exist tomorrow. None of us wants that. The power structure is obvious. Being on the leash, we know that it can be shortened and tightened very quickly. The race to conform to government expectation can become paramount for an organisation’s survival. It can also mean public criticism can be met with fear and loathing, because a ‘bad report’ sent up to the arts council may mean a cut in funding at the next review. It means that putting critical feedback into arts institutions can become difficult and, if you risk it, you may well find yourself ostracised. It has happened to me. Take a look at this response from an Australia Council employee when I sent them my poetic response to the Saatchi and Saatchi report.

“Fuckhead: don’t send me this trash – it’s not clever.”

The response from the CEO to my complaint was even more offensive. She described my poetry as unsolicited junk. On the other side, arts organisations see themselves as facilitators for artists, so criticism by artists are fundamentally not warranted. To understand why the arts organisation has become so established, it might be worth looking back and asking how it evolved over the past twenty or thirty years. My theory is it didn’t. I think it comes not from the liberal-left, as Rundle argued, but originated in the Cold War. In the mid-1990s, it was finally confirmed what many had long suspected. The CIA “…used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War…Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the ‘long leash’…”

The rationale of juxtaposing individual self-expression against Soviet era socialist-realism was obvious. In explaining why the CIA funded and promoted Abstract Expressionism, a former case officer, Donald Jameson, told the Independent newspaper that:

“It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited…To pursue its underground interest…the CIA had to be sure its patronage could not be discovered. “Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes…”

A country that claims to be free and does not want to control how its citizens think secretly promotes a way of thinking to discredit another. It’s mind-boggling. I would suggest that the American policy may well be the precursor of today’s cultural policies from Melbourne to Dublin. The CIA experiment showed how you could hold Art much tighter on the leash simply by generously funding and promoting the type of artist whom you wished to see prosper. It’s simple, you encourage people to conform of their own accord, for they will see the success of their colleagues and follow suit.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.”

It is surprising to think that our museums are full of what might be considered American propaganda. In reality we were subjected to a massive advertising campaign from an agency with one client and it is feasible that the long leash policy outlived the cold war to spread through the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mark RothkoMark Rothko: No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; image held here.

In London in the mid-1990s I saw Damian Hirst’s name in the papers nearly every week. It seemed that, in every article, there was a reference to a large monetary value associated with his art. I pondered this, for there often seemed no reason to mention what his work was valued at. That Charles Saatchi was behind much of the YBA ’sensation’ leaves one suspecting that it was actually a broader attempt to re-shape British culture at a fundamental level. In a society that was moving into a ’surplus culture state’, where consumerism had to be encouraged to keep the economy expanding, then  promoting a ’show us your wad’ mentality in the arts was a way of engraving it into the very fabric of society.  Unlike Abstract Expressionism, it was not a covert operation. Remember the ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign that exported British brands globally. At the same time, London art schools were becoming big business, attracting international students who paid small fortunes to participate in a lottery that might see them discovered by Saatchi in the end-of-year exhibition.

But what about here in Ireland. Only recently Ireland announced an investment of 5 million euros to promote Irish culture in the United States. As the country is in effect broke, one might ask for this to be justified. Read the former Culture Minister’s Mary Hanafin’s remarks when launching the Dublin Contemporary (D.C.) exhibition and you might find an answer of why this investment is worthwhile:

“Dublin Contemporary 2011 will be a clear demonstration of our country’s capacity to provide world class cultural events for both ourselves and the thousands of cultural tourists who make Dublin a priority destination. Dublin is already well placed as a destination for cultural tourism, as the vast majority of visitors to our capital city fall into cultural seekers category. Dublin Contemporary 2011 will work to extend this existing market base for cultural tourism. It will be a catalyst to attract the lucrative cultural tourist market into the country and in doing so bring €13.5 million into the Irish economy. It is anticipated that Dublin Contemporary 2011 will attract 150,000 visitors.”

Maybe she needed to speak like this to forestall criticism of the spend on this event. However her cold economic rationalist comments seem as anti-cultural as John Howard’s comments about content.

Dublin Contemporary 2011 at Earlsfort Terrace; image held here.

‘Art’ should be made with integrity and freedom however in a ‘Post Simpson’s’ world we have reached the day where an agency could create not only the brand identity for the overall event but also the artistic identities as well. Luckily it is still cheaper to outsource the creativity to artists. Artists themselves need to question their relationships with the state – and this also includes the museums that we aspire to be collected by. One might think of the Tate Galleries as a shining example of this museum culture whose influence is global. But in the past twenty to thirty years, our museums and gallery culture has also changed. They have become commercial operators. Pop over to the Saatchi Gallery website where you will read:

“A Tate sponsorship provides opportunities for companies to: communicate to Tate’s audience, and target specific audiences via individual exhibitions.”


“Align with the innovative, market-leading Tate art brand.”

Or read their website, where they state: “Money – our objective is to secure enough money to support our ambitions…”

Artists in 2011 are faced with real dilemmas. We both need the state to help fund our projects and to reach the public, but we also must be in a position to criticise the state, so as not to become merely an outsourced creative to be used to promote cultural tourism or the business of education. Rundle expresses this dilemma when he says:

“Today, what confronts the questing artist is not the indifference of society and the state, but its embrace, and the requirements associated with it.”

John Kelly is a writer and artist based in west Cork.


[1] Gemma Tipton, “Is Irish Art on the Money?” Irish Times, 11 June, 2011.