Gallery goers get their skates on

Heaven’s Gate disaster inspired Brian Duggan’s work at Carlow’s VISUAL Centre, Tina O’Sullivan reports

‘EVERYTHING can be done, in principle’ is a collaboration between artist Brian Duggan and curator Helen Carey at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow. The work is a large installation featuring a timber barn in which the public are invited to roller-skate. The installation is based on a scene from the cult film Heavens’ Gate. The project was commissioned by VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow Local Authority Arts Office and Éigse, Carlow Arts Festival.

Heaven’s Gate is a 219 minute western film based on the Johnson County War in Wyoming in the 1890s. It was a landmark film directed by Michael Cimino, released in 1980, which changed the way films were produced after its budget overran by tens of millions and shut United Artists studio.

“I watched Heaven’s Gate a lot, as you do when you’re a teenager, and then didn’t think too much more about it,” says Duggan. “I was talking to a friend of mine, curator Helen Carey, at a show I did in the Hugh Lane. She said the typeface I used in the catalogue reminded her of Heaven’s Gate. I went back to it and started looking at it and said to Helen we should do a project connected to Heaven’s Gate. There’s a number of issues and ideas in the film that are worth bringing up again in a contemporary context.”

Duggan first met Carey when he was doing a residency in the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris where she was the inaugural director. Carey is now at the helm of Limerick City Gallery of Art.

Duggan graduated from sculpture at the Crawford College of Art & Design, Cork before setting up Pallas Studios, Dublin with artist Mark Cullen. Duggan works in a broad range of media on concept driven projects.

“The project could work in other places, but we felt it was specific for VISUAL in Carlow,” says Duggan. “On one level because of the scale, in that it’s the only gallery in Ireland that can fit projects as big as this with the skating rink; but also the wider issues and politics behind the film. We thought there were interesting parallels between post-boom Ireland and what happened with the film.

“The stories behind it were radical in some ways in that they were about emigration and the story of America and the frontier lands. When poor people got to Wyoming and started taking up the land beside the water, the cattle men decide that they wanted to get rid of them and started labelling them as rustlers. It’s about money and power, and basically they started shooting poor people — Eastern Europeans. It’s the underbelly of America and so it didn’t really grab hold of the attention of the American public.”

Michael Cimino had won Oscars for The Deer Hunter so the film studio let him power ahead with his ambitious project.

“He said, I’m going to do this project about the Wild West,” says Duggan. “He spent all his money on fastidious detailing. If the streets were too narrow he’d knock down the buildings on both sides of the street and move both back three feet instead of only knocking down one side. He had to get special rail tracks put in because he wanted to get an old steam engine, not a new one. He made sure everyone knew how to ride a horse and shoot a gun, and everyone on set had roller-skating classes. It was like a full-on boot camp for some of the actors.”

John Hurt was one of the actors in the line up and Duggan travelled to meet him on a film set in Prague to conduct an interview, which is screened as part of the installation outside the barn.

The score of the film was written by David Mansfield, who played the fiddle while roller-skating around the barn in one of Heaven’s Gate’s most famous scenes.

“His roller-skating dance is an amazing scene,” says Duggan. “They all could skate, it’s really phenomenal. That scene stuck with me. A lot of people who have seen the film are surprised to see all these cowboys on roller-skates. Roller-skates have been around for 300 years. Everyone feels they came in with disco, but they were being mass produced in America in the 1870s, which is kind of nuts.”

‘Everything can be done, in principle’ is not the normal gallery set up, as visitors can get inside the work and experience it, which appeals to Duggan.

“Initially people come to a show and they expect to see paintings or maybe film or sculpture but they end up here in the artwork without realising it. For me, exhibitions are about asking questions about the world, so it’s a good place to start when people are along for the ride and they are already in the artwork.”

* ‘Everything can be done, in principle’ runs at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow until Aug 26.


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