Let there be light

Tina O’Sullivan previews a series of exhibitions in the Crawford and other venues to mark 60 years of the Arts Council

THIS year the Arts Council of Ireland celebrates 60 years of supporting the arts. Into the Light is the title of four major exhibitions running in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Sligo to mark the occasion.

The exhibitions feature work drawn from the Arts Council’s collection and new work commissioned for each show. Curator Karen Downey oversaw the exhibitions and penned an essay in the accompanying hardback publication.

Each venue commissioned an artist to make new work to include in its show: Karl Burke at The Hugh Lane, Mark Clare at the Crawford, Emmet Kierans at Limerick City Gallery and Seán Lynch at The Model in Sligo.

Dawn Williams, curator at the Crawford Art Gallery, selected work from the past 12 years of the Arts Council’s collection. “We chose works from the year 2000 to the contemporary,” she says. “It gave us a cut-off point, while also allowing us the opportunity to show works by Gerard Byrne, Niamh O’Malley and Caoímhe Kilfeather, who we haven’t shown here before. It’s a really good opportunity to have an overview of artists working in Ireland at the moment.”

Williams has followed three main narrative threads in the show: the idea of memory and residue; the relationship work has with the past; and how a work is positioned in terms of quality. It was within this framework that Mark Clare was commissioned to make a new work.

His piece, The Two Horns of Phaedrus, is positioned at the entrance to the exhibition. The work is in part an experiential piece that only exists when a viewer is in the mix. A fan made from gaffer tape and tape dispensers stands adjacent to a wall-mounted handmade flag, whose pattern references the modernist artist Piet Mondrian. Once the viewer steps into the space, they activate the fan and thus the flag becomes animated.

Clare was invited to consider the idea of what a collection is and how it works. “At the time I was reading this book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ” he says. “It would be a very popular culture book. Certainly, when I was 18, lots of my friends would have read it, it had its moment in time. I came to it at this time when Dawn was talking to me and it seemed really apt to deal with this notion of quality. The book is about a man trying to discover the essence of quality and in the process having a mental breakdown. And I thought, ‘That’s very apt for an artist in a studio’. It fitted into this whole idea of art collections.

“I used Mondrian as a metaphor or a symbol for modernism, and the ideology behind modernism. I would see modernism as the ideology of using technology to make life better for people. In some ways, it’s failed, and in some ways, it hasn’t. It then relates back to this notion of technology and how technology can be dualistic in some senses, in that it can be productive for mankind or it can be destructive for nature and mankind at the same time.”

Clare’s choice of art materials includes shovel handles and tarpaulin. This gives the work a handmade feel, which plays with the notion of what qualifies as a material to achieve high art. He explains: “Those materials are ones I would use a lot because I would question this notion of monumental art or monumental sculpture, where we have this giant bronze Henry Moore that we’re told is a great piece of art. I’m not saying a work by Henry Moore isn’t a great piece of art, but materials in some ways dictate the way you perceive his work.”

Dawn Williams uses this same association of grandeur with bronze sculpture in her choice of Dorothy Cross’s piece, Family. “The work is made of bronze, which is usually associated with lofty portrait and busts of great art, but in Cross’s piece, there are just the three crabs and the male has a phallus. So it’s a question of materials and what they signify.

“It’s questioning how you would define quality. It’s such an important thing within the art world. You go around this exhibition and you respond to Paul Seawright and you might not respond to the Tom Molloy that’s next to it. You just feel it innately but it’s been informed over your life experiences. You can’t quantify it. It’s really difficult to say.”

Three artists in the exhibition make work dealing with portraiture. John Gerrard presents a real time portrait in To Smile Once a Year (Mary). This digitised interactive piece can be swivelled to change the angle of the portrait. Mary is a computer rendered character who blinks occasionally: if you have a year to spend admiring her, she will even smile.

The influx of Chinese workers in her local Spar moved Margaret Corcoran to pay homage to their attentiveness through painting. Ada features a Chinese girl behind a counter; the Spar background has been abstracted to conjure up associations of Manet’s work.

Diana Copperwhite’s paintings are of her spliced reality, where she endeavours to paint the past, present and future all at once. The resulting images are surreal and colourful investigations of howrealities are formulated.

There are also several works on video, by artists such as Bea MacMahon, Cecily Brennan and Niamh O’Malley. Martin Healy’s Genesis plays Led Zepplin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards, giving it its due trial on charges that it includes demonic messages.

Gerard Byrne’s 1984 And Beyond is made up of a series of photographs and three screenings on plasma televisions. “The scripts of the three films are based on actual conversations,” says Williams. “They are taken from a 1963 Playboy magazine. At that time, Playboy was very well known for having these serious articles alongside all the boobs and whatnots.

“The starting point is an enactment of those conversations that Byrne came across in the Playboy archives. It’s all science fiction writers, including Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke who actually met and discussed what life would be like in the next generation. You can see their real belief in it because it was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Man was going to land on the moon in six years time, it was really possible to imagine that in one or two generations we would have people zipping through the air and have all these amazing inventions created for man.

“Byrne’s photographs look like they were taken at the time of that interview, there’s a retro feel in them, but actually they are photographs the artist has taken in the last 10 years. There’s that schism between what is real, what has happened and what you imagine to have happened. The whole exhibition plays between past, present and future.”

* Into the Light runs until Feb 23 in Crawford Art Gallery, Cork; Feb 24 in Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane; Jan 18 in Limerick City Gallery of Art; and Mar 24 at The Model, Sligo


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