So I went to Dublin Contemporary, this big exhibition of contemporary art that was on here in Dublin. Somewhat unusually for art things here in Dublin, you had to pay into it, so I took the afternoon off work to make sure I got my money's worth at it. The exhibition featured artists from both Ireland and the rest of the world.
I enjoyed my visit to Dublin Contemporary, but I ended up thinking that most of the art was not that great. This may be a side effect of having recently seen loads of great representational and non-conceptual art in Naples. But what I really loved about the exhibition was the building itself. It used to be the home of University College Dublin (with the chessboard floor patterns in the lobby familiar to anyone who has read At Swim Two Birds) but now seems to have been taken over by the National Concert Hall. There seems to have been no renovation since UCD left, so loads of rooms still have the names of the professors or descriptions of their original purpose over the doors and peeling paint inside. At least once I was looking at some bit of stupid modern art and then realised that actually it was just a bit of the wall.
The whole place went very well with the Chernobyll piece, as the Earlsfort Terrace itself feels like it was hurriedly abandoned 20 years ago.
For me also it was fascinating to go the library there and look at somewhere I used to work now transformed by the addition of a monumental piece of modern art, a giant glass thing by Jota Castro. Thanks to its sheer size it was one of the more impressive pieces in the exhibition.
The advance of video art was interesting, as production values here have advanced so that instead of getting a grainy digital video image of the artist rolling around in the nip we were instead treated to well shot properly lit pieces with actors and the like. I suppose if performance artists are like unfunny stand up comedians (or boring actor-playwrights) then video artists are mutating into makers of films that would never make it to the cinema.
For all that, it was mainly the video-film art that impressed me at Dublin Contemporary, perhaps because it is a bit more immersive. Film instantly suggests a meaning in a way that a "pile of crap in a room"* piece of conceptual art often does not, so it is easier to get to grips with, once you are willing to give it the time to watch it unfold.
One interesting film piece by (I think) Javier Téllez featured some Mexican psychiatric patients in the border town of Tijuana parading from their hospital to the beach, where their country is separated from the United States by a huge wall. They were carrying posters with various slogans affirming their dignity as human beings and the like. Some of them were wearing animal masks. At the border, they staged a kind of circus event, with one of the patients taking on the role of ringmaster and holding up a large hoop through which the people with animal heads would step. Some of the people involved seemed a bit confused. Then things took an odd sidestep, with the appearance of an American guy (he showed everyone his passport). He was not one of the psychiatric patients but a human cannonball – and he then used a cannon to fire himself across the border, apparently becoming the first person to cross the Mexican-American frontier in that fashion. I do not know what this could be said to have signified, but it did make for interestingly bizarre viewing.
A longer piece by, I think, Omar Fast dealt with those unmanned drones that fly around Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, killing people their American operators think look a bit funny. It featured what appeared to be voiceovers from interviews with drone operators, but also filmed aerial shots of scenes in America corresponding to the foreign sights being described by the drone pilot. So while he would be talking about how he could use the drone to surreptitiously follow someone down a street, the screen would show an aerial shot of some kid cycling through an American town.
So far so good – the piece was making us think about the way drones work and the use of American settings would remind American viewers that the drones' real-life targets are actual people, albeit foreign ones. But the film had another element. As well as what appeared to be the actual voiceovers from interviews with drone pilots, it had these filmed interviews with an actor pretending to be a drone pilot. In these, he would tell a story (sometimes about drones and sometimes not) with his voice acting as a narrator to a filmed version of these stories. This was all done with high production values and what looked like professional actors.
These filmed scenes were quite striking, particularly the one in which the story of an Iraqi family who get killed by a drone strike on some militants they are driving past, with that story transposed to the United States, making it an all-American family being taken out by a missile attack on some redneck extremists. But they did make me wonder if there was something a bit wrong with them, in that they were taking a serious real world issue (drone strikes) and turning into slick contemporary art. At the end of the day, would the real interviews with the drone pilots have been better used in a documentary about drones rather than in a contemporary art exhibit? And did the marrying of real interviews with fictional material muddy the waters and detract from any political point the work could have made, turning the real experiences of the drone pilots into trite entertainment? I do not know.
Some of the other films seemed like they would have been more at home in a cinema rather than an art gallery. Like what appeared to be a feature film from Ghana – the IFI would surely have been a better place for this. I'm not so sure about a piece by (I think) Hans Op De Beeck, which was a series of vignettes or filmed portraits of people on a cruise ship. It lacked the kind of narrative drive that would make it fit the cinema (and the crude CGI used for the ship's exterior would have been a bit laughable in that context), but the interior scenes were far better filmed and acted than would have been the case with the kind of classic low grade video art you used to get in art galleries. It was interesting to watch, but I don't think it really worked as either art or as film – it was not conceptual enough for art and lacked enough meat to work as a film.
The war on terror/occupation of Iraq/generally troubled times in which we live featured in a couple of other non-film pieces. I was struck by how a collection of unpleasant photographic images of charred corpses (or not corpses) by one or other of Dan Perjovschi or Thomas Hirschhorn (their stuff was in the same room but I do not recall who did what) was primarily repulsive and gross, devoid to me of any kind of point or meaning other than that horrible things happen in the world.
I was a bit more struck by some photos by Nina Berman, though probably not as much as I would be if I had been seeing them for the first time. They show this young American couple Ty and Renee. Ty served in Iraq, where he was caught in an explosion that blew off his arm and burnt him so severely that he is now almost completely lacking in facial features. There is something terribly sad and human about the photographs of their wedding and their life now. They remind me of the cost of war to its participants – some of them come home in body bags, others return changed by their experiences, either by what they have seen or done or, in Ty's case, with their bodies transformed in a way they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. I don't know what the future holds for Ty and Renee, but I fear that Ty's time in Iraq might well end up blighting the rest of their lives. Still, you can ask yourself whether it was exploitative or not for the artist to use their private misfortune as the basis for her work.
I mentioned the Chernobyll exhibit above, which was a reconstruction of the big wheel in the funfair of the abandoned town of Pripyat, together with the temporary evacuation notice issued to Pripyat's residents. I had somehow got the impression in advance that the big wheel recreation was life size, so I was a bit disappointed to discover that it was smaller than I was. Oh well.
There was other stuff that was at least somewhat interesting while I was looking at it even if I do not have much to say about it in retrospect. As I was saying above, wandering around looking at all did make for a pleasant afternoon, and the exhibition was just big enough to make you feel like you were doing well on the quantity size of things without crossing over into terrifying museum fatigue territory. But the real star for me was the building, with its chequered floors, peeling walls, name plates on doors, lecture theatres, and smell of oldness.
*I am indebted to my colleague Mark Winkelmann for this useful phrase
An inuit panda production