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09 January 2012
Dublin Contemporary: A Tiger Seeks its Roar

“Dublin Contemporary” arises as a project within the context of an economic crisis and in a country in recession. Presented by the politicians as an event that will help to convert Ireland into a tourist destination, the proposal offered propositions by some 150 participants in seven locations in the city of Dublin.

All reviews of art biennials are driven by a canon of content already set out ahead of time, which is why they constitute their own genre of art writing. It is assumed that the chronicler will begin with the context of the host city, placing it in the parameters of urban branding. When the nexus between city and culture already exists, another evaluative point will be added: the degree to which the curatorial thesis has been fit into the local matrix (patriarchal biennials like Venice and Sao Paulo tend to be exempt from this formula, given that their context is global and their localisms run dry). Then, only with these prerequisites fulfilled, will the critic be freed up to take on the show by its parts, by its artists and their works, well-contextualized or not.

In the case of Dublin Contemporary (entitled “Terrible Beauty”, a term taken from a Yeats poem), held after the summer in various venues, we have to get a fix on the context, especially considering that this was a new event in a country that has been intervened, in a critical financial state. It is not easy to invest in culture in the midst of budgetary involution. The “Celtic Tiger” now roars less loudly, but you get the sense from the folks in the capital that there is certain nostalgia for the years of plenty; the Dubliners have not given in just because the feline has lost its voice, which is understood as a passing symptom. A second edition has already been planned for 2016, coinciding with the centenary of the Easter Rebellion.
If Dublin Contemporary was accepted as a legitimate impulse, it was in part because the cultural aspirations of Dublin remain intact. The inclusion by curators Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné of more than thirty Irish artists—from the Republic or from the North—amongst the over 150 participants was another factor in its favour. The marketing wizards predicted more than 150,000 visits and they were right, thanks mostly to local enthusiasm, for Dublin Contemporary came off as user-friendly and intelligible, which encouraged families with kids and others who had never seen so much contemporary art in one place to wander curiously through the halls.

We refer to lecture halls. The main venue, the neo-classical building at Earlsfort Terrace, had been home to University College Dublin, and instead of redoing the interior much was left as is: long administrative corridors connected small rooms left in a rudimentary state, with blackboards on the walls and without worrying about repainting everything. A retro-institutional space, and enormously charming to boot. Of note was the small amphitheatre with the Omer Fast video “Five Thousand Feet is the Best” (2010), a commission, like 60% of the work shown. Amongst the outstanding pieces at Earlsfort, the multiple screen video by Bjorn Melhus on military posttraumatic stress (“This is My Home”, 2011), a video on migrant workers in Taiwan by Chen-Chieh Jen, and from amongst the Irish, Patrick Jolley’s recreation of Artaud’s visit to Ireland in 1937, and this short-term evacuation (2011) by Brian Duggan, with a model of a Ferris Wheel abandoned near Chernobyl. In the film “Elmina”, Doug Fishbone makes a white man the main character of a melodrama produced for the mass market in Ghana. Of the painters we could mention Brian Maguire with his series on gang murders in Dublin neighbourhoods, one of the few to deal with a local subject.

It was said that Dublin Contemporary reflected a certain neo-povera taste in consonance with our time, but the term confounds the essentialist materialism of the original concept. Here we had formal laxity, a lack of interest in refinement, and chaotic configurations based on meshes of cultural references. I would say it was more like a taste for the rat’s nest, an attraction for organic agitation derived from the contaminated conditioners of the present. Such aesthetics coincide with the economic downturn, but are not derived from it. In any case, in Dublin this look was only seen in part of the show, and not always the most interesting. Rooms in nobler venues were reserved for blue-chip artists, including a posh wing of the National Museum with Brian O’Doherty’s rather rigid installation on Beckett, as well as paintings by Manuel Ocampo and the intriguing Jorge Tacla.

Other artists also stood out in museum spaces, with what were essentially solo shows. For one there were Lisa Yuskavage’s luxuriant paintings of seductive Lolitas, their diffuse tonality and expert finishing both factors furthering their condition as provocative, at least for the moralizing orthodoxies of the gaze. Yuskavage is recognized amongst the artists to have rescued figurative painting in the New York scene, though her girlies are unknown in Spain. Another artist of great merit was Willie Doherty, with a new piece on the peat bogs of Donegal, “Ancient Ground” (2011). The immense intelligence of Doherty’s reflection on land and identity, carried out over so many years, was confirmed here with a piece bursting with poetic and conceptual maturity.

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