Response to Dublin Contemporary 2011

Dublin Contemporary 2011, Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non-Compliance

By Emma Mahony

Twenty years after its boom in the early 90s, the biennial is now a jaded institution. It’s so tired and over theorized that instead of inaugurating a new biennial in 2009, the city of Bergen in Norway hosted a symposium entitled, ‘To Biennial or not to Biennial?’ (1) From the outset, the aim of Dublin Contemporary was not to engage in the breathless reinventions of the biennial model, but to stage a quinquennial international exhibition that would rival Documenta, a hugely successful and well-respected exhibition, which has been surveying dominant trends in contemporary practice since its inception in 1955.

The lengthy research period typical of editions of Documenta was not a luxury that the curators of Dublin Contemporary 2011 had. In January, the sudden and unexpected exit of the founding director, Rachel Thomas, called the future of the entire enterprise into question. As it looked increasingly likely that the launch would have to be postponed if not cancelled altogether, a wind of change whistled through the streets of Dublin in the form of two large and quite hairy Peruvians: New York-based curator and writer, Christian Viveros-Fauné, and Franco-Peruvian artist and curator, Jota Castro. With two new lead curators on board, everything was back on target for the September 2011 opening. Everything, that was except for the art communities’ confidence that it was going to be possible to pull off such a huge event in a very short timescale.

Within the immaterial working conditions of our post-fordian economy, the successful biennial essentially trades in what Pascal Gielen has termed a ‘good and appropriate idea’ (2). The curator’s ability to deliver on this good idea is measured by their previous experience of delivering on such good ideas. Since the explosion of ‘biennial’ onto the art scene in the early 90s, a rotating cast of ‘frequent flyer curators’ have been associated with these perennial international exhibitions – curators like Okwui Enwezor, Christine Macel and Hans Ulrich Obrist (who all happened to be part of the original curatorial team who hastily departed along with Rachel Thomas last January). Although Viveros-Fauné and Castro have impressive resumes (3), neither had curated a biennial before, raising questions about their suitability for the job. That said, for Gielen this ‘good and appropriate idea’ should ‘…take into account the local artistic, economic and/or political circumstances that present themselves’ (4), and while Viveros-Fauné and Castro, may not have curated any biennials before, their ‘idea’ – ‘Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance’ – more than fulfills the criteria Gielen sets out. It’s even a little sexier than that put forward by the previous team: Silence.

Since the emergence of the Havana Biennial in 1984 – described as the first truly global biennial – the institution of the biennial has been forced to address its previously euro-centric bias and to include work, which is being produced in transitional societies. Castro has described Ireland as being ‘on the margins of the occident’ (5) and their curatorial vision for Dublin Contemporary 2011 aims to draw connections between the art being produced in Ireland and that of other marginal countries – countries that share Ireland’s colonial history, albeit ones whose economies have failed to develop at the exponential rate Ireland’s has.

Not surprising, our recent global economic downturn is a dominant discourse in this exhibition. In his review in the Irish Times, Aidan Dunne points to the inclusion of Jannis Kounellis, a founding member of Arte Povera, as part of the curators aesthetic to revive what they term a ‘Neo-Povera’, an art suited for our precarious times (6). This is perhaps best exemplified by an understated work by the Northern Irish artist, Matt Calderwood. His Rebuilt and Unfinished – a Film and a Sculpture (2011), is a 6-part sculpture made of hollow plasterboard shapes, which has the potential to be reconfigured in countless variations, as Calderwood demonstrates in the accompanying film. Other sensitive interpretations of the global recession (and there are several bombastic ones) include Carlos Garaicoa’s, El Arbol de la Abundancia (2011), a magnetic tree at which visitors are invited to throw coins; Monica Bonvincini’s wall drawing, Add Elegance to Your Poverty (2002); and French/Algerian artist Kadir Attia’s Untitled (Plastic Bags) (2008), a series of plastic bags exhibited on plinths, each bag holding the form of the products it once contained. For ecological reasons, the plastic carrier bag is no longer a currency we are familiar with in Ireland, but it does however have a life in the street markets of our world’s poorer nations. Attia’s bags were collected from markets in the Middle East, Africa and South America, and resonate with the history of their previous users, and more generally of the political significance of food (and its lack) in the third world.

With another nod to Ireland’s recent history, the hugely divergent realities of life on either side of a border is the subject of a number of works on the first floor at Earlsfort Terrace. Chen Chieh-Jen’s film, Empire’s Borders I (2008-09), explores the policies of exclusion operated by the Taiwanese government against Mainland Chinese immigrants. Two further works, by Javier Téllez and Teresa Margolles, focus on the border that divides the US from Mexico. In One Flew Over the Void (2004), Téllez stages a poetic response to the plight of illegal migrants, by firing a human canon ball over the Tijuana/San Diego border fence. Although commissioned and realized in 2004 by inSite, a bi-national exhibition that takes place across sites in Tijuana and San Diego, Tellez’s film is compelling viewing that has a resonance beyond its spatio-temporal origins. Margolles’ project The Keys of the City (2011), deals with the El Paso/Cuidad Juarez border, which is physically seperated by the Rio Grande. For the first five days of the exhibition she was represented by Antonio Hernandez, a resident of Ciudad Juárez – a city that has been described as ‘the most violent zone in the world outside of declared was zones’ (7). Hernandez is an artisan who has previously made his living carving keys for tourists who crossed the border from Texas. While engraving keys for Dublin Contemporary visitors, he discourses on the reasons why he is no longer able to make a living in his hometown – the crime level has escalated to such an  extent in the last five years that tourists no longer cross the border and his industry is all but defunct. He, and his family, can only subsist on the money he makes selling his keys on the other side of the border, three days a week. The physical outcome of his five-day long action is a string of keys, each engraved with a word chosen by visitors to the exhibition, which forms a quasi-tribute to his plight and that of the 1.5million inhabitants of Cuidad Juarez. Margolles’ previous projects have typically presented the gory aftermath of Mexico’s street warfare – body parts, blood, and fragments of windshields collected at murder sites – here she is represented by a survivor, and the result is no less hard hitting.

Like Margolles, American born, London based artist, Doug Fishbone explores strategies of dislocation and displacement in his feature-length film project Elmina (2011). Fishbone inserts himself, a white westerner, into a Ghanian melodrama, shot on site in Ghana by a local production company and featuring a cast of well know Ghanian actors. His insertion is never explained, and no allusion is made to the fact that his inclusion is in any way absurd.  Fishbone’s epic project also questions the commoditization of the art object by producing a work which simultaneously has two distinct lives. Elmina exists both as a limited edition artwork for display in museums and galleries, and as a mass produced DVD for dissemination to a African Diaposa worldwide for a nominal price.

As is the case in Elmina, complex issues of identity and belonging are raised, not just by artists from the margins of the artworld, but also by those from the so-called ‘centre’. The Irish duo, Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor (Desperate Optimists), present the film Tiong Bahru (2010) in which three residents of a housing estate built in the 30s in the suburbs of Singapore, reveal their hopes and dreams for the future. The Berlin based, Irish artist, Declan Clarke shows, Cologne Overnight (2010), a film which explores the German Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll’s mid-twentieth century writings on Ireland, where he casts the ruins of a abandoned village on Achill Island as a poetic equivalent to post-war Cologne. Clarke traces Böll’s vision into the future to make a comparison with Ireland’s post-fall ghost estates.

The challenge of curating Dublin Contemporary 2011 was never going to be an easy one. With a substantial chunk of the original two and a half million budget spent on three pre-launches, and a further 70K promised to a small number of commissions agreed by the previous curatorial team, Casto and Viveros-Fauné were left with a very modest budget and no main venue in place. Earlsfort Terrace, though by no means ideal, and rumored to have been turned down by the previous team, created a much needed core venue for the exhibition. Admittedly, the spaces at Earlsfort Terrace were difficult to negotiate. Some of the rooms (or cells as they might better be described) felt too small for the work they displayed. Where interesting curatorial statements could have been made, juxtapositions between works just weren’t possible, thanks to the warren of corridors and small rooms. Having said that, where there was room for this in a wing of the National Gallery of Ireland, the curating was a little underwhelming. The other venues around the city – Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and The Douglas Hyde Gallery (DHG) all hosted solo exhibitions, and while individually the exhibitions are strong, it didn’t feel cohesive, nor did any of the collaborating galleries (with the exception of the National Gallery) stray from their usual exhibition policies. While they were a number of artists included in the exhibition who have track records for creating sensitive and powerful context specific projects, they were unfortunately represented by existing works. This was possibly due to the fact that much of the budget for commissioning new projects had been allocated by the previous team of curators to James Coleman’s production for the RHA, A Work in Progress (2004-11). While there is no disputing Coleman’s excellence, his very recent (2009), three-gallery retrospective in Dublin is still fresh on my mind.

The first edition has a number of short fallings, including the lack of a proper catalogue (one hopes that there will be one forthcoming), but it’s real strength lies in its truly global focus and its inclusion of relatively low-key artists, and not the typical western stars of the biennial circuit. The team of curators invited to realize Dublin Contemporary 2016 will hopefully benefit from a longer development period (and hopefully our economic landscape will have changed for the better by then too).


(1) The outcome of The Bergen Biennial Conference was the Biennial Reader, An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art, edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, and published by Hatje Cantz & Bergen Kunsthall

(2) Gielen, Pascal (2009), ‘The Biennale: A Post-Institution for Immaterial Labour’, In Seijdel, Jorinde (ed.), Open 16 Publication, The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon, Strategies in Neo-Political Times, NAI Publisher, SKOR, p.11

(3) Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based writer and curator, who was formerly an art dealer and an art fair director. Jota Castro is and artist/curator, former diplomat with the United Nations and the European Union, an editor and lecturer.

(4) Gielen (2009), ibid

(5) Jota Castro cited in Curt Riegelnegg (2011), ‘Rollicking and Rallying: Curt Riegelnegg offers a Reflection and Progress Report on Dublin Contemporary 2011’, VAI Newsheet, July-August 2011

(6) Aidan Dunne (2011), ‘Dublin Contemporary: The Verdict’, Irish Times, Wednesday September 7th, 2011

(7) Lise Olsen (2009), ‘Cuidad Juarez passes 2,000 homicides in 09, setting record’, Breaking News, Houston Chronicle, October 21st, 2009

Emma Mahony is a part/time lecturer at NCAD and at UCD, and an independent curator



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