All Change – the Dublin Contemporary & me

Still of video I loved at DC: Chen Chieh-jen, 'Empire’s Borders I', 2008-2009

Some of you may know I write a monthly column for the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, usually reflecting on some aspect of recent cultural policy and the visual arts in Ireland… the last issue of the VAN was a special issue anticipating the Dublin Contemporary (which I’ll also be reviewing for Museum Ireland, out this winter), and since it’s not available online I thought I’d include full text of my column here. This was written before the show opened, but on reflection (and following several lengthy visits), I think it’s more than met the expectations expressed here:

All Change (Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Visual Artists News Sheet, May/June 2011)

So the Dublin Contemporary is upon us at last… as Earlsfort Terrace is prepped to become Dublin’s P.S.1, it’s an exciting prospect for UCD’s old stomping ground to host an intriguing and provocative major exhibition. Designated as the ‘critical mass’ site for the DC, much has been made by curators Christian Viveros-Fauné and Jota Castro of the palimpsestic nature of the Terrace, its institutional history dovetailing with the central theme/project ‘The Office of Non-Compliance’. Rather than a gloomy-sounding destination for wayward students, the ‘Office’ is imagined as the engine room of the DC, providing spaces and structures for ideological and practical discussions sparked by the exhibition (one does hope there will be tea.)

For someone enmeshed in the contemporary life of UCD and its arts faculty, the situating of contemporary art amongst the ruins of academia is a thrilling and challenging proposition. A common complaint amongst many faculty is the lack of engagement we often find with our students – compared to student generations ten or twenty years ago, they appear extraordinarily apolitical and outcome-focused. Often juggling heavy courseloads in addition to part-time work and all the distractions that accompany college life, students’ sense of their own transformative powers and ambitions for the future can seem muffled and diffuse.

I teach the largest first year introductory course to art history at the university (annually attracting around 175 students from varying disciplines), and it’s not unusual for students to remark that they’ve never been to the National Gallery, or to IMMA, or to the Hugh Lane on their own account. Most students (even those entering as art history majors) come to university with a weak visual education – unsurprising, given the state of Irish arts education at primary and secondary level – and yet they are highly attuned to the visuality of daily experience, the significance of the image, and the potency of visual communication. Connecting their deepening knowledge of the historical with a sense of art’s vibrancy and contemporary relevancy is a key aspiration of the course, but much more is at stake.

Carl Jung observed that ‘the artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose within him.’ The impulse of art, seen from this perspective, stems from a creative force tied to and yet apart from the self. Cultivating the conditions through which art can be articulated – allowing oneself to become a ‘medium’ for creation and artistic understanding – is the challenge posed to the individual. If this seems altogether too metaphysical to suit contemporary practice and sentiments, it remains useful as a reminder of how both expression and knowledge are linked to capacity. And the purpose of education – the  real urgency behind our desire for young people to engage, be frustrated, to confront ideas that confuse or take time to absorb – is to grow the human capacity for change and intelligence.

Similarly, the etymology of the term ‘edification’, in its medieval sense, harks back to building and construction; its association with ideas of moral or intellectual improvement is a more recent development. No wonder perhaps that we continue to situate ‘edifying’ processes within physical institutions themselves: the university, the museum, the church. The resonance of this metaphor is no doubt one which will be carried forth by the projects to be installed in Earlsfort Terrace – dismantling, examining and dissecting structures all part of the classic function of the biennial. Ireland in particular has experienced such profound questioning of its foundational structures in recent decades, as the crumbling of Church power and the illusion of our economic miracle attest, that the juxtaposition of interrogative work within the familiar space of the decayed university is an important and potent step very much of this moment.

Despite the weighty expectations and troubled genesis borne by the DC, my own wish for the project is simple: to remember that the true audience for this work, the ones who will be most profoundly inspired and exasperated by its content and who will speak of it and think of it beyond the next publishing cycle, are not international art tourists but the people of Dublin and Ireland. This isn’t a plea to be confused with a critique of content or a misguided appeal for ‘accessibility’; I hope it will be difficult and antagonistic and more than a little messy, and the programme looks promising on all these counts. The international range of the artists selected (incorporating work beyond the usual Boston-Berlin axis to include representation from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East) bodes particuarly well, for provincialism has long been a lamentable and yet persistent force within Irish art history. Yet ultimately, for such an endeavour to have meaning beyond Failte Ireland’s annual report, it must acknowledge, respect, and to some degree anticipate the diversity of encounters its Irish publics seek – and provide us with the circumstance and stimulus for growth and debate. I look forward to an academic year where conversations with my students (of all ages and background) will be fuelled by praise and damnations of what they’ve seen at the DC. Whether or not we always like or understand or sympathise with our fellow artists and human beings, it’s healthy for all of us to spend a bit of time at the Office. I’ll put the kettle on.