Daily Archives: January 14, 2014

VAN January/February 2014: ‘Held Captive by the Site’, Sarah Allen Profiles ‘Art Lot’

Neil Carroll 2

Neil Carroll, An exhumation of the wreck of hope (no Man is an island),
2013, Artlot, Dublin


A little corner at the junction of Harcourt Road and Richmond Terrace has been undergoing some curious changes over the past months. Located beside the former diner and Dublin landmark The Manhattan, visual arts project ‘Art Lot’ has set about transforming the long derelict site through thought-provoking artistic intervention. From its inception in June 2013 the project’s curator Jonathan Carroll has acknowledged the dual complications of exhibiting art in the public realm as well as engaging with an inherently problematic space. Having gained experience dealing with public art through his work with the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival (2007 – 2009) Carroll drew up a realistic proposal and succeeded in securing funding for the project from a local business. The six participating artists Neil Carroll, Ella de Burca, Teresa Gillespie, Maria McKinney, Seoidin O’Sullivan and Sharon White have been working sequentially re-imagining the space in bi-monthly cycles.

Emerging at a time when public art projects are receiving heightened media exposure Carroll is keen to emphasise those attributes which make ‘Art Lot’ unique. “Granby Park organised by the Upstart Collective staged temporary activities which took place over a short period of time. It was very focused on community engagement and visual art was only a small part of the overall plan. Similar comparisons can be drawn with ‘Art Tunnel’ in Smithfield which encouraged the local community, including a school, to exhibit their work on the Smithfield site. What ‘Art Lot’ offers in contrast to these projects is a specific focus on visual art of a particular kind.”

Carroll notes that a local business provided the budget and undertook some work on the site to meet health and safety requirements. Regarding further funding he notes that each artist received up to 1250 euro to cover materials and an artist’s fee. The artists then installed the work themselves with some assistance from the curator. Neil Carroll for example, paid a colleague of his to work with him on the site as the installation required a second pair of hands and some skilled labour. Ella de Burca sourced support from Irish Fencing and Railings LTD company to provide fences for her work in exchange for publicity. Finally, design work for posters was raised with the support of local business who would prefer to remain anonymous.

Growth and development are at the heart of the project’s ethos. Rather than artists installing and unveiling their work in a short space of time each artist’s work emerges bit by bit over a two month period. This concept focuses audience attention more acutely on the means of production, positing that artistic production is as significant as the finished work. The project’s wordpress blog (www.artlotdublin.wordpress.com) offers a platform for the artists to map their engagement with the site, thus functioning as an essential element in demystifying the artistic process.

With it’s cumulative approach the public enters into an exciting relationship with the ‘Art Lot’ artworks as they come into being. Both the artwork and the viewer’s perceptions are in evolution and flux. Into this dynamic space between art and its public, the cityscape and city life itself can inject new meaning. As Carroll points out, the top deck of a double-decker bus allows a bird’s eye perspective of the work – and it might well be the best place to experience the project, especially if traffic jams ensure a truly ‘captive’ audience.

As the site is enclosed by metal gates, the artists are also to some extent held captive by the site. This concept of ‘artist in a cage’ might suggest an interesting power shift from the usual white cube dynamic in which – it could be argued – the viewer steps into the space that is emphatically ‘authored’ by the artist. Ella de Burca, who completed her stint on site this November, played off the notion of the cage constructing a series of fences one behind the other which over time amassed to form an imposing mesh of barriers.

‘The Fourth Plinth’ project sited in London’s Trafalgar Square was a source of inspiration for Carroll in devising the project. The latest installation has seen a giant blue cockerel – Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch – reign over the historical square delighting tourists and provoking much debate. There are salient parallels to be drawn between ‘The Fourth Plinth’ and the endeavors of ‘Art Lot’, among them how the artist’s work enters into a dynamic dialogue with its setting. The more dramatic ‘Art Lot’ creations form an arresting juxtaposition with the traditional familiar Georgian facades of Dublin’s Harcourt Street and surrounding areas.

One particular landmark in the area – located just a stones-throw from the ‘Art Lot’ site – is The Bernard Shaw pub. Over the past decade the pub has cultivated a distinctive image owing in part to its ever-changing graffiti art. “Graffiti seems to be the go-to thing for covering vacant sites” comments Carroll “it is a solution that is popular and very good at grabbing attention, however with ‘Art Lot’ we wanted something a bit more solid.” Although frequently enlivening drab cityscapes most graffiti could be said to have a more pronounced, decorative function, yet an essential element of ‘Art Lot’s’ intrigue lies not in providing decoration but provoking speculation.

Carroll highlights how the group welcomed viewer speculation during the initial stages of the project. “We had a funny situation where there was an on-line discussion about what our site could be (this was before we put up any signage). After many postings on-line someone eventually suggested that it may be a public art project – bingo! We also had some rogue signage put up by some inventive passerby, with their humorous suggestion of what the site could be.” ‘Art Lot’ adheres to the contemporary art’s eschewal of definitive meanings or absolute truths. Carroll goes on to comment how working in a site which is not designated to visual art is a liberating experience “you have a chance to return to a purer debate about the role of art and where it should be.”

The option for each artist to leave physical or metaphorical traces of their interventions in the space, after their allotted time is part of Carroll’s curatorial strategy. This can allow specific pieces to speak directly to one another. As part of her work Seoidin O’Sullivan harvested buddleia vines from the site to make flagpoles. Upon completion of her cycle these were cleared to make way for Sharon White’s piece Colony which consisted of a colony of small wooden houses that mushroomed around the site. Here Carroll notes how these two projects echo one another in referencing the organic.

Indeed even if there is no obvious trace of the artist’s work left on site, by virtue of their slow incremental ‘coming into being’, the image of the work becomes installed in the viewer’s memory and thus the work is afforded a life beyond its material existence. This might best be exemplified by Neil Carroll’s enigmatic sculpture ‘An exhumation of the Wreck of Hope (No man is an island)’. Its angular silhouette seems to linger in the mind’s eye even after deinstallation. Superimposed onto its memory is the image of the following art work and so the two mingle in the mind inviting comparisons and enriching their individual readings.

The title ‘Art Lot’ was chosen to purpose fluidity, to suggest that the project could take roots in other vacant spaces in the city. Carroll is hopeful for the project’s future commenting that “Ideally we want to secure funding to take over more sites in Dublin and get a conversation going about the cityscape and how the environment could be more fluid. The initiative to make use of derelict sites came from Dublin City Council (the owners of the Art Lot site) who wish to eradicate the blight of hoarding around the city. DCC are accommodating projects by offering space but so far they do not provide funding for running costs. As any artist will have experienced, the money they get for their work is spent on materials; this leaves little left as an artist fee. If more businesses could provide realistic budgets, we can provide projects to suit.”

To find out more about the project please visit www.artlotdublin.wordpress.com

Sarah Allen is a Dublin based arts writer and journalist. Among other publications her writing has appeared in The Irish Arts Review, Aesthetica Magazine, Photomonitor Magazine and Prism Photography Magazine.


Sustaining the Ephemeral


VAI Professional Development Masterclass with Nigel Rolfe at the Dublin Live Art Festival 2013, photo by Fiona Killeen


During the Dublin Live Art Festival, which took place at the Back Loft from 25 – 29 September 2013, Visual Artists Ireland presented a number of professional development events that addressed a wide range of issues concerning performance art. Included in these events was a master class taught by internationally acclaimed artist Nigel Rolfe and a seminar entitled ‘Sustaining Performance Art Practices’. Both the master class and the seminar raised interesting points and posed questions regarding what it means to be a performance artist living and working in Ireland. As a new arrival to the Dublin art scene, I found that these sessions provided an opportunity to become familiar with local art making and critical practices.

Historically, performance art has emerged from the experimental margins of art making, where the artist makes use of the body, space / place and time to create live works. These works tend to be performed for an audience, though an audience is not required. Performance art is commonly ephemeral and may be connected to a particular site and context, though it can also be documented and distributed by means of other artistic media. With such a vague definition, what does it really mean to be a performance artist? In the master class, Rolfe emphasised that it is not a matter of “anything goes”, but that defining performance art is a complex process and contingent on the cultural context of the work’s development and execution.

Rolfe opened the master class with a lecture, providing a historical overview of performance art in addition to contextualising his own practice within these parameters. Instead of serving as a standard review of art history, his presentation drew connections between the works of established performance artists with conceptual themes and questions, including: action, materials, process and presence. Incorporating anecdotes from his experience into this rich canon of performance art, Rolfe laid out some potential guidelines for being performance artists, and discussed how to elevate and foster this creative practice. The day ended with an hour-long group performance with each participant performing actions while incorporating a range of everyday materials and objects – including yarn, marbles, flowers, and pieces of clothing – which resulted in a cacophonous session of motion, sound and images.

The ‘Sustaining Performance Art Practices’ seminar offered an opportunity to address the more practical questions associated with being a performance artist in Ireland. Moderated by Cliodhna Shaffrey and including speakers Nigel Rolfe and Dr Áine Phillips, this panel brought artists who are nurturing a live practice in conversation with seasoned veterans. Some of the discussed topics were: the advantages and disadvantages of performance art collectives; sustaining a practice in an ephemeral art form; issues concerning documentation; the role of gender in developing and establishing a career as a performance artist; and how to create room for criticality in contemporary Irish performance art.

While Rolfe highlighted his status as a ‘loner’ in the art world, Phillips emphasised the importance of artist collectives, especially in times of social and economic hardship. Such groups help build audiences and offer opportunities for artists to produce work and engage in a critical discourse. However, these positions are not mutually exclusive, as it is possible to develop an identity as an individual artist within a collective that can provide key resources, especially in the formative stages of an artistic practice. A group or scene may pose challenges to furthering an individual’s work, though these do not have to be incompatible and it is possible to negotiate between the two.

Artist groups also provide support that offers a more concrete understanding of what constitutes performance art. This point is significant since the uncertainty and challenges in defining performance art has implications for an artist’s professional practice. As noted in the seminar, during financial recessions, performance art tends to flourish because of the readiness and relative cheapness of raw materials. Despite this, there is still a need for financial resources to sustain a practice. For example, obtaining proper funding can be a challenge, as it can be hard to categorise performance works on grant applications. Even though art institutions are increasingly accepting and promoting performance art, at times even sponsoring the creation of such works, it can still be treated as the bastard child of the art world, despite efforts to distinguish its historical lineage. Also, since many performance works live events, finding opportunities to stage pieces becomes another hurdle. Subsequently, numerous festivals and performance events, such as the Dublin Live Art Festival, have popped up around the world. This raises another issue: unlike other visual arts media, a performance work usually means that the artist must attend the event, which may be costly.

The topic of payment for artists evoked a highly emotional response during the seminar. It is not uncommon to find an artist who has a day job in addition to maintaining a professional artistic practice. There is a concern that younger artists do not have the time to give their art the depth and care it requires, since they are preoccupied with working just to make ends meet, while simultaneously developing a practice that may leave pieces and ideas half-baked. This, combined with the pressure to be visible in order to stay relevant, offers a new set of challenges for younger artists. From what I gathered in the seminar discussion, many performance artists working in Ireland produce work for little or no payment, with artists regularly relying on their own funding to present pieces – a practice that has become commonplace. Rolfe challenged this acceptance, and raised several questions: Does this state of affairs create a space for criticality in performance art? Is it enough to just have a group of people creating work and supporting each other in the process? Instead of being able to effectively critique work, should we be satisfied with the chance to create work at all?

I consider these significant points not just for performance artists, but also for the visual arts in general. In the current art world, plutocratic collectors like Charles Saatchi are treated as gatekeepers of taste and many works are considered an aesthetic success based on popular draw in museums and the prices garnered on the auction block. The assumption that artists are willing to work for free perpetuates this state of affairs, which ultimately causes more harm than good for creative workers in the neoliberal economy. In this system, artists may experience little or no monetary return, which leads, potentially, to financial and creative losses for the individual. At this point in time, when performance art has made a strong enough impression on the canons of art history, it is not enough to just create work. We must also promote a critical discourse around this work while treating these artists as cultural workers worthy of being paid for their time and efforts.

How then does a performance artist develop and maintain a professional practice? What I gathered from Rolfe’s class and the seminar is the importance of working. Like any other artistic practice, performance art involves a skill set and craft that must be supported and developed. The collection of and interaction with materials, generating a sensitivity to time and space, and increasing awareness of the body, are some of the ways that a performance artist can further her practice in the studio. It is also crucial to use live events as opportunities to develop relations with an audience. Peer groups can be useful in cultivating and critiquing ideas, as finding a creative common ground with other artists can help break the isolation of studio work. Rolfe, however, warned against becoming too dependent on these groups, emphasising the importance of generating an interior dialogue and not becoming tied to the confines of a group or clique.

From these sessions, it is evident that performance art is thriving in Dublin, with Irish artists developing their own brand. This brings up an issue that was not addressed in either the seminar or master class: How does Irish performance art stand up in the transnational art world? I feel that increased scholarship and critical discourse concerning Irish performance art in both the regional and transnational contexts would further its development, offering unforeseen opportunities for artists working locally and abroad.

Dr EL Putnam is a visual artist and independent arts scholar based in Dublin.

First published in the Jan / Feb 2014 Visual Artists’ News Sheet