Galway’s oldest and most established artists collective, Artspace, marked its 25th birthday at the Galway Arts Centre, with ‘Collective Consciousness’ a month-long exhibition of selected members work, running alongside a programme of workshops, talks and discussions. Sixteen artists exhibited works over two floors of GAC with one room designated as a satellite space for the studios – transposed from Artspace’s home in the industrial suburbs of Galway into the heart of the city. This adjunct studio space functioned as a publicly visible and accessible art- laboratory; occupied by Artspace members in relays. These mini-residencies provided visitors with intimate encounters with various art making processes – as well as producing the context for a series of workshops and talks. These pedagogic and discursive events included sessions on collaborative drawing and a Sumi Ink Club workshop with Anne O’Byrne – intriguingly entitled Drawing to fortify social interaction. These events also aimed to entice debate and interaction with sister art collectives in Galway, such as 126 and Lorg Printmakers.
The characterisation of the show as a ‘collaborative event’ mirrors the trajectory of Artspace over 25 years. As a collective, its mission has been to evolve an artistic community with shared values of creative support and cultural exposure. Its arc of experience spans the studios founding in a city centre location (neighbouring the GAC); to moving to the utilitarian Liosban commercial estate. The studio has 21 current members, who each enjoy international careers and established practices. The current show revisits the original ideological intentions of the collective, as senior founder Catherine Ó Leanacháin asserted in her opening speech, to represent and confirm the collectivism and collaboration of Artspace.
The works in ‘Collective Consciousness’, curated by Maeve Mulrennan, displayed some ingenious interpretations of the title, which was derived from the terminology of the French sociologist Émile Durkhiem(1858–1917). Dukheim used the term to refer to shared beliefs and moral attitudes that “form a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness.”(1) It is an idea that brings to mind notions of the ‘hive mind’. An illustration of this latter concept was wittily expressed in Lisa Sweeney‘s Hive, a small shack or hut sized construction in salvaged wood encasing the recorded sound of buzzing bees. The ‘entrapment’ alluded to in this sealed scrap-cabinet, problematised the acceptance of a hive mind in society or politics.
Political systems were satirized more furiously in Ben Geoghegan’s Notice to the Public, a framed copy of a local government public notice hung ominously in the stairwell of GAC confronting the visitor with this mandate: “You cannot participate in any debate…” This piece proved an effective antithetical manifesto for the exhibition, evincing the obvious benefits of enlightened and accessible approaches to public engagement. Geoghegan’s exposure of the methodologies of power, relating to suppressing discourse and exchange, directly contradicted and complimented those of Artspace’s expressed mission.
Simon Fleming’s assemblage Lo que hago para my vecino el lo hara para mi, a miniature favela of cardboard lean-to’s, floated high above a debilitated ladder, alluded to dysfunctional collectives in the wider world. The implied inhabitants of Fleming’s favela are poorly served in this imagined zone, its ground an industrial pallet loosely strewn with a mat of Astroturf. Fleming’s work offered a dystopian metaphor, which pricked the conscience – as we all know our world is one where most must live in very unsympathetic conditions.
Social or collective turbulence was lyrically regarded in Louise Manifold’s Flock of Falling – an animated film portraying cascades of falling birds, a phenomena she encountered in the US where reported showers of birds plunged from the skies. This work could be read as an analogy for reversals of the natural order and other environmental upheavals. Intense relationships with nature were explored by Laura Brennan in her mysterious landscapes – three paintings on canvas were redolent of contemporary tropes of abstraction. But the works were also sometimes accidentally figurative – via the play of paint on surface. In Brennan’s Wild Wood a perfect forest of intricate trees emerged from the physical, material suction of oil paint off the surface of the canvas.
The most gratifying works in this show were those that responded to the theme – and overall the diversity of interpretations prompted humorous and unexpected connections. Some of the more provocative translations of the notion of ‘Collective Consciousness’ included Kathleen Furey’s Once in a Lifetime – a ‘wonderkammer’ of compiled objects and imagery. The deceptively child-like simplicity of Furey’s motifs revealed a complex psychological depiction of states of awareness and belief. Mariann Hughes Browne’s paintings of swimmers appeared suspended in pools of consciousness. Dave Finn’s All my Shite Ideas, was a collection of his worst artistic ideas on scrunched up paper, thrown high up into a suitable corner of the gallery. This was the perfect resolution for some bad art by a good artist – executed in a spirit of consciousness about what being in a collective means.
Dr Áine Phillips
1. Emile Durkheim quoted in Kenneth D. Allan (2 November 2005). Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World Pine Forge Press. p. 108.