VAN Jan/Feb 2015: ‘History is Always Unfinished Business’, by Jonathan Carroll

Jochen Ger
Jochen Gerz at ‘Jochen Gerz: Participation, Commemorative and Public Space’, 14 – 15 November, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, organised by the Goethe-Institut with IMMA, photo courtesy of IMMA

Art in Public

HISTORY IS ALWAYS UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Jonathan Carroll reports on an intense weekend (13 – 15 November) focusing on socially engaged / public art practices, which included a live streaming of the ‘Creative Time Summit’ 2014 from Stockholm at the Hugh Lane Gallery and Fire station Artists’ Studios, and the two-day symposium ‘Jochen Gerz: Participation, Commemoration and Public Space’ at IMMA.

Never mind creative time, what about getting the actual time to see a cluster of public art events all taking place in Dublin over a matter of days? It was as if all the institutions were beefing up their yearly outputs with end-of-year cramming. I put my bicycle in the boot of my car to allow me to zip between venues for the overlapping talks at the Hugh Lane and Fire Station, which related to a live streaming of the Creative Time Summit from Stockholm on (14 – 15 November). I also followed some of the Creative Time Summit on my laptop at home. This year, themes included “the challenges of migration, the growth of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, the uses of the public sphere, the fluid line between surveillance and our interpersonal selves, and, finally, how these challenges are met by artists who are re-imagining the public realm” creativetime.org.

Glen Loughran (Lecturer, NCAD, MA Socially Engaged Art) moderated the Hugh Lane and Fire Station sessions, summing up events on screen and encouraging a local Q&A. Over the two days there was much congruous material – often artists (eg. Dominic Thorpe and Jesse Jones) who were ‘live’ at one event were discussed at another. The chair of the event, Karen E. Till (Senior Lecturer of Cultural Geography and Director, MA in Geography, Maynooth University), in a pleasant coincidence, was also a contributor to an artwork by Ailbhe Murphy and Ciaran Smyth (Vagabond Reviews) on show at the Hugh Lane in the current exhibition ­‘Phoenix Rising: Art and Civic Imagination’.

For the Dublin audience, many of the issues raised at the Creative Time Summit were set against the continuing debate about how best to commemorate the 1916 Rising in 2016. Thankfully, due to the international flavour of the speakers at the summit and here in Dublin, the parameters of the debate were hugely expanded. At Fire Station, Ana Dević of What, How and for Whom (WHW), a Croatian curatorial collective, spoke about one of her first curated shows, which took place on the 153rd Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. At the summit, Jonas Dahlberg spoke of making the memorial for the 22 July terror attack on Otøya Island in Norway. And over at IMMA, where ‘Jochen Gerz: Participation, Commemoration and Public Space,’ took place, Gerz mentioned a work of his situated in Bochum, Germany – which conflates the memorial to those killed locally in the WWI with a present day citizens’ promise to Europe – in the same breath that he discussed amaptocare , his 2013 project for Ballymun’s Breaking Ground.

Fire Station’s seminar, The Intersection of Art and Politics, coincided with the launch of their new publication, Art & Activism. This was a timely reminder that, rather than debating the merits of a permanent memorial or one-off event for 2016, we should be looking towards the merits of more participatory and activist art practices. This would perhaps be more in keeping with the revolutionary intents of 1916. The participants of the seminar (Ana Dević, Jesse Jones and Director of the Model, Sligo, Megan Johnston) were invited to reflect on how they navigate the growing intersection between art and the social and political sphere, and to consider what is at stake. Dević spoke about her work with the WHW curatorial collective. She showed us a work by David Maljković, Scene for New Heritage, which features an anti-Fascist monument, dating from Communist-era Yugoslavia, by Petrova Gora – a memorial to the victims of WWII, built in Croatia between 1970 and 1981. The curator then showed us the monument’s present state, stripped of all its precious metals stolen for scrap: a sad warning about the fate of much memorial artwork and the ultimate result of historical amnesia.

Surely our own worries about commemorating 1916 pale in comparison to the massive changes in political regimes experienced throughout Eastern Europe and the minefield that is Germany’s recent history? Megan Johnston – who has worked in recent years as a curator and academic in Minneapolis, Minnesota and prior to this as Arts Director at Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown (2003 – 2010) – gave us contrasting insights into the business of curating in the divergent economic and political environments of the USA and Northern Ireland. Johnston offered insights into managing competing demands to deliver blockbuster shows and addressing the necessities of ‘political correctness’ in the Deep South. She also gave us a snapshot of some of the issues she dealt with while working in Portadown.

While commissioning work by Paul Seawright, she came across an the interesting situation where previously contested territory in Northern Ireland had, following the peace process, become prime real estate. We also heard about Megan’s emergency response meetings set up to tackle any problems expected after showing Shane Cullen’s The Agreement (2002 – 2003), where issues such as bomb and death threats had to be considered. In the end the show went on without a hitch. It seems ironic that only when another work by Cullen was shown in the Republic – at the Luan Gallery, Athlone in January 2013 – did we see a minor stir. The headline “Councillor wants republican artwork pulled from local exhibition” ran in the Journal.ie.

The word ‘fear’ was often repeated during the Gerz symposium at IMMA: fear of failure to produce something worthy of the great events to be celebrated in 2016; fear of getting it wrong politically and of alienating the hydra-headed nightmare of contending stakeholders; fear of the political positioning involved. Most of the symposium at IMMA felt like an episode of This is Your Life for Jochen Gerz, but, ultimately, the decades of experience he has accumulated working on politically charged and contested ground made for sound advice on these matters. His suggestion was to commemorate the 104th anniversary of 1916. “I like the idea of celebrating in 2020,” he said. Why not? Hey presto: the pressure is off and the time-bomb diffused. You could hear a collective sigh of relief from the IMMA audience – like pupils after being told their exam has been called off.

Gerz’s bold suggestion was made in the wake of the apparent confusion and frustration expressed by much of the audience following one of final presentations, Remembrance and Commemoration in Ireland: the role of contemporary arts practice, featuring Pat Cooke (Director, MA in Cultural Policy and Arts Management UCD), Jenny Haughton (independent arts adviser, lecturer in strategic arts management), Lisa Moran (Curator: Education and Community Programmes, IMMA), Ray Yeates (Dublin City Arts Officer) and chaired by Declan McGonagle (Director, NCAD). The discussion actually felt very parochial and rather jaded in comparison to previous discussions at IMMA and the wide scope of issues addressed via the Creative Time Summit and its various articulations at the Hugh Lane and Fire Station.

Gerz’s solo presentation, given the night before, Who Cares. Thoughts about people, places and times, stressed that art needs the freedom to fail. Gerz admitted a knowledge of both failure and success. As he explained, not all of his proposals are successful; and many others are compromised or left unfinished. Gerz spoke of his failure to win a bid for the ultimate contentious commission, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Gerz had proposed a work that would have taken more than 80 years to be completed. Thus, his work would avoid being static, it would give “legs to memory,” as he put it, with memory as the last stop to forgetting. History, he said, is always unfinished business, and he noted that a sense of negotiation was in the air in Ireland in relation to the 2016 commemorations. For Gerz, “negotiation is beautiful”.

Various solutions to the problems posed by commemoration were provided in unexpected places at the Creative Time Summit and at the various talks. Lisa Moran’s IMMA presentation The Impossibility of Commemoration featured examples of a range of commemorative works made for Documenta in Kassel, Germany, all linked by the implementation of good financing, best international curatorial practice, sound historical precedent and a knowledgeable critical audience.

Speaking at Fire Station, Jesse Jones spoke of In the Shadow of the State, the forthcoming commissioned work that she and Sarah Browne are preparing in collaboration with Art Angel, UK and Create, Ireland. This will be realised in public form in both the UK and Ireland in 2016, with additional funding by DCC. So, Jones and Browne will produce a work that is well financed and independently supported and will just happen to arrive in time for 2016. What a relief it must be to all not to have to leap through committee upon committee while ticking all politically correct boxes. Let us hope that Art Angel invite the Queen along to the opening! Jonas Dahlberg spoke of his Otøya memorial as like walking in an open wound like it happened yesterday. Not a bad ambition to have for a memorial to a past event.

Jonathan Carroll is an independent curator based in Dublin. He is one of the curators for the Return at the Goethe-Institut Irland. He is a graduate of Curating Contemporary Art (RCA, London), Cultural Management (Instituto Universitario Ortega Y Gasset, Madrid) and Art History (UCD). He has worked for Project Arts Centre and the St Patrick’s Festival. Jonathan is a regular columnist for the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

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