VAN September/October 2015: Experimental Decade; James Merrigan Reflects on 10 Years of The LAB, Dublin

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Alan Phelan, ‘Bio Bits’ photomontage, photo by Michael Durand, 2006

It is all the more remarkable then that an experimental project like The LAB should find the oxygen to survive in the city, and from the city.

Mick Wilson, The LAB 2006 – 2008

Dublin’s art scene was greatly affected by the seesaw growth and recession of the Irish economy in the last decade. On the one hand artists had to deal with the inflated value of ‘space’ during the housing bubble, and then funding cuts during the economic recession on the other. The aspirations of establishing a space, an art publication or a career as an artist seemed fugitive in an environment that was in continual economic flux. No one was safe, especially the establishment: Temple Bar Gallery + Studios (TBG+S) was inactive during the height of the summer in 2010, and Circa Art Magazine ceased production in 2011 due to successive funding cuts.

Somehow, innovative and brave artists and curators, with the support of Dublin City Council Arts Office and the Arts Council of Ireland, formed collectives and shared resources, managing to transform the remaining nooks and crannies of the property market into alternative art spaces. Alongside the artist-run studio / gallery model, some enigmatic and independent art spaces like Pallas Projects, FOUR and thisisnotashop supplied further alternative spaces and hope for artists.

In this 10-year period the Dublin art scene intensified and expanded. Emergent alternative and commercial spaces established themselves within the psyche of the local art community, and we also saw the development of ‘the curator’ and a growing intellectualism promoted by such academic arts research programmes as MAVIS (IADT), Art in the Contemporary World (NCAD) and PhD arts research through GradCAM.

Leafing through what is a one of the most impressive publications in design and content from the boom era, a relic of the Celtic Tiger some might say, the first LAB publication documents the 40 exhibitions that took place there between 2006 and 2008. The tail end of the boom era of Dublin’s art scene folds out across the pages. I am struck by the artists that have come and gone (and come again), and reminded that the art scene forges ahead with an unforgiving amnesia.

In the same volume, curator and art critic Joseph R. Wolin celebrates The LAB as a weird hybrid that is both “alternative” and municipally-funded, an institution that would be “nearly unthinkable” in the US. Wolin’s definition of the alternative art spaces goes some way, but not all the way, to defining what the The LAB supports in the Dublin scene: “Historically, alternative spaces have filled an important niche by presenting art deemed too minor, experimental, immature, ephemeral, unsellable, offensive or incendiary to show elsewhere. This art, of course, has often been forgotten during ensuing years, but it has also often become the art that defines its moment”.

Barrett recalls that “when The LAB was being built by Dublin City Council there were very few opportunities for recent graduates to show in Dublin. Dublin City Arts Office’s remit was to support artists in the development of their practice, but also to provide opportunities for people living, working in or visiting the city to engage with the arts”. In her first few months on the job in 2006 Barrett describes how Valerie Connor, then Visual Arts Specialist at the Arts Council, talked about “showing a mixture of artists at different stages in their careers, largely emerging, but sometimes more established artists trying out new things … to build The LAB’s own ‘reputational economy’, as Mick Wilson describes it”.

Maeve Connolly, in her capacity as an IADT lecturer and as a researcher / writer, discussed the “longstanding and very productive relationship between The LAB and the MA in Visual Arts Practices (MAVIS)”. From 2006 / 2007, when MAVIS moved to The LAB, she continued, “students developed several exhibition and event programmes at The LAB within the framework ‘Public Gesture’, and we benefitted directly from Sheena’s input as a curator with a specific focus on emerging art practices and engaged publics”.

The LAB “has enabled several very interesting research-based projects by curators (or artists working curatorially). I’m thinking here of the ‘Culturstruction’ show from 2009, and more recently ‘The Geneva Window’ by Isobel Harbison (2011) and ‘Tonight you can call me Trish’ by RGKSKSRG, which was the outcome of the Emerging Curator award 2013 / 14. So the programme has been quite open to curatorial experimentation. I would also see the exhibition Nine (2013), a collaboration with Liz Coman and Lynn McGrane, as part of this investigative current.”

Barrett herself pointed me in the direction of artist and educator Brian Fay, whose solo show at The LAB, and concurrent group show that he co-curated with Barrett in 2007, was a model of exhibition-making that The LAB would use time and again. Fay told me how he was working with Siún Hanrahan on DrawingLab at DIT at the time. “The LAB were completely open to working with us as part of this, which manifested into a weekly, short-talks series which accompanied and opened-out the conversations for the exhibitions”. Fay concluded that “The LAB really provides a platform to extend the standalone exhibition model”.

Artist Alan Phelan shared a similar experience of the “can-do attitude” (Fay) of staff at The LAB, but this time involving compression rather than extension. In 2007 Phelan was given the possibility of “squishing” his planned multi-location artwork, Bio, into the atrium of The LAB as one fantastic sky-rise scaffold of self-curation. “The LAB is about the only place in the country where something like that was possible. I think the place is special because there is a different kind of curating at work – a lighter touch, less ego, less ownership, more generous … non-auteur”. The curators there trust the artists to get on with their work and produce the best show possible, supporting when appropriate.”

Alan Butler, an artist who has shown at The LAB several times through independent curators, told me: “The LAB is so open to new experimental stuff – it’s in the name. The first time I exhibited there, I was basically doing a post-Internet art show, but that term didn’t exist back then. There was no validation of the concerns of the work and practice in a ‘global discourse’ sense, but The LAB had the capacity to take a chance on an inexperienced artist like myself.”

The main criticism flung at The LAB gallery is the architecture. In a review of Mark Durkan’s impressive solo show at The LAB in 2013 for Visual Artists’ News Sheet, I wrote: “Having the architectural personality of those transitional spaces in airports where they plonk the vending machines, The Lab is a challenging gallery to theatricise.” Artist Vera Klute, who has also been a regular feature at The LAB and worked as a technician there from 2007 – 2011, shared how she “almost fell into the trap [most artists do] of wanting to block out the huge window front to show a video projection in the main space in an attempt to convert the space for my needs rather than work with it”. She continued: “Thankfully Sheena stopped me from doing so, which made the show look so much better”.

Patrick Murphy, Director of the Royal Hibernian Academy, shared his thoughts on the The LAB with regard to visibility and continuity of art practice: “The LAB has proved itself really essential as a first show space. I think The LAB’s programming has been outstanding, and it has introduced me to many emerging artists. There is a certain imprimatur to having a show there, a true commencement of a practice that will endure and hopefully be nurtured and grow.” From personal experience, I can vouch that the opportunities that Dublin City Council Arts Office (DCC) and The LAB have created in partnership with other institutions, such as Red Stables Irish and International Residencies, and more recently, the DCC / Visual Artists Ireland Art Writing Award, are priceless, creative experiences for personal and professional growth for the aspiring artist and art critic.

In the same way that art spaces generate art making, Clíodhna Shaffrey, Director of TBG+S, suggests that The LAB has acted as an example, a magnet and a shoulder for “a cluster of arts spaces in the MONTO area: Oonagh Young Gallery, ArtBox Projects and FLOOD”. Oonagh Young told me about the desire she shares with The LAB to “promote artists, create good quality exhibitions and increase the audience”. “So we started trying to align our openings,” she explained. “This has recently expanded into setting up the MONTO group with Artbox Projects, Talbot Gallery & Studios and Fire Station Artists’ Studios”. Young makes a point of mentioning that “it is no easy task to satisfy all the stakeholders in a non-commercial space [but] The LAB appears to do this effortlessly”.

With The LAB is currently embarking on a 10-year review, Mick Wilson’s call in 2008 for a more “robust climate of discourse”, and for the “community of stakeholders that gather around The LAB” to make it their responsibility to critically evaluate the institution so that it might “flourish”, resonates all the more today. Alan Phelan’s critical analysis is, for me, the robust evaluation that Wilson prescribes: “Boom or bust I reckon The LAB has remained consistent – never quite achieving epic-gallery status, but doing something unique nevertheless. It never tries to be super cool, on trend, bleeding edge, and maybe feels like it’s always catching up. That does not matter; the ideas it trades in are vast and un-nameable – there is not pattern or style, which is so evident in many other public spaces around Dublin.”

Barrett’s thoughts on the review and the future of The LAB are upbeat: “In terms of the review, I think it’s an exciting time for The LAB. 10 years in is an important time to take stock and reflect. We’re looking longer term in our education programmes, in particular our work with the early years and primary school sector through our five-year Project 20 / 20 led by Liz Coman. Our new Arts Plan continues to identify The LAB as a curated arts space and it’s important to understand how best to do that within a changing ecology.”

Above all, according to the people I contacted, it has been The LAB’s curatorial approach, “risk-taking” (Vera Klute), “openness” (Maeve Connolly), “support” (Bea McMahon), “insight” (Oonagh Young) and “an acute awareness of place and relevancy” (Jaki Irvine) that defines it as a vital interlocker of the Dublin art scene. I conclude that alternative art spaces and the people behind them transform not only how artists make and display their work, but also transform the mindset of the audience as to what art is and could be, white cube or no white cube.

James Merrigan is an art critic at

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