2019 – 2020 – Review by Bernard O’Rourke
2019 – 2020 – Review by Bernard O’Rourke
The MART Gallery Dublin programme for 2019 kicked off in January with Lectus – MART’s Exhibition Award show (10 January – 14 February). Èanna Heavey and Sarah Diviney were selected from the 2018 CIT Crawford College of Art & Design Fine Art Graduate exhibition and Emma McKeagney from Fire Station Artists’ Studios 2018 Sculpture Bursary Award. As with previous corresponding shows the aim of this award was to provide a showcase and supported exhibition opportunity to emerging artists whose work was both engaging and experimental. Lectus consisted of a selection of sculptural forms, video work and live performance.
Next came slow motion a presentation of new works by Jane Fogarty (8 March – 25 April). The works – an interplay of painting and sculpture with blurred boundaries between the forms – formed a flexible exploration of time, form, colour and composition. Within her work, Fogarty establishes limitations from which self-dictated narratives emerge. Through these boundaries, elements of chance and endurance enter into the work. Each work is specific to the moment of its creation and, even if repeated, results differ each time. These works stem from an interest in the ways we understand the passing of time and its translation into visual language.
A key part of MART’s mission has always been to support their entire community of members, Onwards (16 May – 27 June) the annual studio member exhibition provided a showcase opportunity based on the artist’s journey. The title made reference to the notion of progressing forward, looking towards the next project, the next challenge, the next step. 33 artists featured in this salon style show, with works ranging from painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture, and video.
Following this came Galvanise – a new body of work by artist James L Hayes, which aimed to re-establish and re-introduce the concerns of modernist sculptural language (18 July – 5 September). Within this show, Hayes explored aspects of the casting process as a means to interrogate the boundaries between artist and artisan, the ‘ready-made’ and the ‘art object’. His sculptures aimed to draw out the often incongruous relationships between finished art objects and the industrial aspects of the processes that produce these ‘revered’ objects.
A Negative Infinity (26 September – 21 November) emerged from artist Richard Forrest’s research into our economic system and his attempt to understand it as a whole. This work aimed to reimagine capitalism as a living sculptural entity with the intent of revealing some of its key behaviours. A Negative Infinity looked at how the circulation of capital within a system creates areas of accumulation, points of extraction, unequal distribution and moments of crises due to expansion and contraction.
MART closed out its year of exhibitions with a second members group show running in conjunction with their Christmas Market in December – a new addition which is set to become an annual event. Unison (7-22 December) represented a chance for MART members to display and sell both original pieces of visual art and specially selected prints. Alongside the local favourite Christmas market selling handmade crafts and bespoke gifts, Unison offered visitors a chance to discover unique artworks, all while supporting local independent artists.
In conjunction to this bustling exhibition programme, MART also ran a number of live events, talks and workshops throughout 2019. Chief among these was a new series of events curated by Livestock, who continued their residency with MART this year.
In March the group hosted Intimate Gazing a night of curated performances taking a sensitive look at our bodies and the relationships we have to each other – with particular focus on our perception of the nude body, both on a macro social level, and a deeply personal, internal one. Rae Goodwin & Sophie Mars presented an interactive, experiential piece asking: “Can a woman regard the vulva of another woman with neutrality? Can a female or femme person regard another without the critical judgment born of the “male gaze”? Can we, as female/femme persons, remark on the qualities of another female/femme/female identified body with embodied consideration and kindness?” Francis Fay & Conor Coady presented a durational performance, set to intermittent soundscape culled from found Internet porn videos playing in the near dark, as a spotlight shone from above on two men, standing naked, face-to-face, which explored masculine sexualisation and violence.
Eleanor Lawler performed her piece ‘The Invisible Woman;, which she had previously shared in Los Angeles as part of Acts to Objects the previous year. In her own words:
The “Invisible Woman” is me, a sixty year old “former”. I formed the life of myself as a young woman, I formed a lasting relationship, I formed my children, I formed the life we had together as a family, I formed in former times, what happens now? I have become invisible, no longer “pertinent, perceptive, perky, precocious, precious, permanent”. In a society that values surface, image and the lie, where does maturity, experience, persistence, gravitas and confidence fit? My work endeavours to express my obstinate persistence to live and to be heard in a world where vying for attention becomes a valued skill. Of course, I too am vying for attention, “don’t turn off the lights, I’m still here”, “I’m not finished yet”, “not by a long chalk!”
This would be the final time Eleanor Lawler performed. Eleanor passed away in May of 2019. As co-founder of Livestock, Eleanor had a huge influence on so many performance artists; as a friend, colleague, and mentor. She was a champion of the form and provided guidance and support to countless artists, including many who performed their work before an audience for the first time through Livestock. Eleanor was also a dear friend of those of us at MART who had worked with her many times over the years – I knew her as an incredibly kind and generous person, and as a supremely talented and adventurous artist in her own right, whose own work was as inspirational as the guidance which she offered in abundance.
MART will continue, in memory of our friend Eleanor, to support performance art in Ireland through partnership with Livestock, the inclusion of performance based artists in curation of exhibitions both here in Dublin and abroad, and by ensuring that the MART Gallery remains a space with its doors open for this vital artform.
Launching CIACLA – Contemporary Irish Art Centre, Los Angeles
Since MART’s foundation in 2007 Ciara Scanlan and Matthew Nevin have worked tirelessly to showcase the work of Irish artists abroad – with the west coast of the US, in particular, appearing as a fresh frontier for Irish visual arts. The first MART curated exhibition in Los Angeles – Invite or Reject – came in August 2011. Scanlan and Nevin built up from this initial contact in subsequent years, leading to the three year project which ran under the banner Activating Pangea between 2016 and 2018, the latter stages of which is discussed above.
In recent years, Los Angeles has come to rival New York (the traditional heart of the visual arts in America) with more and more young artists drawn out west in search of a fresh start. Add to that the fact that Irish emigrants are no longer concentrated in the likes of New York and Boston in the way they once were, and now have a huge presence in LA.
As such, the next logical step for Scanlan and Nevin was the establishment of a more permanent set-up in LA, a sister organisation based in the USA – the Contemporary Irish Art Centre, Los Angeles.
The preparations for CIACLA began in earnest in the summer 2018, and the decision was made to launch a new organisation that could act as a counterpart of MART’s activities back in Ireland. The directors then spent the next year meeting with several government officials, funding bodies, arts gallery owners, estate agents, and service people, all the while trailing the boulevards of a sprawling city to secure a space. They untimely settled in Bergamot Station – a complex of former warehouses that had been transformed into a home for a number of contemporary art galleries.
CIACLA launched on Saturday 15 June with the opening of The Ladder is Always There (15 June – 5 July) by Amanda Coogan, one of the foremost practitioners of performance art in Ireland. Visitors to the massive white cube space entered a landscape of billowing fabric suspended from the towering ceilings, among which Coogan led a mesmerising live performance that recontextualised the installation as a shapeshifting piece of living art. The Ladder is Always There spoke to a metaphorical journey in which Coogan and by extension, the other performers, worked to overcome an obstacle.
This launch marked the beginning of a three month pilot programme for the centre – an attempt to provide Los Angeles with a pop-up summer programme of Irish Art, and to serve as proof of viability for the centre as a long term prospect.
Speaking at the launch, special guest Robert O’Driscoll, Consul General of Ireland – Western United States, said: “The summer program developed by CIACLA reflects the best of contemporary Irish arts and culture in one of the world’s great creative capitals, Los Angeles… A key aim of CIACLA is to provide a space where connections can be made. The centre will connect Irish and local artists and encourage participation from a wide-ranging audience.” The summer programme mixed visual art, theatre, dance, film, literature and comedy, as well as a series of events aimed at fostering connections between visiting Irish artists and the local community that served up a taster of all that such a space could achieve.
The second major art exhibition of the summer was Mirror Door (27 July – 24 August) – a site specific visual art installation from MASER. For this large scale exhibition, muralist and visual artist MASER transformed the main exhibition space into a fully immersive hand-crafted installation. Taking inspiration from one of the great natural beauties of Ireland – Glendalough Valley in County Wicklow – the installation reinvented the valley’s expansive landscape for visitors to the gallery. Through vibrant colours, flowing patterns and playful shapes, the exhibition played on the idea of differing perspectives and organised view-points.
By the end of September, CIACLA had hosted 27 events, welcomed over 4000 visitors, and featured in 28 press outlets. The programme saw the small team collaborating with 110 artists and participants living in the USA and 50 living in Ireland, partnering with 11 supporting organisations and 16 local program partners. This huge success serves as both a testament to the phenomenal work of those involved, and also to the existence of a receptive audience for a long term space of this kind.
As in 2019, MART began their 2020 programme with the annual awards exhibition – once again featuring artists chosen from the Crawford College of Art and Design grad show and Fire Station Artists’ Studios’ exhibition award. A third partner was also added to the award programme this year – Fingal County Council. As in previous years, the aim of the award was to provide a showcase and supported exhibition opportunity to emerging artists whose work was both engaging and experimental. By adding this new partnership with Fingal County Council, MART aimed to increase the range of opportunities provided to artists. This opportunity was part of a series of initiatives by Fingal Arts Office to promote and support the professional practice of emerging artists. Along with the exhibition opportunity, it provided the selected artist with a year’s residency in one of MART’s Harold’s Cross Village Studios. This space was intended to provide a supportive environment for the development of creative projects, development of a graduates’ practice and an opportunity to network with other artists.
The artists chosen for this award were Carrie Anne Channon (Crawford), Ella Bertilsson (Fire Station) and Sharon Ramsey (Fingal). HOME made HOME opened on 16 February and was guest curated by frequent MART collaborator Dr Katherine Nolan, who also provided mentorship to the artists. By staging and disrupting ‘home’ as both a feeling and place through a series of encounters in the gallery space, this exhibition asked the viewer to navigate powerful evocations of our relationships to material, belonging and place. The works – comprising installation, sculpture and digital media – referenced home turf, paths well-trodden, no-man’s land, and the domestic home. Through disparate approaches, each of the artists interrogated a persistent yet elusive idealisation of home as a permanent, inhabitable place and state.
HOME made HOME was followed by Buttered Up – a solo exhibition by artist Áine Phillips. This exhibition explored wider themes behind the artist’s award-winning short film of the same name. The film Buttered Up tells the story of a performance artist who embarks on an improbable journey to explore a visceral underworld of domesticity. She uses a practical method of escapology, quantities of butter and a complete suspension of disbelief to undergo an unusual metamorphosis. The exhibition expanded upon and recontextualised the themes of the film through sculpture, installation and a series of watercolour images. On Friday, 6 March, MART Gallery became the stage for a quartet of live performances on the exhibition’s opening night, with Philips performing alongside invited artists Ella Bertilsson, Rachel Fallon and Helena Walsh.
Áine Phillips and curator Matthew Nevin invited the selected artists to perform simultaneously (alongside Phillips herself) in an expansion of the exhibition’s themes of domestic relations and entrapment, escapology and metamorphosis. Visitors to the gallery were greeted by Philips, seated within the same sink unit which appeared in the film Buttered Up as the point of the artist’s re-emergence. From this vantage point the artist was able to interact with visitors, presenting both a performance and a guide to the exhibition. Meanwhile, Helena Walsh acted out a recreation of Philips’ dive into the buttered up sofa, the act from which the film and exhibition took their title. As this was taking place artists Rachel Fallon and Ella Bertilsson presented performance works of their own responding to the themes of the exhibition.
Buttered Up had been scheduled to run through the month of March and into April 2020, but things did not work out that way. On Thursday 12 March, it was announced that all cultural institutions in the country (along with schools and colleges) were to close as Ireland entered a period of lockdown to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. MART Gallery closed its doors as the team pivoted to remote working, and after less than a week’s run, Buttered Up was placed on hold with no clear picture of when a safe reopening would be possible.
This period of massive uncertainty was shared by countless artists and creatives around the country, who relied on exhibitions, public events and other such gigs suddenly found their income reduced or eliminated entirely. While MART’s Studio network was able to continue to provide artists with a workspace through new hygiene and social distancing measures, the gallery space remained closed until July.
When this reopening was finally possible, the exhibition programme for 2020 required a rethink. Curators Scanlan and Nevin were adamant that as much of the intended programme as possible be refitted to the new dates, but compromises were necessary. The scale of some exhibitions needed to be redefined, gallery numbers needed to be strictly controlled, and additional events due to take place in the gallery space were no longer possible. A series of talks and workshops planned for the year, alongside a weekly life drawing workshop which had been introduced in 2019, remained incompatible with safety guidelines for the remainder of 2020.
MART was however able to reopen Buttered Up, which had been cut short, and stage two further exhibitions over the summer. With newly installed hand sanitising stations and a thorough cleaning regime in place, plus a strict system to control visitor numbers, MART Gallery reopened to the public on 8 July 2020.
Alongside the fresh iteration of Buttered Up, Scanlan and Nevin chose to display a banner outside the red doors of the old Rathmines fire station in support of the National Campaign for Arts initiative. This volunteer-led, grassroots movement had been making the case for the arts in Ireland for many years, but in the wake of the devastation caused to the arts industry by the pandemic lockdown, their work became all the more crucial. Throughout the 2019 and 2020, the various MART Gallery Dublin exhibition programmes have been generously supported by the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council. The CIACLA project meanwhile was primarily supported by Culture Ireland and the Government of Ireland’s Emigrant Support Programme.
Throughout their careers, Scanlan and Nevin have had an ongoing battle to secure the funding necessary to achieve their vision. While they have continually received sporadic amounts of support from funding bodies like the arts council, it has never been easy to safeguard the long-term survival of MART through government supports alone. The advocacy work of NCFA and their #savethesarts campaign to ensure that the arts are on national and local government agendas and are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life coincided with the principals that MART was founded on, to create an art organisation that supported artists in a financially stable way. The hanging of the banner in such a prominent place was a call for recognition of the value arts brings to society in Ireland to be recognised through adequate and proportional support, and brought in line with our European counterparts.
To complete their planned programme, Buttered Up was followed by two other exhibitions, the first of which From Me to You, MART’s annual members’ exhibition for 2020. This key feature of the gallery calendar was more important than ever in a time where many of MART’s studio community had had exhibition opportunities postponed or cancelled. Indeed the subject matter was also a timely one, as many of the pieces displayed in this show were new works created during the period of lockdown.
A new solo exhibition from artist Andrew Carson titled Until It’s Time For You To Go followed on 26 August. The body of work presented here explored moments of intimacy and connection between queer bodies. Through drawing, sound and text this exhibition unfolded intimate acts and feelings of closeness in casual circumstances – something impermissible within the ongoing social restrictions. Through a series of digitally rendered drawings of the hands of five male casual sexual partners, the artist explored definitions of communion, creation and humanity. These drawings united with sound playing in the gallery space. To create a symphony of lovers past, the artist asked these five dalliances for their DNA samples that he then processed to create music extracted from their individual genetic code. The music became the song of the disembodied body, separated from its original context, imbued with its own agency. With the doors open and the music emerging out onto the street, this exhibition drew in a large crowd eager to reengage with art after a period of absence, and proved to be a highly timely work.
MART Gallery teamed up with The Tenth Man for a screening of THIS LAND directed by Bobby Zithelo, who also curated a joint photography exhibition in support of MASI, looking at the different ways people on this island experience Irishness and identity. Ten photographers, whose work encapsulates the constantly evolving and shifting sense of what it means to be from this land, were asked to propose works that represent the joy, struggle or journey of identity.
While MART’s Dublin-based programme was able to proceed with their plans for 2020 through uncertainty, CIACLA looked ahead to 2021 for its next endeavour. In September a new programme of remote activities and physical events were announced for Spring of the following year. While huge uncertainties remained on both the local and international level, both MART and CIACLA closed out the year by looking ahead to new opportunities for both artists and art audiences. As the pandemic had shown that just as work could be done remotely on levels never before seen, so too could culture be made remotely accessible to larger audiences than ever.
Bernard O Rourke.