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  • Roundtable: Contemporary Art and the Matter of IrelandAuthor(s): Daniel Jewesbury, Caoimhn Mac Giolla Lith, Sarah Pierce, Rachael Thomas andDeclan LongSource: The Irish Review (1986-), No. 39, Contemporary Art (Winter, 2008), pp. 1-17Published by: Cork University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 00:00

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  • RQUp?tejDle: Contemporary Art and the Matter

    of Ireland



    LONG: How can we best begin to frame questions about

    contemporary art and nationality today? What are the problems and

    possibilities presented by such a conversation? Among younger artists

    nowadays, there often seems to be a consensus regarding the irrelevance of

    the national ? in the face of more international opportunities and expecta?

    tions, more 'globalised' systems and experiences ? and though this is in

    many respects a justifiable and even welcome proposition, it is worth asking, as a way of starting this discussion, if there are specific ways in which each

    of us continues to be affected by national contexts and ideas. How do the

    particular social and cultural conditions of Ireland today shape the styles of

    artistic, critical or curatorial activity that you have sought to develop? How

    does an Irish 'background' affect the way your work can be perceived and

    positioned internationally? And, just as importantly, how does the experi? ence of working in Ireland, North or South, influence your view of a much

    wider art world? Such questions might well lead us to reflect on the partic? ular types of art being made in Ireland today and in so doing, perhaps we

    could also consider what our critical co-ordinates are for identifying espe?

    cially significant figures in 'Irish' art today. By extension, it may be worth

    commenting on institutions, markets and other necessary networks of sup?

    port and distribution, comparing views on how the present generation of

    artists based in or born in Ireland are promoted and received internationally. Is a significant amount of Irish art visible on the major stages of the global art world? How does it find its way there? And is its provenance of any real

    relevance? But let's begin, then, with our own immediate experience. How

    can we compare what we do or see regularly in the world of visual art with

    what tends to be written or spoken about art and Ireland in academia?

    Going to you first Sarah, it might be interesting to hear how you would

    JEWESBURY ET AL., 'Contemporary Art and .. . Ireland', Irish Review 39 (2008) 1

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  • respond to any of these questions as someone from the United States, but

    based primarily in Dublin for almost a decade.

    SARAH PIERCE: I think that first it would be useful to consider what it

    means to insert the word 'Ireland' into this set of questions and second, to

    ask what happens when that occurs in the context of the art world. I guess in my own work, I not only wonder what happens when we think about

    Ireland as a context but also what happens when we describe this context as

    a site of identification or representation. As we ask these questions we

    should also wonder who is speaking, who brings the notion of national

    representation to the fore, and whose agenda we are serving by the answers

    we return.

    DL: It's worth pointing out that the text resulting from this conversation is

    to be distributed in two ways: as one of the Metropolitan Complex papers that are a core part of your art practice, Sarah, and in The Irish Review. This

    strategy arises from a desire to reflect on meeting points between the world

    of scholarship on Irish culture and the sphere of living practices ? and so to

    ask if there may be a mismatch in perceptions about the value of thematis

    ing Ireland and Irishness. Caoimhin, as someone who engages

    professionally with both of these worlds, how do you understand the rele?

    vance of national contexts?

    CAOIMH?N MAC GIOLLA L?ITH: Well, my background is in literature,

    specifically Irish-language literature, where one might imagine that ques? tions of Irishness arise inevitably, even when they're not overtly thematised

    by the writers themselves. There are, of course, writers and artists for whom

    'the matter of Ireland' is a central concern. Beyond that, one can also think

    of artists for whom, let's say, questions of sexual politics are crucial, and these

    questions will often be addressed within the very particular contexts of

    Ireland, North or South. I started to write occasionally about contemporary art in the early 1990s, with no academic qualifications to do so, having stum?

    bled into the visual arts from this literary background; and as I was based in

    Dublin, I inevitably wrote, or was commissioned to write about Irish art at

    this time. As it happens, the artists I first wrote about didn't overtly thematise

    the matter of Ireland. Subsequently, others did and that clearly had to be

    taken into account when writing about them. In recent years most of my art

    writing has little to do with Ireland. Sometimes, however, I have been asked

    to write about the work of non-Irish artists who could be from anywhere, but who happen to have an exhibition in Ireland, and who may or may not

    choose to inflect their work accordingly. For example, Rachael was very spe? cific when she commisioned me, not so long ago, to write an essay about the

    2 JEWESBURY ET AL., 'Contemporary Art and . . . Ireland; Irish Review 39 (2008)

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  • German artist Franz Ackermann whose work in general is concerned with

    questions of globalism, travel, nomadism, the intercultural, the transnational, etc. She asked me to address the work of an artist about whom there has

    been a reasonable amount written, but to situate it differently by responding to it on the specific occasion of its arrival in Dublin in the form of a solo

    exhibition at IMMA. So, here was a request to write about the work of an

    internationally well-known artist, but within an explicitly Irish context. My

    response, for better or worse, was to focus on what I thought was a neglected

    aspect of Ackermann's work, its persistent attempt to drive a wedge between

    language and locus, word and place, toponymy and topography, in a manner

    that was curiously inimical to Irish attitudes to such matters, or so I believe.

    Another type of critical commission that has cropped up in the past, and

    which was alluded to in your opening remarks Dec?an, is the invitation to

    write in conjunction with the showcasing of a chunk of the cultural capital of the nation in something like an international biennial. The current art

    world calendar is chock-full of such events, though fewer and fewer of them

    adopt the old Venice Biennale and Sao Paulo Biennale model of national

    representation. In fact, the newer events are more likely to reject that format

    categorically. Even the powers-that-be in S?o Paulo have recently decided

    that this notion of national representation is no longer valid, or at least no

    longer desirable for their purposes.

    SP: Your comments about nation in relation to cultural capital interest me. I

    think that there are other times when making context explicit can be a strat?

    egy to address the ideas and ideologies of national identity. Recently, Charles

    Esche and Annie Fletcher developed a large-scale curatorial project at the

    Van Abbemuseum called Be(com)ing Dutch which posits a particular set of

    questions to a

    particular audience, and then requires that audience to con?

    sider the answers within or through the context of the Netherlands. There is

    a tendency in art to imagine 'the other' or another's identity through differ?

    ence. Annie and Charles are putting these differences under pressure by

    examining the processes of inclusion and exclusion that form Holland's cul?

    tural identity. There are artists who make work about Ireland, about the

    context here, but most often, this work implicates someone else, someone

    other than those of us looking at the work, or writing about it, or making it.

    What if we begin to see ourselves implicated in the politics we are so critical

    of? For instance, when do we, despite ourselves, desire cohesiveness and a

    kind of reformed national identity and when does that desire reform an idea

    of Ireland through what it means to work within a specific geography?

    CMGL: Of course, I should stress that not all writing about the visual arts

    falls into the category or categories I mentioned. I just happen to write a

    JEWESBURY ET AL., 'Contemporary Art and . . . Ireland', Irish Review 39 (2008) 3

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  • lot of commissioned catalogue essays. So that's a very particular mode of

    writing, very different from more-or-less independent academic writing in

    general, on topics that one chooses for oneself.

    DL: Though academic choices are, of course, often determined by research

    funding priorities, which might be thought to compromise that sense of

    independence somewhat. Rachael, you're involved in commissioning many

    essays ?

    and also in writing them ?

    through your role as a curator at a

    national institution, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Could you say

    something about your perception of this role?

    RACHAEL THOMAS: An inherent part of my profession is to open dia?

    logues from academic sources or relational practices. This research

    culminates in the expression of multiple points of view simultaneously. My

    background is as an art historian, although I am also involved in commis?

    sioning contemporary work, with a constant awareness of the present

    context, including the social and political frameworks. The concept of

    geography is inherent in this, the way our sense of place informs our iden?

    tity. In 2001 I was involved with Cerith Wyn Evans in a plan to establish a

    Welsh representation at the Venice Biennale as at that time there was no

    represenation by Wales. Cerith and I wanted to signal this is a positive way to engage the notion of Wales' presence in this most established of

    art/political arenas, and re-establish the country as a centre of practice rather than being seen geographically on the periphery of the British Isles.

    In my research, I was interested in the notion of the periphery, taking account of, for example, Irit Rogoff's concept of exhibitions as 'spaces of

    appearance', an idea derived from Hannah Arendt.'Wherever people gather

    together', Arendt wrote,'it is potentially there, but only potentially, not nec?

    essarily and not forever.' The potential of situations is the most important factor in my practice. Having lived in Ireland for four and a half years, my observation of the local scene is crucial in informing my work. I believe

    that the current debate has shifted from the concept of the country to an

    emphasis on the capital. In this sense, a focus is more likely to occur on

    Dublin or Berlin, rather than Ireland or Germany. Over the last three years I have been involved (on a research level) with Oliver Dowling in a project for Dublin. Initially a biennale event, this has evolved into a possible

    Documenta-style project. In relation to this, we have initiated conversations

    with artists and curators, both local and international. Among these, Hans

    Ulrich Obrist has compared the contemporary evolution of Dublin to that

    of Glasgow in the last decade and referred to it as 'The Dublin Miracle'.

    Indeed, like Glasgow, Dublin now has a wealth of artists coming together,

    forming strong groups. This is an indicator of the city's great confidence.

    4 JEWESBURY ET AL., 'Contemporary Art and .. . Ireland', Irish Review 39 (2008)

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  • The last four years have witnessed a multiplication of studio initiatives, and

    artistic initiatives. Interestingly, the notion of the city on an international

    scale is embedded in current cultural discourse.

    DL: Daniel, as someone based in Belfast, how do you see such ideas about

    cities? What does this emphasis suggest to you at a time when life in Belfast, and so perhaps art practice in Belfast, is undergoing definite, but undoubt?

    edly difficult, change. There is evident pressure to build the brand of a

    'new' Belfast, to increase what Sharon Zukin calls the 'symbolic capital of

    the city' ?

    something which surely relates to the jostling for positioning on

    a global stage that the biennial phenomenon is symptomatic of. How are

    forces of this kind impacting on cultural life in Northern Ireland? Is there

    an engagement with the exigencies of the present moment at the expense of a deeper history?

    DANIEL JEWESBURY: Well, this is very problematic. One of the things that I've concerned myself with during the twelve years that I've lived in

    Belfast is investigating the ways in which Northern Irish art has been his

    toricised. One of the recent mainstream historicisations of Northern Irish

    art has been very much in terms of responses to landscape, responses to

    national questions, and so on, which can all be put under a rubric of ques?

    tioning 'Northern Irishness'. And I've always thought that that

    characterisation of what was going on in art in the North was immensely

    problematic. But I think it's also problematised by the fact that Dublin gen?

    erally has a very tenuous grasp of what's happening in Belfast. So Belfast

    tends to be perceived as a...


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