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Dublin Contemporary

by Ciarán Bennett
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It's not surprising that the morning after the opening of the sprawling new Dublin Contemporary art festival, Sept. 6-Oct. 31, 2011, the main newspaper of note, the Irish Times, mentioned the estimate that 62,000 visitors would come to Dublin for the event, generating revenue of €13 million.

The interest in money has more than passing relevance to the origins of the festival, which can be traced some years back to Oliver Dowling, a former avant-garde dealer who was then working at the Irish Arts Council, who had the idea of bringing Manifesta, the scrappy, roving biennial of contemporary art, to Dublin.

This notion metamorphosed into a new project, with Rachel Thomas, the Welsh curator of exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, proposing an altogether more elaborate show. This would be the kind of grand international event so beloved of our ten-year-long boom, during which the government facilitated the lavish lifestyle of a new monetary hero, the brilliant Irish capitalist.

That the capital was borrowed, largely from German and French banks, was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Ireland's GDP soared above all other European states, on paper anyway. The new project reflected the grand designs of the new state and, mirroring the financial boom, was presumed able to attract tourists in numbers similar to Documenta, and be certain to prove a commercial success.

A term in Irish politics, the "letter of comfort," essentially says all will be well, the money will be there, don't worry -- except in this case it took over four years to get the check for the €2.5 million promised for the project by the state. In the meantime, Thomas had initiated a program involving international curators like Hans Ubricht Obrist and other art stars, and hosted three successive launch events, one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, all without any program to speak of.

After the collapse of the global economy in 2008, Ireland's finance ministry gave a blank guarantee to the banks and property speculators, without quite knowing how much was owed, but they were mostly supporters of the government, and thus banks that were worth maybe €10 million cost €6 billion to bail out. This has led to Ireland's dire current fiscal situation, and perhaps indirectly to still more comedy regarding the Dublin art festival.

At the end of 2010 some money was actually committed to the project, but with the condition that it be managed by the same firm that had handled the St Patrick's Festival, a very successful tourist event, though not one having to do with contemporary art. With the inevitable change in focus, the international art star curators disappeared and so did Rachel Thomas as curator, along with many of the original Irish artists.

So here we are in spring 2011 and our two international curators, the critic and former art-fair organizer Christian Viveros-Faune and the artist and curator Jota Castro, were persuaded to organize this event. After all, if they hadn't, the funds would have returned to the black hole that is the government bank bailout.

So, the debut of Dublin Contemporary. It was a typical damp fall day in the city, the rain sizzled down after a bright morning, the gloom gathered and the crowds queued to enter Earlsfort Terrace, the great bastion of what had formerly been the Catholic University of Ireland, founded in the 19th century to bring some imperial rationality to the mere Irish. Most of the visitors were faces from the local scene, with a spattering of foreigners, some of whom were obviously friends and admirers of the artists in the show.

The rooms and corridors in this abandoned college wing seemed to echo still the Gaelic catholic lethargy of its former use (some architects I met had attended lectures here), and the new pipes and cables and the bright white painted spaces a stark contrast to the utilitarian institutional colors still on the walls. Workmen were drilling and placing signs in the foray as the rain brought wet umbrellas and slippery feet into contact with the old floors.

Castro and Viveros-Faune, who made all this happen, took their concept of the Office of Non-Compliance last March to Dublin, and having only six months to put it all together, made an exhibition which would have been perfect as a biennale in any smaller European or American city. This is quite an achievement in the circumstances. The office fostered a creative, non-bureaucratic approach to problem-solving, and was central to the operations of the two curators.

One issue, simple yet complex, was how the festival might play out in this small city, where intellectual generosity is in short supply (not unlike Santiago in Chile, which Christian had left years ago for similar reasons). It is appropriate to Ireland that this kind of development and interaction should be the central concern of this exhibition happening in Dublin. It is something that will evolve over the next few months, with the artworks serving as occasions for contemplation, objects for the enhancement of public participation in the project.

The old Earlsfort Terrace building with its myriad corridors, classrooms and deserted lecture halls, manifests itself in the artwork, and in this sense the installation reflects a certain consideration, and the spaces seem to articulate a sense of rational organization. There have to be artworks, it says, well it also asks the question, does there have to be.

I visit the core of the show with Jota during the preview, and he himself had made a green resin heart on the blackboard. Apparently the Franco-Peruvian artist from Brussels had fallen for the charms of this damp island, which has been known to happen. He had also collected some newspapers of the last few days, as a memento, and left them on the floor, where they were removed by some cleaner. Joseph Beuys once was in the southern city of Limerick, and the porters cleaned the blackboard of his drawings at the lunch break.

For brief moments the small rooms and long corridors were illuminated by moments of something other than the normal biennial art-making. The delightful assemblages installed by Jannis Kounellis, for which crude Art Povera planks were remade in gold leaf, and the giant squid leaking black ink by David Zink Yi, besides the large reflective sculptural construction by one of the curators -- Jota again -- which had rain drops reflected though the broken glass ceiling onto the surface, were the most immediately noticeable installations at a very crowded opening night.

The main publicly funded galleries in the city have exhibitions to celebrate this event. The Irish Museum of Modern Art installed some new piece by Liam Gillick in the courtyard of its fine building, which dates from 1690, and which unfortunately must remain closed for the next year or so, as it does not fulfill recently adopted health and safety requirements.

The Royal Hibernian Academy, a modernist architectural triumph, featured the well-known and fashionable contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage, while also having an exhibition in the foyer of the important Irish abstract painter Charles Tyrrell (b. 1950). The figurative delights of the first were outclassed by the finest moments of Tyrrell's career, after nearly 40 years working.

A commissioned video by the equally well-known Irish artist James Coleman, at a brief glimpse, appeared to engage with his usual themes on the human condition. And recommending itself, too, was "Futures 2011," an exhibition of vibrant and remarkably invigorating works by younger artists. Their display in the large purpose-built modernist space benefited after the clammy hallways of the adjoining Earlsfort Terrace.

CIARÁN BENNETT is a writer, curator and president of AICA Ireland.