I await Dublin Contemporary 2011 with a sense of dread

1 September, 2011

Dublin Contemporary 2011, which is allegedly the largest contemporary art event ever staged in Ireland, opens on 6th September, and the signs are not good.  One hesitates to join in the criticism of much of the “contemporary art” that galleries see fit to display, for fear of being thought a reactionary or a camp follower of Brian Sewell.  But here goes anyway.

With the benefit of decades of observation and analysis, albeit that of an amateur, I have reluctantly come to this view: the majority of contemporary art, and most Conceptual Art (particularly installation art, performance art, and electronic/digital art), is pretentious, boring and shallow.  Emperors with no clothes.

I’m with Ivan Massow, the former Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who in 2002 branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat” and said it was in “danger of disappearing up its own arse ”.  Massow was forced to resign as a result of his comments.

Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times wrote about the upcoming event back in June, and his words gave little hope that Dublin Contemporary 2011 would break the mould:

Tania Bruguere has proved to be controversial with performances pieces that – separately – encouraged criticism of the Cuban authorities and involved the use of cocaine – she also sought to employ a live firearm in one show but was, unsurprisingly, refused. Danish art group Superflex devise direct social interactions that entail specific actions or commitments from the public. Teresa Margolles makes powerful works about the systematic murder of young women in north Mexico.

In terms of spectacle, there should be plenty to look at with, for example, Maarten van den Eynde’s Plastic Reef project, an ever-growing accumulation of waste plastic packaging that has proved to be thought-provoking. There should be spectacle, as well, in David Zink Yi’s (his heritage is Peruvian, German, Chinese) giant sculpture of a squid, made from ceramic and incorporating glazed plates, referencing food as a signifier of cultural identity….

Ominously, though, it has to be said that many of the featured artists habitually make elaborate, idiosyncratic installations with exhaustive theoretical rationales, the kind of work that is generally beloved by curators of international group exhibitions but may not find a corner in the heart of the casual viewer.

That’s putting it mildly.

Private Eye has a satirical cartoon series entitled Young British Artists which features a group of self-obsessed and self-promoting “chancers” and which mocks the works and attitudes of modern British artists.  But much of the prose on the official website of Dublin Contemporary 2011  would be a candidate for a different part of Private Eye, namely Pseuds’ Corner:

The title and theme of Dublin Contemporary 2011 is Terrible Beauty—Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance. Taken from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “Easter, 1916”, the exhibition’s title borrows from the Irish writer’s seminal response to turn-of-the-century political events to site [sic] art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills. The second part of the exhibition’s title underscores Dublin Contemporary 2011’s emphasis on art that captures the spirit of the present time, while introducing the exhibition’s chief organizational engine: The Office of Non-Compliance. Headed up by Dublin Contemporary 2011 lead curators Jota Castro (artist/curator) and Christian Viveros-Fauné (critic/curator), The Office of Non-Compliance will function as a collaborative agency within Dublin Contemporary 2011, establishing creative solutions for real or symbolic problems that stretch the bounds of conventional art experience.

The Office of Non-Compliance, located within the Earlsfort Terrace exhibition site, will function as a promoter of ideas around a laundry list of non-conformist art proposals. The Office’s practice will be fuelled by the idea that not only has the world been transformed in the last few decades, the very concept of change itself has changed utterly. This element of the exhibition looks to highlight less conventional, largely artist-led models of art discourse, production and presentation. The Office of Non-Compliance will include ad-hoc, accessible structures for discourse around art and its place in society, such as a Bank of Problems, a Bank of Possibilities, One Problem a Week and a curated forum exploring one topical problem per week.

The bullshit quotient in the above extract is high, as might be expected (although the author apparently doesn’t know the difference between “cite” and “site”).  And, judging from the above, you can bet your life that Dublin Contemporary 2011 will be choc-full of works which will (according to their creators) make important statements about politics, economics and social injustice.

Yet Robert Hughes, as long ago as 1992, disposed of the argument for art as an agent of political and social influence.   The following extract is from his angry but totally coherent book, Culture of Complaint:

It seems to me that there is absolutely no reason why a museum, any museum, should favour art which is overtly political over art which is not. Today’s political art is only a coda to the idea that painting and sculpture can provoke social change.Throughout the whole history of the avant-garde, this hope has been refuted by experience. No work of art in the twentieth century has ever had the kind of impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did on the way Americans thought about slavery, or The Gulag Archipelago did on illusions about the real nature of Communism. The most celebrated, widely reproduced and universally recognizable political painting of the twentieth century is Picasso’s Guemica, and it didn’t change Franco’s regime one inch or shorten his life by so much as one day. What really changes political opinion is events, argument, press photographs, and TV.

The catalogue convention of the nineties is to dwell on activist artists “addressing issues” of racism, sexism, AIDS, and so forth. But an artist’s merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin colour or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public.  The HIV virus isn’t listening.  Joe Sixpack isn’t looking … The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted… it consists basically of taking an unexceptionable if obvious idea — “racism is wrong”, or “New York shouldn’t have thousands of beggars and lunatics on the street” – then coding it so obliquely that when the viewer has re-translated it he feels the glow of being included in what we call the “discourse” of the art world.  But the fact that a work of art is about AIDS or bigotry no more endows it with aesthetic merit than the fact that it’s about mermaids and palm trees.

.….In any case, much of the new activist art is so badly made that only its context — its presence in a museum – suggests that it has any aesthetic intention. I know that such an objection cuts no ice with many people: merely to ask that a work of art be well made is, to them, a sign of elitism, and presumably some critics would theorize that a badly made work of art is only a metaphor of how ratty the rest of the world of production has become, now that the ethic of craftsmanship has largely disappeared, so that artistic ineptitude thrust into the museum context has acquired some kind of critical function.

I will no doubt visit Dublin Contemporary 2011.  And I am equally sure that I will be saddened, frustrated and even annoyed by the experience. You, dear reader, can decide whether this makes me  a sad and grumpy reactionary or the equivalent of the young child who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

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3 Responses to “I await Dublin Contemporary 2011 with a sense of dread”

  1. Rod Stoneman Says:

    Dear Puckstown Lane,

    I saw the Dublin Contempoary a couple of weeks ago and broadly agree with your premonition of it, although for slightly different reasons. One is the lack of substantial social / political engagement. The Robert Hughes quote is specious and should be taken apart phrase by phrase. Of course art rarely has a simple or direct effect but that does not take it away from the possibility of political intervention. In fact Dublin Contempt-ary would have been more interesting if coherent and organised into contending sections: formalist work, political art, pomo rubbish etc

    Regards Rod Stoneman


  2. […] recent words on Dublin Contemporary 2011 and on Richard Serra’s “challenging” works prompted me to think further about the […]


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