Review of Dublin Contemporary 2011

Earlsfort Terrace
Reviewed by Sarah Kay

Saturday September 10th was a lovely sunny day and on the spur of the moment out of curiosity I decided to pop in to Earlsfort Terrace, one of the venues used for the Dublin Contemporary 2011, an international exhibition of modern art. It was interesting to get a glimpse inside the old UCD building which now forms part of the National Concert Hall and I wondered if there had been a deliberate plan to use this particular venue; the interior of a disused and dilapidated Victorian building had been hastily gutted down to the old floor boards and metal radiators to provide a minimalist and shabby backdrop for this international contemporary exhibition reflected through multi-media forms of expression. A metaphor for an old world, still standing, though stripped of its grandeur and barely supporting itself, while inside the bare rooms and on the walls the structures, shapes and images bore grim testaments to the bankruptcy of industrial consumer economies. Our world as reflected by today’s artists.

Words that came to mind as I walked from one bleak exhibit to the next were: apocalyptic, cynical, despair, alienation, displacement, isolation, disillusionment, ugly, devoid of colour, as well as imaginative, creative and clever. Art in its broadest term has always provided a socio/political history; sometimes idealized or aspirational, sometimes revolutionary or realistic. Much has been written about its emotional impact through form and colour. Part of its job is to push the boundaries, to challenge the comfort zone and provoke response. A review is always subjective, so in nailing my colours to the mast, I am over 60 and regularly drop in to the National Gallery for a fix; mostly to admire beauty and skill, wallow in colour and have my soul soothed or stimulated. In this exhibition I was hard pushed to find any beauty, my soul was not soothed or stimulated and I felt a sense of loss. I was wandering through a wasteland.

As we (and there were lots of young people with children) made our way through the warrens of corridors and little rooms spread over three floors we weaved between the different mediums. Several of the old lecture halls were showing videos, one I watched was on loneliness in China and the struggle between generations, another from Mexico showing a demonstration against mental health attitudes. Another room displayed an array of plastic bags, in another lay a giant dead squid, its innards oozing on to the floor, another space had masses of barbed wire hanging from the ceiling and another an oil painting of a landscape which had been splattered with cement. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah accompanied three headless brides, their upper torsos represented by crucifixes. Several rooms depicted ‘the sitting room’ with the familiar television screen over the fireplace replacing the mirror or picture. Yes, the displays were imaginative and the socio/political messages were immediate and obvious, pretty much in your face: the global village now resides in our living rooms with all its gadgets, and yet we are isolated and alienated. Technology, corruption, inequality, pollution and consumerism are our new landscapes, devoid of colour, and the drama and intensity of life and death we are used to seeing played out on canvas and screen, evoking strong emotions, appeared in this exhibition to be reduced to a heavy bloodless inertia.

After this surreal meander I felt claustrophobic and wanted to get out into the sunshine. On the way out I peeked into the café on the ground floor, which was buzzing with chat and was serving what looked like home made food. Next to it were playrooms for children and families, Montessori style, inviting, colourful, bright and full of toys. This juxtaposition of cheerfully protected children and the lifeless future that awaits them was most unsettling. It was a relief to enter the Iveagh Gardens and breathe.