A very short review of Dennis McNulty’s fantastic exhibition Prototypes, which is currently running – until September 19th – at the Limerick City Art Gallery, can now be found online at this is tomorrow. The link is to be found here. Certainly one of my shows of the year so far, and one that completely exceeded the word count allotted to me here.
I know this took place about a month ago, but I have been too busy – and still am too busy, really – to write anything about it. Anyway, this event, with the massive question, What do you expect from art criticism?, took place at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios as a means of re-launching Paper Visual Art Journal under its new Dublin editors, Marysia Wieckiewicz–Carroll and Nathan O’ Donnell. Adrian and Niamh, now being based in Berlin, must now be editors-at large. I always wanted to be one of those.
The four invited panelists were critic and ACW coordinator Declan Long, artist and critic Jim Ricks, theatre critic Joanna Derkaczew, and myself. The discussion was firmly but sensitively moderated by visiting ACW/IMMA scholar Nuit Banai. Each of us in turn offered our thoughts on the question, which, although intriguing, was somewhat massive and could possibly have needed more pinning down. Certainly each of us came at the question from a different angle, using different criteria to base our respective interpretations of expectation on. Is it an aesthetic/stylistic or political expectation, or both? Is there a relationship between these different kinds of expectation? How do these expectations relate to the question of responsibility? Lots of aspects thus needed elaboration, not merely aesthetic concerns, but also the politics of display, dissemination, the kind of platforms used etc. Dennis McNulty, making a point later in the discussion from the floor, offered visibility as a possible entry into the latter questions, one as pertinent to the platforms of art criticism, and to the art critics themselves. In such a way, I would have liked to hear what Paper Visual Art had to say about the question. How do they see their role in making things visible, or indeed in omitting them from the frame? Critics, after all, write for platforms: journals, magazines, papers etc. A certain amount of snobbery continues to pervade our interpretation of editor-less art criticism blogs, and indeed rightly so: a good editor is invaluable. So, the art critic – if she values accuracy and rigour – will above all else aim to write for something, for an editor. Thus, the expectation of art criticism is one typically enforced by external means. It would perhaps have been interesting, then, to see what PVA had to say in this regard: not what they expect from art criticism per se, but, what do they expect of themselves as a bestower of value – visibility – to art criticism, and to the art it critiques? Unwieldy, I know, but perhaps one for the future.
To conclude, I must return to this topic another time. My vaguely confused answer to the question is to be found below.
Art criticism, by all accounts, should not even be a site of expectation at all. The gradual shattering of disciplines permitted – and arguably even demanded – by the action of postmodernity ensures that criticism, thought alone, cannot really do or think anything at all. The singular critic is actually a rare figure these days: instead she is the critic/artist, the critic/curator, the critic/artist/DJ/cheese maker…etc. Bizarrely, I have been described numerous times as a curator, even though I have never actively curated…
Being many things at once is of course not a new phenomenon, and yet for me, its contemporary omnipresence is indicative of a peculiar but pervasive imperative: to be one thing, and one thing alone, isn’t what’s required anymore. Peter Osborne describes this particular shift from disciplinary, to inter/multi-disciplinary, to the current trans-disciplinary, the advent of which he places in the 1970s. Disciplinarity affirmed the relative autonomy of the specific disciplines. Inter or multi-disciplinarity was then an exercise in reflection on the actual limitation of disciplines, thought autonomously. Trans-disciplinarity, in contrast, problematizes the very concept of the discipline, and, as such is symptomatic of a loss of faith in the political or transformative potential of any one discipline at all. The contemporary blurring of subjective positions – trans-disciplinarity – thus appears as a response to the political impasse facing criticism, which seeks to be overcome through its utilization in union with other, equally compromised, disciplines.
This trans-disciplinary impulse ensures that roles are fragmented and dispersed, and the critic is transformed into a split subject, never really capacious of speaking as a critic only. Of course, this shift was in kind a form of response to the monolithic authoritarian voice of modernism, and later, the October school, which sought to harshly demarcate the site of art from other disciplines. This form of criticism began to feel out of time, at odds with the plurality of roles and disciplines that pervade contemporary life. It didn’t really fit with expectations. The art professional ‘multi-tasker’ felt inevitably much more apt. And yet, I still expect something from art criticism, a thing nebulous and singular. And to expect anything at all necessitates a view that says criticism can, in fact, still do something.
So in my opinion to do rid with the singular critical voice – dispersing it with the ether of trans-disciplinary engagement – is but to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This voice would not need to be an authoritarian voice, but it does need to be a voice, holding the ability to speak on its own terms, as a critic. This, for me, necessitates a kind of dedication, or fidelity. That is not to say that doing the odd bit of curating on the side means that one is being ‘unfaithful’. I’m not moralizing here. Rather, I expect art criticism to be mindful of the conditions that serve to undermine it as a discipline. I expect the art critic to write like she does nothing else – whether she does or not is not really the issue at stake. Being mindful of the processes that threaten the practice, the discipline of art criticism, in my mind, should always exist as an affirmation of its own parameters, and right to exist.
Art criticism should not be authoritarian: it should not aspire to dogma. Rather, it should be open to change and contradiction. Even Rosalind Krauss, in later years, has radically updated – some might say overhauled – her views on the question of medium. Thus art criticism must be able to update and revise, and to admit it was wrong. To start every piece anew, in a way, parking the knowledge and self-assurance that experience brings: conceding, in such a way, what Krauss calls her ‘perpetual inventory’.
I do not really expect art criticism to do much apart from exist within this schema of fidelity and humility. I do not want it ‘put to use’. I wonder did we ever ‘expect’ anything tangible from art criticism, or is this merely symptomatic of its apparent redundancy, or crisis? What was it ever supposed to do, or is a neoliberal productivist logic simply slipping into the discourse that surrounds art criticism?
I woke up today to an excruciating crunching alongside the left side of my neck. I am basically immobilised, and so the thought of sitting down to bash out any amount of my PhD seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, I want to ponder on some disparate topics, all of which involve the question of work itself. Perhaps, indeed, the fact of my not being able to work at the minute has catalysed these thoughts, a kind of FOMO writ large, and tangible. On the other hand, my writing about work, now, when I cannot, might in fact be symptomatic of the kind of tendency that underwrites the topics I want to explore here. All explicate a particular contemporary sensibility with regard to the domain of work, specifically, I believe, of the increasingly insidious – and to all intents ‘benign’ – permeation of a late capitalist schema of work into normative collective consciousness.
The first involves a television programme Mary’s Silver Service, which is set to air presently on Channel 4. Its objective is simple:
Mary Portas launches a pop-up employment agency to find jobs for Britain’s overlooked and under-valued pensioners.
I recently heard Portas – most renowned for making aesthetically pleasing, and thus profitable charity shops in another Channel 4 gem – talk about the show with an not insignificant amount of pride, recounting in particular the joy of seeing an elderly barman (with a lifetime of high-end service behind him) returned to employment. Useful and active once again, and showing up youthful colleagues with his cocktail flair, it was hard to deny his obvious delight. I am not attempting to undermine what I’m sure was his keenly felt desire to be active again, and his obvious satisfaction in its fulfilment. Rather, I want to unpack what Mary’s Silver Service says to us, the viewers, about the domain of work itself.
Perhaps, indeed, I am being over sensitive. Perhaps, as many people would say, the show only serves to fulfil a desire to work: working on a case-by-case basis, it simply makes people happy by being back out working again rather than sinking into retirement, which is a disempowering and indeed lonely occasion for many. This cannot be denied and thus I do not mean to belittle the subjective happiness that the show in fact makes manifest. Rather, what I find unsettling is the ideology that the show insidiously represents: namely, that these people are able to work, and thus, by deduction, many more elderly people might be able to also. Why, it seems to ask, is it possible in the UK to be in receipt of a state pension at the positively youthful age of 61? More directly: why aren’t you working? For many reasons, I argue, preeminent being the fact that perhaps you’ve worked for 45 years, paid your taxes, and am entitled to retire if you so choose. Furthermore, if you actually wanted to continue to work, like these people in the show, wouldn’t you at least want to be guaranteed some stability and assurance? Arguably a ‘pop-up employment agency’ is exactly the wrong way to go about this, in that it precipitates the myth that says elderly workers would only gain employment on a short-term basis, with little rights and often, meagre pay. The tag-line used is ‘age against the machine’, and yet this implies that age is fundamentally opposed to the ‘machine’. I would argue the exact opposite: expanding the labour market to include elderly people would only further capitalist growth, given the exploitative potential contained therein. An older worker, desirous of a return to work, would arguably be an ideal proponent of an increasingly ‘feminized’ labour market. Furthermore, and crucially, Mary’s Silver Service disavows the fact that the people that choose to work post-retirement age often do so not out of choice, but of necessity, in so doing disguising the fact that for most people work is of the kind of intense alienation: they work to pay the bills, not because they like what they do. It is, in my mind, a particularly insidious manifestation of the late capitalist rhapsodization of work, a work so irreducible to your life that you cannot function without it.
The second phenomena, which I also think speaks to this particular conception of work, is the bizarre activity of pre-work ‘raves’. This isn’t as incongruous, sadly, as it would appear, with these kind of happenings popping up recently all over Western Europe. The one I saw documented took place in Shoreditch, and was mostly populated by workers looking for some kind of ecstatic release before work. Without of course, the ecstasy. Taking place from 6.30-10.30am, the club heaved with stone-cold sober revellers, who comprised of a large amount of IT workers, along with academics and other professionals. The club, Morning Glory, is based on one simple principle: ‘rave your way into the day’!
Indeed, all the signifiers of ‘rave-dom’ were present and correct: men wearing dresses; nostalgic-early 90s rave attire; some awful dancing and a general sense of ‘togetherness’ or communality. What differentiates Morning Glory from actual raves, however, is the counter-cultural import that set the latter apart, which existed on the margins of legality, and normative society more generally. Raves of the late 80s and early 90s were not meant to be at the service of productivity, but rather completely ambivalent towards it. With Morning Glory workers engage in an early morning rave in the hope of having a more productive day in its wake: thus, the availability of smoothies, massages and hugs – in an environment akin to Google’s workplace ‘fun’ zones, effectively just brought to their natural conclusion. Some of people who frequent these clubs would I’m sure have partaken in earlier, actual raves, and so to engage in these ones seems a natural and nostalgic progression. Stripped of their counter-cultural effectivity, however, it is but empty nostalgia, remaking the past in the light of a totally colonised present.
These two examples, for me, are representative of the near total colonisation of the space of non-work by work. Apparently no space is free from the imperative of productivity: not leisure, not even old age. I wonder what states will further be taken as possible spaces of productivity in the future. Will there be a way to make sleep productive, for example? (Have a look at Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 for more on this) Or children, perhaps? I’m sure we could get them to do something.
Below is a short text that I wrote recently in response to the work of painter Kathy Tynan. Her exhibition The Sky is all Changed, opens tonight at Hendrons Collider on Dominic Street Upper. It will be well worth adding it to the itinerary on this particularly exhaustive night of art openings in Dublin.
It was a typical lunchtime in the year of my junior cert, I think. Just the usual hour passed idling in our classroom, which was in fact but one section of a larger room bisected, thriftily, to create two rooms from one. At certain times, we could hear the noise from the adjoining class come seeping under the thick plastic partition, which was plied open up from a central point for exams and the like. This lunchtime, as always, groups of girls huddled in clusters around small desks that cluttered the room, with a rustle of crisp packets and gossip. I sat in one of these groups. For us, conversation hinged on an affected ambivalence towards everyone else in the room: thus, music, alongside a smattering of noncommittal bitching about teachers and other girls, who had the ignominy to be oblivious of the Pixies. Negotiating the line between ‘studious’ and ‘studious yet nonchalant’ was a fine line indeed, and it demanded our constant and deliberate assertion.
I can only guess this posturing to be key as to why, at a certain point, we came to talk of bombs. I’ll speculate that we arrived at bombs via politics, or a particularly memorable history class: the ‘how’ is essentially insignificant. One of my friends let the word slip in conversation, naturally and with utter ease: bomb. I will always remember it. I saw her lips move, could hear her say the word and make out its shape, and yet: nothing. I simply could not recognise the word; in that moment it was shockingly foreign. I asked her: “what’s a bomb?” She looked at me with a definite bewildered amusement; “yeah you know, a bomb? A bomb!!!’” Cautiously, I repeated the word over and over in the attempt to glean some shred of sense: nothing. My friend generously even mimed its action, with some wild gesturing and sound effects. The others joined in too, confident, I’m certain, that I was playing an inexplicably un-funny prank. But still I was at a loss: the word had merely ceased to mean anything at all.
After what seemed an eternity of grasping, its meaning of course came back. There were no triggers, no rationale behind it. I did not, for example, have any traumatic experience regarding the word, which spontaneously asserted itself, there in that lunchtime classroom. Rather, meaning – for whatever reason – simply broke down. In structuralist parlance, I can say now that the yoke of signifier and signified had, in that instant, become utterly eroded. The word held the uncanny ring of bare signifier: a brute senseless lump meaning nothing.
Rendered strange, the word at the same time became instantly more interesting. In its blankness, there was potential and a kind of vertiginous thrill. By appearing anew and in the absence of a past, the word – like the object and like the place – might be rethought as a site of latent inspiration, and of action. Things, places and even people can emerge, ‘bomb’-like, as it were, and ripe.
Kathy Tynan‘s exhibition of new paintings opens this Thursday 22nd of May from 6-8pm at Hendron’s Collider, Dominick Street Upper. Following this, there will be an event taking place there on Saturday, with contributions from Coco and Edia Connole, and Fintan Neylan. I have also written a short response to the work, which will accompany the exhibition. The exhibition runs until Sunday 25th of May, and promises to be well worth the trip. More information on the exhibition can be found below.
‘The Sky Is All Changed’ is Kathy Tynan’s first solo exhibition. This collection of paintings brings together quiet scenes of local housing, beaches, parks, people and animals. Tynan chooses subjects that are deeply familiar to her. In doing so, she seeks out the strangeness that lies within these encounters. When something is familiar, whether it is a daily route to work or an old photograph on the mantelpiece, it can become taken for granted or even overlooked. In seeking strangeness and astonishment within the most seemingly mundane aspects of daily life, an abundance of texture, colour and depth can be discovered, without having to wait for a spectacular occurrence. Once this process has begun, the unknowability of the world springs forth from every angle. Tynan’s painting style echoes this spirit with sensitivity and dedication. While an appreciation of nature is present in her work, she is determined to avoid grandeur and impressiveness. Her use of paint is considered yet carefree, allowing for an acknowledgment of the sheer novelty of everyday surroundings.
This year’s EVA, under the theme of ‘Agitationism’, works I feel in a way that would be unavailable to it if it were to take place in Dublin, for example. This was one of the main impressions I got from a day spent traversing its spaces – a day as exhausting as it was insightful, and disquieting. To be more precise: the social, economic and political themes that it takes tackles feel particularly demanding and relevant, there, in Limerick, some 200km from the economic hub of the country. I am no expert on Limerick, visiting really only when EVA takes place, but I do remember festive dashes spent on Cruise’s street as a child: being from Tipperary, rare was the occasion when my parents brought us to Dublin. Limerick simply made more economic sense. And it has certainly changed from then. Following a trend evident throughout rural Ireland, the center has been emptied and displaced, and at times looks truly down and out. With the green shoots of recovery gleefully being touted in Dublin, EVA and Limerick help to put this shift in perspective: the problems that led to the financial crises are structural, and necessarily so. Furthermore, centers become more and more concentrated, even in light of an idealised hyper-connected worldview. Displacement is the necessary conclusion of this ineluctability. This can be an opportunity, however, and the Limerick art scene, of which EVA is its most fantastic embodiment, is indeed evidence of this.
The exhibition, which stretches to four sites over the city, feels entirely apt, and vital. This year’s curator Bassam El Baroni defines ‘agitationism’ as ‘the condition of living under a constant flow of agitations’, but also, importantly, of their negotiation: where to subjectively or collectively situate oneself with respect to political, social and temporal anxieties? How to situate oneself, to paraphrase the Berardi (the touchstone for Annie Fletcher’s 2012 EVA), after the future? For inasmuch as our days become fuller and more chaotic, the capacity to imagine anything different becomes nigh on impossible. How to situate oneself with regard to the illusion of choice that effectively functions to neuter the horizon of decision? This EVA, indeed following on from its preceding instantiation, places itself firmly within the horizon of the ‘contemporary': the ubiquitous abstraction that dominates neoliberal capital, its arbitrariness; the limits of political imagining; the question of systems and technology, of which art is but another. Indeed, a question that dominates for me is: what is arts relationship to the world? Should it reiterate dominant systems of exchange, and modes of imagining, or try, once again, to imagine something new? It is these question that one of the highlights of this year’s exhibition, Elizabeth Price’s filmic contribution The Tent (2010), takes up. Working within a specifically charged historical document, Systems, a book published by the British Arts Council in 1972-3, Price’s characteristically slick work works within the utopian ideals contained therein. Anxiously, it thinks through the question of art broadly to wider systems of exchange, and new technologies. How might sensitivity be forged, and where should this be located? Price’s work approaches these questions from a diagonal, and, in opposition to other, more overtly political works, seeks to implicate the system of art within that which is being critiqued.
Much of the work of EVA seeks to deal with political, social and economic questions, like Price, and does so to varying degrees of success. The Serbian artist Neša Paripović’s video, N.P. 1977 (1977), which is located in one of the Kerryvale plant’s many chambers, addresses this question with humour, and yet no less sharply. In it, the artist/protagonist sets off through Belgrade seemingly with great purpose, taking well-worn short cuts to reach his destination, it would appear, quicker. There is no endpoint, just the purposeful purposelessness that, it might cynically be argued, is the action of art itself. Metahaven’s installation Black Transparency (2013-14) considered the social and political responsibility of art more pointedly, forging greater connectivity in the hopeful service of antagonism: two keffiyeh adorned with USB stick tassels hung on one of the walls, an eloquent nod to the irreducibility of information and social networks to both surveillance and revolt. Unfortunately the video component (shown on a small monitor without headphones) was virtually silent under the noise of another, more pressing video installation within the cavernous space.
Abstraction, and the increasing ambiguity on which the contemporary experience is founded, is also an important point of departure for many artists here. For the Greek artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos (History Zero (2013)), this abstraction’s main vehicle is that of exchange value, and how this is translated into real terms. From bitcoin, to depression era nickels, to Angolan beer money, its staggering multiplicity of forms illuminates the real weirdness, and arbitrariness of money. Indeed, the work implicates itself inasmuch as art itself might be thought of as money, too. How to realistically offer and alternative to the alienating action of exchange value, when even the radical potentiality of art is flattened? Eva Richardson McCrea’s filmic contribution Film/Act/Event (2013) asks a similar question, pertinent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis: how, in the wake of a crisis, do we rebuild? How to avoid a simple ‘more of the same’? Using Badiou’s The Incident at Antioch (1982-89) as a template for the film, she alludes to the difficulty of political imagining in a landscape in sharp necessity of it. Indeed, Richardson McCrea subtly points to the paradoxical incompatibility of crisis and event, a sensibility that pervasive to contemporary experience.
Other real highlights of this year’s EVA for me included: Patrick Jolley’s meditation on the inhuman, and its centrality to the human in This Monkey, from 2009; Mona Marzouk’s wall paintings, which meditate on the abstraction that underlines fundamental human ideals, Moby (For Trayvon), 2014; Amanda Beech’s paranoid Final Machine (2013), which continues to remotely perturb; and Pauline M’Barek’s materially sensitive meditation on systems of display, in her works Showcase (2012) and Trophy Stands (2011). The exhibition as a whole functioned as a discrete system that sought to hold up a mirror to the daily agitations that dominate contemporary life, how they are represented, made manifest, and, most importantly, lived. EVA – as a system – forcefully questions its own relationship to these strains, and its own role in said representation. Sited, vitally, in Limerick, these questions have never been more pressing, or urgent.
Below are some pages from my interview with Gedi Sibony for the exhibition catalogue of his ’55 Years’, currently on show at the Douglas Hyde gallery in Dublin. The show runs until May 21, alongside a collection of beguiling Mongolian folk drawings in gallery 2. The catalogue can be picked up the gallery, or online here.