I used to live in an apartment close to Christ Church Cathedral. So close, it was not unusual to disrupt the laboured staging of some tourist’s photograph as I left home, making my way onto Dame Street. The cathedral was omnipresent; after a year of living there I still could not manage to sleep through the bells’ morning chorus. And yet, the bells became just a part of normal life; they ceased to signify anything.
Garrett Phelan’s current exhibition at the New Galleries at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, New Faith Love Song, uses these bells, and those of neighbouring St Patrick’s Cathedral, in an attempt to reenergise their signifying function in a new and transformative way. This intent was manifested in a performance that took place last Thursday, a ‘conversation’ enacted by the two cathedrals’ respective bell ringers. This lasted some twenty-five minutes, with a crowd of interested, slightly wet, parties huddled between the two sites, on Nicholas Street.
The exhibition at IMMA’s new galleries performs an almost wholly documentary or preparatory function in relation to the performance. Animations, drawings and diagrammatic scores; disembodied microphones; collage and photographs: all are bound together by a shared investment in the primary work; that is, the event. It is here that the possibility of radical change or positivity is broached in declarative terms. The works at IMMA appear as the residue or material basis of the performance; like the drawings on the wall firmly rooting Phelan’s animations in material reality, so too the exhibition ensures the ephemeral act to endure, both materially and aesthetically. The event’s modus operandi, too, is there for all to see; it is ‘a sound work by artist Garrett Phelan in an octave of eight bells pronouncing love and new faith[i]’: nothing more, and nothing less. Indeed, that is another intention of the exhibition: to strip away any transcendence from this potential moment of ecstatic collectivity. Phelan’s transcendence is born of immanence; it does not necessitate an appeal to something ‘other’ than ourselves, it is already here, out there.
New Faith Love Song is thus an attempt to create something new and affirmative without any appeal to a transcendent other, be that of a dogmatic or repressive nature. Religion, politics, the target is any structure that dislocates power from the grip of individuals, forging an alienated sense of said structure’s continued necessity. Phelan would argue their utter superfluity; his artwork articulates the possibility of art as a redemptive and transformative event in and of itself.
Performative works, by their very nature, are ephemeral; they cannot last forever. Often this ensures a kind of mystery, a distinction between those – generally few – who were present, and those who were not. In such a way, the artwork is separated from everyday appreciation – it becomes the domain of the few, it’s slippery auratic quality permitting its continued relevance. With this exhibition, however, Phelan is careful to leave no mystery. At IMMA’s New Galleries the artwork’s evental quality is replayed in time, backwards and forwards, speeded up and slowed right down, so as not to miss a thing. The conversation remains crystal clear, it’s material forms providing an aesthetic meditation on the forms of collectivity available in the absence of transcendence.
New Faith Love Song is showing at IMMA’s New Galleries until 23rd of September. Also, this Thursday 28th of June there will also be a discussion between Garrett Phelan and Rachael Thomas (Senior Curator: Head of Exhibitions, IMMA) from 5.30 – 6.30pm at the Lecture Room, IMMA at the National Concert Hall.
[i] Quoted from New Faith Love Song – Unique Plaque, 2012.