The appointment of Anthony McFarland as Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art comes amid global upheavals that are altering the political and cultural landscape, but the International Curator and former Irish Army Captain has formidable leadership experience and is determined to hit the ground running.
The off-message nature of the Museum’s latest group show Broken Stiles will be welcomed by many as a refreshing departure from recent institutional exhibition making.
“The exhibition,” says McFarland, “aims to air the uncertainties surrounding ideas of order, ownership and belonging, and the dislocation induced by liberal hierarchies collapsing into various conflicting dominance narratives.”
While the museum’s historical archive reflects a limited definition of diversified practice, Broken Stiles will “foreground the obstinate defiance of a small minority of voices being raised against the oppressive strictures of politicalised uniformity, as well as the largely undocumented para-critical histories that capture moments of resistance and joy.”
The exhibition will showcase artists who are “inspired by the spectacle of rising sea levels, heatwaves, species extinction and political unrest, to make work reflecting the disconcerting aberrations and exhilarating deviations of a species on the blink.”
McFarland’s militia of artistic outliers has been deployed strategically throughout the Museum’s galleries. Assumptions surrounding museums and their curatorial conventions are unhinged by the artworks themselves but, more importantly, by the interactions between the artworks, which eschew conceptual conformity and thematic regimentation. In disturbing and unbalancing curatorial convention, the breakdown of various global orders is refracted through artworks that embrace the complexities of mental and physical damage and impairment, which in turn reflects an increasingly degraded and subjugated, but also potentially lethal, natural world.
Reclusive Irish artist Pádraig Ó Raghallaigh’s idiosyncratic practice means that what little work he produces rarely leaves the confines of his Crumlin studio.
Ó Raghallaigh’s starting point for Launch Party! (The Healing Power of Art) was the found object of a white tissue stamped into an anaemic phallus, a cigarette butt hovering serendipitously above its glandular extremes. This deracinated detritus has been turned into a monochromatic motif that combines militaristic regimentation with a soupçon of gallows cheerfulness and more than a hint of suppressed aggression. Ó Raghallaigh, now in his late fifties, continues to pursue a career that has failed to launch.
Surrounded by Rosanna O’Keeffe’s work it feels as if the excremental skin of the city has slipped into the Museum undetected. The Irish artist’s photographs record instances of physical damage, which attempt to flesh out the traumatised borders of her artistic aspirations. The pavement in Preternatural is like a luminous membrane that has been the subject of a violent assault. The artist created this body of work after experiencing a stillbirth during her second pregnancy, a fact that adds a sense of personal duress to the crumbling crevices, and the itinerant plant life for which they provide a precarious home.
There is apprehension and foreboding in the images, which evoke emotional breakdown, the neglect of disadvantaged areas, the shattering of expectations, and the inevitability of degeneration and decay. O’Keeffe has talked openly of her abusive childhood and the struggles of being a single parent and a member of the Travelling Community. The borders at play in her work ferment in the mind long after one has departed their physical presence, spreading through the imagination like osteoporosis.
Abigail Goldberg’s monumental text-based work Shiv for Papa’s Pillar extends from the ceiling of the first floor down into the Museum’s basement. It’s made up of all the words in the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms.
The insurgent cascade descends through duplications and reiterations to a thickened base of disaffluent conjunctions and definitive articles, its constricted succession showcasing various aspects of masculinity such as strength, solidity, durability, resilience, isolation, regimentation and atomisation.
The slender column resembles a shiv, that infamous improvised weapon crafted by prisoners from available resources. The pared-back style, for which Papa Hemingway (a noted anti-Semite) is famous, has been fashioned into an instrument for the destruction of a perceived phallocentric order. Having been fashioned from the masculinity it seeks to destroy, any such use of the shiv would entail its own destruction.
In Goldberg’s recent ‘Deaccession the Erection’ exhibition she called on museums to sell their male dominated permanent collections and use the money to fund programmes of diversity, inclusion and equality.
With its soaring barrage of detached genitalia Pádraig Ó Raghallaigh’s Launch Party! (The Healing Power of Art) speaks to the paradoxical nature of its own and Shiv for Papa’s Pillar’s institutional enclosure. It could be argued that they and their fellow travelers in Broken Stiles are attempting to shift the narrative surrounding what forms and functions are appropriate to a State cultural institution. It could be the thick end of a hierarchical wedge of co-option and clandestine phallocentric domination.
From a speaker next to the base of the shiv a computer-generated voice relays the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms as rearranged by Goldberg into a discordant appropriation of the Hemingway original. In the sound recording Papa’s tough-minded heroism has been turned into the brittle struts of a broken style, which creak and crack beneath the distorted inflections of a synthetic machismo. This is, perhaps, an attempt to address an ironic aftermath of the shiv’s deployment.
Hanging opposite Shiv for Papa’s Pillar Northern Irish artist Robert Bingham’s Full Spectrum Analysis, Dada to Nada seems like a reactionary repost to the assault upon the revered America author’s premier work of fiction. Engaging with the similarly obstinate aperture of a bathroom mirror, Bingham appears as if he is shielding his eyes from the offending cascade, his face hidden behind the mask of his pivoting hand. The hand looks as if it is holding the mirror up, stopping it from falling from the gallery wall and shattering into pieces.
The artist’s strenuous gesture leaves his torso exposed. In six of the fifteen images it is a white towel tucked around his waist that keeps the ravages of sexual identity at bay. The ambience suggests sweat shops, factory farming, submersion in floodwater, while the gestural repetition points to something trapped in a futile digression – a glitching dictate, a system or state gone awry.
“I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face” wrote Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Is Bingham seeking liberation from his identity, or is he an artistic Pavlovian dog, salivating visually for the broken bell between his ears?
Bingham’s posture resembles representations of two figures from classical mythology: Narcissus and Apollo. The work’s title implies a system or state where artistic intent exists on a spectrum ranging from the inflammatory incongruities of anti-authoritarian autonomy to the repudiation of the possibility of meaningful engagement, Dada to Nada, respectively. A better title for Bingham’s work might be Nietzsche’sApe, as a representation of the futility of being, motivated by a sense of impurity, imperfection and disability.
Is Bingham poised to lose the white towel of his prophylactic immobility and release the underdog’s bollocks of naked ambition?
In the Museum’s first floor gallery German artist Bernhardt Bonhoeffer’s 2021 digital artwork Pandemic for The People reconfigures the ongoing Covid-19 crisis as a mass of frankfurters and slices of white bread spreading manically across what looks like a putting green. Bonhoeffer’s work sits among a slew of visual meditations on the anomalies and incongruities of the involvement of transnational corporations in various social justice movements.
Looking at the image I imagine the swarm of deconstructed hot dogs as a replicating virus of celebrities, influencers,YouTube sensations, advertising managers and corporate chief executives rushing through the primed host pathways of global media networks to denounce the world’s injustices, vowing to do their profit driven, carbon neutral upmost to put things right. Top dog hotdogs courting understudy underdogs, but Bonhoeffer’s use of (prison) junk food points to inadequacies and inequalities corrosive of not just physical and mental health but of cooperation and social cohesion, leaving society sick as a dog.
Pandemic for The People is a salacious open sandwich that winks towards the tidal wave of pent-up consumption being reaped and unleashed from the stifling lawns of lockdown. That Bonhoeffer achieves all this from the confines of an open prison in Bavaria, where he is serving a five year sentence for embezzlement and money laundering, is commensurate with the prescience and perversity of his vision.
With the climate crisis destabilising our concept of normal, the conjunction of creativity and criminality in Bonhoeffer’s life and work models an Egonomics in which an artist’s professional practice consists of their reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling their corruption and criminality.
To enter the Museum of Contemporary Art’s basement gallery you must push aside a large textile work hanging from the ceiling. It’s made by Norwegian artist collective RATATOSKR (in Norse mythology Ratatoskr is a squirrel who ferries messages up and down the world tree Yggdrasil). The injunction to disregard cognitive imperatives invites us to look through the meaning of the text to the image behind it, where fingers are engaged in a nebulous act of uncensored physicality. A similar need to disregard imperatives, be they social, theoretical or professional, is at work in Shiv for Papa’s Pillar and Full Spectrum Analysis, Dada to Nada.
The image combines slick professionalism and a clinical equanimity reminiscent of adverts for private medical insurance, which RATATOSKR undermine by hand-weaving the work with the rustic inelegance of something made by a retired Professor of Media Studies who has treated themselves to a vintage weaving loom.
The image’s fine-grained engorgement is an antidote to Robert Bingham’s glitching bathroom maneuvers – as the material equivalent of the cognitive imperative of McFarland’s appointment could be characterised as the bathroom towel rack of institutional exhibition making coming loose, à la Harvey Weinstein, from the façade of its magnanimous moorings.
As I reach out my fingers and touch the abraded, oily nap, Full Spectrum Analysis, Dada to Nada’s aura of sweat shops, factory farms and floodwater clot and coalesce in my imagination.
Inside the darkened gallery a neon sign that reads “Humanity” is blinking on and off, hissing and fizzing like it’s trying to stay alive or ‘give up the ghost’.
Trapped in a binary impasse, as the room is alternately lit up and plunged into darkness, the work poses the question of whether our sense of humanity is realised through augmentation, amplification and intensification, or through the loss of these things. Should we shed light on ourselves, or is it better to stay in the dark? As the work seems to imply, we are doomed to vacillate erratically between tyrannies of the absolute.
This work is by up-and-coming Irish artist Anthony Dunne, who is both visually impaired and neurodivergent.
Surrounded by a plethora of ill-advised, ill-conceived and ill-orientated artistic pathologies and co-morbidities, Henry Oladapo’s photograph of Francie Bohan’s demolished studio in the Dublin district of Rialto is a meditation on the material and relational conditions of creativity. The inclusion of the image in Broken Stiles is an ingenious détournementof the infamous 2015 images of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s studio being demolished by the Chinese government.
Constructed in the summer of 2001 Bohan’s studio saw over twenty years of conviviality and creativity. Following Bohan’s death in 2020 from Covid 19, the house was sold and the studio demolished as part of an extensive refurbishment of the property by its new owners.
An accomplished photographer, Oladapo was Bohan’s neighbour for over ten years. He got to know Bohan initially through the vexatious exchanges they had regarding Oladapo’s nationality – Oladapo was born in Dublin’s Holles Street Hospital, of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother. When Oladapo saw the studio being demolished he said that he felt compelled to record the event in some way. The sight of its destruction evoked mixed emotions for Oladapo who has happy memories of being in the studio, but there were also times when Bohan’s provocations made Oladapo feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
A chance encounter with Oladapo, who works as a nurse in St. James’s Hospital, gave McFarland the idea of including the photograph in Broken Stiles. McFarland was in St. James’s having a kidney stone removed when he got chatting with Oladapo, who was fascinated by the fact that McFarland was both a retired military man and an international Art Curator – Oladapo’s father had been a Colonel in the Nigerian army.
Looking at Oladapo’s photograph I imagine Robert Bingham taking his palm away from the mirror. As Narcissus comes face to face with his reflection and Apollo releases his bowstring, the mirror falls through the Museum into the basement where it shatters into an amalgamation of buttresses, abutments, façades and laminations, which are mirrored in the photograph of the demolished studio.
Thus, Oladapo’s image unites Bingham, Bohan and Oladapo in an impacted critical morass of fractured rigidities and broken angularities.
Through the interactions of the artworks, the exhibition advances on uncharted territory. As muscular contractions, fractious and abrasive exchanges and engagements wrest the Museum from its conventional chains of command. McFarland has assembled the embodiment of an explosive creativity, and the audience is integral to its detonation.
We might therefore view the entire exhibition as both a broken stile and an embryonic stile, with the conditions of regeneration and revitalisation, as well as those of incubation and cultivation, thrown together as people are thrown together in an interconnected and climatically incarcerated world, a shiv of others, hissing and fizzing, blinking on and off, vacillating erratically between tyrannies of the absolute.
Robert Bingham, Bernhardt Bonhoeffer, Anthony Dunne, Abigail Goldberg, Rosanna O’Keeffe, Henry Oladapo, Pádraig Ó Raghallaigh, RATATOSKR artist collective, curated by Anthony McFarland.
1 November 2021 – 30 January 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art, Military Rd, Dublin 8
Review by Benjamin Robinson.
Benjamin Robinson is a writer and visual artist from Dublin.
What do you think?