27 September 2011

Illuminations and observations (Italia '90 edition)

Modular and Please Adjust, Corban Walker
Ireland Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Continuing on at the Biennale (and speaking of national propaganda)...

Although many of the off-site national pavilions were simply too far off the track that I was beating to visit in the time allowed, a sense of national pride not experienced by an Irishman in Italy since, well, Italia '90 I suppose, propelled me on past the herds at Piazza San Marco and on down a side street to a near-hidden building on the Calle della Pietà shared, somewhat ominously, with that bastion of democracy Zimbabwe. Are the Arts Council giving Enda tips on farm reclamations as the solution to all our economic woes, I wondered, and could wheel-barrows of Punts be that far away?

Passing through a sunlit courtyard and on into a single red-brick room I encountered the first of three pieces by Corban Walker, Please Adjust, having completely failed to notice the other two pieces covering the windows as I entered. Please Adjust is a large installation consisting of 160 interlocking stainless steel cube frames, each 16 inches wide. Multiples of four appear frequently in Walker's work, for he himself is four foot tall, something referenced in the second of the other two pieces, Modular, which consists of a series of blue vinyl pieces affixed to four windows, each approximating his height. The final work Transparent Wall is another vinyl-on-window piece with a series of black squares cascading down the panes decreasing in size and fading away into nothingness.

Walker lives and works in New York, and has done so since 2004. While it seems a fairly typical Irish story that an artist can only gain recognition when they leave their native shores forever, my first thought was that surely the Arts Council could have found someone that still lived in Ireland and contributed to what passes for our domestic culture? I mean, the government has been giving out Artist tax exemptions for donkey's years and NCAD keeps on pumping out a fresh crop of layabouts every year and there was a time when you couldn't walk into Grogan's on Dole Day without tripping over a dozen or so, so surely some of them stay around long enough to slap together an exhibition or two worth sending to Venice, or do we need to start importing artists from Asia and the Philippines because the wages here at home aren't good enough for our graduates?

Maybe just as there is talk of requiring our junior doctors to actually work in Ireland after having the State pay for their qualifications we should also require our art graduates to mount a minimum number of exhibitions before we let them leave the country? Is this, in fact, the secret purpose behind Dublin Contemporary, a massive Arts Council funded get-out-of-jail-free card for the great and the good of the Irish art scene all desperate to leave the country but held back by a sense of national guilt for those who would be left behind?

No matter, let them all leave, if an entirely expat-comprised Pavilion is good enough for Iraq, its good enough for us.

However, unlike Ireland, Iraq took the decision to showcase the work of six artists, so while none may actually be representative of the current state of Iraqi art, at least there is the chance that if some of the pieces are weak there will be others that will balance them out. By showcasing the work of a single artist, the Irish pavilion falls victim to the fact that, unfortunately, the pieces are neither representative of contemporary art in Ireland nor are they strong enough in their own right to carry a full exhibition at such an International level.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Walker's pieces, in a different context they may have had a chance to stand out, but in their Venetian setting they underwhelm, with the two vinyl pieces being almost indistinguishable from background room decor. As I walked around the Giardini the previous day I wondered if some countries, after setting up their own pavilion and then seeing what other countries had done, turned around and said to themselves "Oh, poo. They've got sharks with laser beams. Why did we even bother?", and then nipped off to the pub to cry into their aperitivos. After visiting the Irish pavilion I'm certain of it.

But in a way, isn't that the very essence of Irishness? Isn't that why we continue to show up at the Olympics year after year, only to be disqualified for taking drugs that make us go slower? Isn't that why we still enter the Eurovision believing each and every time that this year will finally be the year we win again, failing to realise that the rest of Europe is really creeped out by singing Irish siblings? Isn't that why we haven't actually had any significant football success since Italia '90, and yet we still consider a nil-all draw a moral victory? Isn't that why Bono is the most famous Irishman alive even though he is actually a tax-exile in Holland and his last decent record was made almost as long ago as Italia '90? Our national psyche compels to half-heartedly reach for the stars so that we may revel when we fall back down into the gutter, for if there is anything that six hundred years of colonial oppression has told us, it is that we love being beaten and keep coming back for more, not for the fight but for the complaining about it all afterwards.

In this way, Corban Walker at the 2011 Biennale is a triumph - just think of all the conversations in the pub that it will germinate - no Leone d'Oro for us, we waz robbed, its Schillaci all over, Olé, Olé-Olé-Olé, Olé, Olé, etc, etc. Well, maybe only in Grogan's.

The fact that we never had a chance is not irrelevant, it is the entire point.

And there's even an app for that.


Ireland at Venice, the official website for Ireland's participation in the 2011 Art and Architecture Biennale.

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