Someone has crafted a dense, human-size spider web in a 17th-century baroque chapel. At the center of the swarming thread, a longhaired woman lies in a hospital bed, sheet to her chin. Silence, light filtering from stained glass, and her stillness trapped in the maze reminds the viewer of some old dada wisdom — any work of art that can be completely understood is the product of a journalist.
Down the hall, in a large room, a young German is rushing around in a white jumpsuit. He alternately plays with toy airplanes and bakes cakes in a microwave, which every hour on the hour he blows up.
These exhilarating works of art from Chiharu Shiotta and Frank Werner were at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin recently, part of a show called “Marking the Territory.” The images were compelling enough, but the real strangeness was that they were happening in Dublin at all.
For centuries, the visual arts in Ireland ran a distant second due to the superiority of the Word. But no longer. “This is an ideal place for an artist to be,” Paolo Canevari said. The young Roman was represented at IMMA by “Differences,” seven people on a bench on whose foreheads he methodically rubber-stamped religious denominations. “The Irish aren’t jaded. There’s no boredom with art.”
Even Dublin’s stinging humor, a style that is distinguished by an urchin’s allergy to the sentimental and a duty to bring everything down to street level, has softened toward the public art of the city. The statue of the River Liffey, personified as a woman in a fountain, is still known as “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi,” and a realistic sculpture of two middle-age women taking a rest from shopping will forever be “The Hags With the Bags.” And what else could a giant metal spike proposed for the north side be called but “The Stiletto in the Ghetto?” These days, however, all street titles are said with affection and pride.
Every nation prizes creativity. But countries such as Ireland, which for so long had little but creativity, revere it. It is now museums, galleries and artistic work that are embraced, and not just the theater, pub wit and the writer.
One of the engines of Dublin’s artistic boom is IMMA, only 10 years old yet housed in one of the most magnificent 17th-century buildings in the world, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Formerly used as a warehouse and steadily declining into dereliction, the place has been brilliantly restored. Bright galleries of dazzling art surround the vast cobbled courtyard. You can refresh your eye by strolling outside, through the extensive formal gardens, wide sloping lawns and parkland. The museum and grounds command the top of a hill with views north across the river to Phoenix Park, and to the east the spires of Dublin, under ever-changing Irish skies. To go to Dublin and miss IMMA would be like going to New York and missing the Cloisters and the Museum of Modern Art.
A Surprise in Temple Bar After you’ve done IMMA, ask someone to point you in the direction of the Guinness Brewery at St. James Gate, and then walk east, always keeping the river on your left, until you hit Dame Street — where, if you walk toward the Liffey, you’re in Temple Bar. This part of town has a reputation as the place where the young, lured to Dublin by cheap airfares and favorable currency exchanges, can come to drink in the street, bellow and throw up on their shoes. But it has also, since its renewal some years ago, been an oasis for the arts.
Aileen Corkery curates video and performance art at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, a box of open space in the lanes and alleys crowded with galleries and boutiques that map the district. “Dublin is a fresh, sexy scene,” Corkery, a transplanted Yank, said recently as she took in the buzzing Saturday market of the square. Food from every culture is sold in open-air stalls, as well as Irish organic produce and cheeses, leather and jewelry, all accompanied by a lone saxophonist gone in a Coltrane meditation.
Corkery described the two tracks of Irish art today that a visitor can explore: the old lions getting their due and the young ones being recognized.
“The Dublin scene is confident,” she said. “We’re no longer a backwater. Money is flowing in. No one wants to say that visual arts is the newest thing, but it is. There are some great galleries around now, really great. And of course tons of cowboys selling pretty pics to people with too much money.”
Managing the difficult stunt of taking chances while making money is the Kerlin Gallery, located in a grotty alley of Dumpsters and ruined pavement. (Around the corner is Davy Byrne’s, the pub where Leopold Bloom had the rarest of Dublin lunches, a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy. Go around 10:30 in the morning, before the mob, so you can look at the lovely, subtly erotic murals by Cecil French Salkeld. Perhaps the murals have attracted those having coffee or eye-openers at this hour, smartly dressed couples appearing stuck in the sad but still exciting moments of illicit affairs.)
At the Kerlin not long ago, Dublin-born Sean Shanahan, 41, opened a show of new work. The striking monochrome, monolithic paintings divided the wine-sipping crowd into the befuddled or the delighted. “A case of the emperor’s new clothes,” someone muttered, while his companion responded, “All your taste is in your mouth.”
Transported Studio Shanahan was asked why Ireland excelled in the written arts at the expense of the visual. “There are many reasons, I would think. Writing and reading are such private endeavors, and Irish psychology is an inward thing. You don’t need a lot of money to write, it’s self-taught. But now there is money here. And people like Barbara Dawson, bringing Bacon’s studio to Dublin, that creates excitement.”
A couple of months earlier, in the most stunning event in European art circles in years, Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, transported artist Francis Bacon’s studio intact from London to Dublin. Born in 1909 in Dublin, Bacon was, as Shanahan said while looking at a portrait of one of his screaming popes, “easily one of the best painters of the 20th century.” The startling, at times terrifying, portraits, once glimpsed, are unforgettable. They were created over a period of decades in Bacon’s studio, a famously chaotic jumble of paint, clothes, empty cans, champagne bottles and broken furniture that never had the benefit of cleaning, or even straightening.
Bacon’s sole heir gave the complete contents of the studio to Dublin. It was meticulously recorded, disassembled, packed, transported and reconstructed in the Hugh Lane — which, under Dawson’s leadership, has become one of the fine small museums of the world.
Looking at the riot of color and trash at the transplanted studio, Shanahan said, “Harrowing. It’s like looking inside his head.”
“Oh,” Dawson said, “but beautiful as well,” noting the bright pigments worked on the door and walls, which the artist used as a palette.
Part of the exhibit is a state-of-the-art database that is easy and comfortable to access, along with some of Bacon’s last drawings and works in progress. “Michelangelo couldn’t have done better,” Shanahan said, looking at one of the charcoal sketches.
Portrait of the Actor-Artist “It’s energy, not money,” said Noelle Campbell-Sharp when asked why the Dublin scene is jumping. “Ireland’s energy has been released! Here, have a cocktail,” she said, liberating a tall glass from a passing tray at an opening at her gallery, the Origin, a town house in the Georgian splendor of Harcourt Street.
The Origin was launching an exhibition of paintings of Dublin pubs by Andrew Painter, an Englishman who lives in France. “Yes,” he said, surrounded by his accomplished and witty work, “a painter by name and nature.”
Most openings provide wine. The Origin doesn’t stoop to such mundane fare, but serves Jameson’s mixed with seltzer and apple juice. Sounds appalling, but it goes down smoothly enough, and within minutes the art grows in appreciation. (A tip on how to get to Dublin’s heart immediately: Check the local papers for openings at galleries and show up at the appropriate time. No one in this most hospitable of cities will check a list; you’ll be introduced to artists and can revel in Dublin’s greatest virtue, the gift of gab.)
Campbell-Sharp runs the friendliest gallery in the city. How did she choose the name? “Well, because of ‘The Origin of Species,’ obviously.” Obviously. The top floor houses her extensive collection of Napoleona. “Why Napoleon? My dear, forgive me, but that’s another rather stupid question.”
The best gallery for emerging Irish artists is Green on Red on Lombard Street. Photographer Clare Langan shows here, as well as Corban Walker, who has exhibited all over Europe and is, many critics say, the best young sculptor in Ireland. (He is also an actor, appearing in the 1995 film “Frankie Starlight” with Gabriel Byrne and Matt Dillon.)
At his studio in an old firehouse on Dublin’s north side, Walker spreads out intricate architectural drawings of a staircase commissioned for a Tokyo skyscraper. Everything he does is highly finished, austere and pertains to image and space, like a series of sculptures in front of a police station in the suburb of Clondalkin.
Slender steel columns rise from the pavement and out of a running stream nearby, some impaneled with neon. They are reminders of Celtic standing stones arranged in ancient times to mark the seasonal progression of the year. There is a sighting hole in one that looks toward its mate, but the 10-foot column appears only four feet high from this vantage — exactly the height of its creator.
“I comment constantly on my condition,” Walker says, “and a world that is not made for me. Even sitting in a chair is difficult, sometimes painful, somehow wrong. That’s why I made ‘Have a Seat,’ an oversized chair in which a person of normal height can sit and see and feel things from my perspective.”
Standing next to a mysterious and beautiful sculpture of wood and glass in the courtyard of his studio, someone mentions that the piece is almost exactly his size. The artist’s only response is a wry smile and a nod. “Ireland can accept art now as human expression, not just something hanging on a wall,” Walker says. “Bitterness, begrudgery, whatever you want to call it, is going. We’re opening up and out. It’s liberation.”