Fic­tion is the new re­al­ity at RDS arts awards

Kevin O’Kelly was cho­sen as this year’s win­ner of the pres­ti­gious Tay­lor Art Award for his BA work ‘Some­thing About the Way You Look’

The Irish Times - - Arts & Ideas - Ai­dan Dunne Visu­alArt

‘‘ As an in­sti­tu­tion, the RDS has a ven­er­a­ble (since 1731) record in Ir­ish cul­tural and sci­en­tific life, thriv­ing in an era of ped­a­gog­i­cal and so­cial ide­al­ism in the teeth of po­lit­i­cal gales

There is some­thing heart­break­ing about the an­nual rou­tine of fine art de­gree and MA shows. Each grad­u­ate puts to­gether what is re­ally a solo ex­hi­bi­tion, usu­ally in­vest­ing heroic lev­els of ef­fort and ex­pense, and then it’s all over, gen­er­ally af­ter just one week. Def­i­nitely with a whim­per, not a bang.

It’s true that some cu­ra­tors make a point of see­ing as many of the shows as they can. And there have, over the years, been worth­while ef­forts to give another lease of ex­hi­bi­tion life to a tiny pro­por­tion of the work – by Lis­more Cas­tle Arts, for ex­am­ple, plus other ini­tia­tives.

In re­cent years the RDS has been ac­tive in re­for­mu­lat­ing its Visual Arts Awards and last year came up with a good for­mula, one that’s am­bi­tiously heavy on lo­gis­tics. That is, have a cu­ra­to­rial panel see the grad shows and come up with a long-list of artists which, af­ter a bit­ter and ac­ri­mo­nious de­bate – sorry, make that af­ter care­fully rea­soned dis­cus­sions – is whit­tled down to a man­age­able num­ber for ex­hi­bi­tion.

The award winners are then se­lected from that short­list show. An im­por­tant point is that an artist – last year Alice Ma­her, this year Nick Miller – is in­vited to put a form on the show, which has proved to be a very pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment.

As an in­sti­tu­tion, the RDS has a ven­er­a­ble (since 1731) record in Ir­ish cul­tural and sci­en­tific life, thriv­ing in an era of ped­a­gog­i­cal and so­cial ide­al­ism in the teeth of po­lit­i­cal gales, plant­ing the seeds of sev­eral ma­jor other na­tional in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing the Na­tional Li­brary, Mu­seum and NCAD. Lat­terly, of course, there is an un­break­able, Pavlo­vian con­nec­tion be­tween the name RDS and the words Horse Show, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the in­sti­tu­tion with the event that, im­por­tant as it is, nar­rowed its pro­file con­sid­er­ably. One could, at a pinch, add the Craft Fair. But the other, one-time strings to its bow, art and science, clearly still mat­ter in some way.

This year, the six-strong cu­ra­to­rial panel vis­ited de­gree and MA shows in 12 col­leges and long-listed 122 artists to ap­ply for the awards, of which there are sev­eral. Prime among them is the pres­ti­gious Tay­lor Art Award, worth ¤10,000.

This year it went to Kevin O’Kelly, an ex­cep­tion­ally ca­pa­ble NCAD grad­u­ate whose Some­thing About the Way You Look sit­u­ates the vis­i­tor – one at a time – in a small, do­mes­tic in­te­rior, but one that of­fers a prospect of a dis­tant win­dow into another do­mes­tic space, oc­cu­pied by another in­di­vid­ual, who ini­ti­ates an in­ter­ac­tion. At first omi­nous, it be­comes a med­i­ta­tion on anomie, iso­la­tion and the na­ture of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a world of strangers.

How­ever, Elaine Hoey, last year’s Tay­lor win­ner, this year an MFA con­tender, achieved the dis­tinc­tion of tak­ing both of the other two main awards, the ¤5,000 RC Lewis Crosby Award and the new Ma­son Hayes and Cur­ran-spon­sored award of a three-month res­i­dency in the Cen­tre Cul­turel Ir­landais in Paris, also val­ued at ¤5,000. Hoey works with vir­tual re­al­ity, and her Fic­tion is Fact pitches the vis­i­tor into an en­gage­ment with four dis­tinct nar­ra­tive set­tings in which “fic­tion is the new re­al­ity”.

Hoey and O’Kelly were two of a short­list of 13 artists, and a care­ful look at the ex­hi­bi­tion con­firmed that there were sev­eral other strong con­tenders, any of whom would equally have been wor­thy winners: a good in­di­ca­tion of the over­all stan­dard of the se­lec­tion. Among the stand-outs was Kevin Smith who, it’s fair to say, was the smash hit of this year’s DIT Cre­ative Arts show. His film Love in Tech­ni­colour in­cor­po­rates el­e­ments of per­for­mance art and cin­e­matic nar­ra­tive in prob­ing the con­struc­tion and en­act­ment of mas­culin­ity in so­ci­ety. It has a raw, vis­ceral en­ergy, en­hanced by an in­te­gral spo­ken sound­track de­liv­ered with poetry slam gusto.

Ara Devine’s film, The Ir­ish Ques­tion , is in its way another gem. Sur­pris­ingly so, be­cause it sounds overly schematic in out­line: a com­pi­la­tion of ar­chive footage ex­plores as­pects of stereo­typ­i­cal mid-20th cen­tury Ir­ish­ness, with sub­ti­tled Ir­ish lan­guage nar­ra­tion, and a sec­ond se­quence con­sists of video and pho­to­graphs by asy­lum seek­ers stuck in the pur­ga­tory of di­rect pro­vi­sion, with sub­ti­tled Ara­bic nar­ra­tion. It’s an im­mensely thought­ful, tact­ful piece of work that qui­etly asks ques­tions about iden­tity. Like Smith’s film, it de­serves wide­spread cir­cu­la­tion.

Ann En­sor’s skele­tal steam-bent oak sculp­ture, based on the shell of the pearl mus­sel on a larger than hu­man scale, echoes the pro­tec­tive, en­clos­ing func­tion of its source while broad­en­ing its sym­bolic im­pli­ca­tions. The ribcage-like form evokes both the tiny mus­sels and the liv­ing, breath­ing planet and or­gan­ism and or­ganic com­mu­ni­ties in be­tween. It’s aug­mented by an en­vi­ron­men­tal record­ing from mus­sel beds in Co Kerry. The self-con­tained poise of Eve O’Cal­laghan’s large-scale ab­stract paint­ings may have told against her in an is­sue-hun­gry cu­ra­to­rial era. They stood out at NCAD and they still do. It’s worth point­ing out that she takes on an id­iom that is gen­er­ally the pre­serve of as­sertive male artists and ex­cels at it.

Han­nagh Clegg’s dark Goya-in­flu­enced al­le­gories were at­mo­spheric. Monika Bo­gyos’s wear­able sculp­tural cos­tumes re­ally came to life in the pro­jected dance piece that formed a back­drop to her in­stal­la­tion, and there is clearly real rich­ness in her work. While sev­eral artists – Matthew Bour­ree, Is­abel English, Stephanie McGowan and Yas­mine Robin­son – had in­ter­est­ing core con­cerns, their phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion was not yet quite there.

The show was in the RDS Con­cert Hall, which was ef­fec­tively adapted to ac­com­mo­date the dif­fer­ing re­quire­ments of a wide range of work. It’s not a gallery, though, and the light­ing was on the harsh side. In ad­di­tion, the run was ab­surdly brief (Oc­to­ber 25th-30th). Pre­sum­ably, as a venue, the RDS is geared to events and fairs of short du­ra­tion, but the awards ex­hi­bi­tion de­serves a two-week pe­riod so that the widest po­ten­tial au­di­ence can get to see it.

Above: Eve O’Cal­laghan’s large-scale ab­stract paint­ings. Left: Ann En­sor’s skele­tal steam-bent oak sculp­ture, based on the shell of the pearl mus­sel

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