Aidan Dunne, 9/6/2006

Installations are the favoured form at this year’s art school graduation shows, but painting is still hanging in there, writes Aidan Dunne.

As a metaphor for the state we’re in, Maggie Madden’s installation for her Fine Art MA at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) serves pretty well. It begins at ground level with a city-like grid of discarded packaging. Myriad cardboard boxes that once contained everything from foodstuffs to pharmaceuticals, medicines to electronic appliances, are bonded together to create a miniature Gotham City of exponential consumerism. Shaped like a whirlwind, the mass of packaging soars up towards the roof, assuming, as the size of the containers increases, a threatening aspect. It’s a good piece, not least because it’s a combination of the simple and the complex. Conceptually akin to the work of such artists as Vik Muniz, it draws you in with its visual adroitness and then invites you to ponder the implications of what you’re looking at.

This year’s fine art graduate and postgraduate shows at NCAD, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (DLIADT) and – a first – the Gorey School of Art, feature several models of artistic practice, with differing kinds and levels of engagement with materials and subject matter. Autobiographical introspection, political activism, social research, therapeutic intervention, performance, video games, music DJ-ing, even painting and drawing, all are among the modes employed. Installation is the most popular form of presentation. Painting is strong at NCAD degree level, though virtually absent among the MAs. Some courses at DLIADT, including photography, are making the transition from a three- to a four-year degree and hence miss a year, so photography hardly registered in its show, which closed yesterday.

At DLIADT, Maria O’Rourke displayed, in her vision of The Pursuit of Paradise, a capacity comparable to Madden’s for visualising complex social organisations. The piece is a construction built from fine china, bedding plants, daylight bulbs and cola fountains. An accompanying video (which seemed to be a trade video by a company marketing artificially preserved tree ferns), underlined the point that paradise made is paradise lost.
At NCAD, Oisin Byrne’s chilled, blissed-out vision in his amelia blossom haven recalls the hopes of alternative cultural movements from the 1960s on. Louise Butler gives a personal twist to the wider picture with idealised accounts of personal experiences of magical places in two- and three-dimensional representations, while K Bear Koss’s robotic tricyclist (at Digital Hub) is a messenger from a post-biological future.

It’s no secret that NCAD faculty head Brian Maguire is a proponent of direct social and environmental engagement and, in several ways, such engagement is evident, rather startlingly in the case of Holly Asaa’s architecture for rats. Her construction to ease the daily lives of rats on the Grand Canal – really – is unorthodox, to say the least, and is in keeping with her belief that we need a creative approach to ecological problems. In practice her apparatus came to grief at the hands of humans, not rodents.

More predictably, if as extreme in its way, Denis Roche’s Pavilion for Arresting Dominant Architecture is an actual inflatable pavilion, designed as a functioning therapeutic intervention in hospital contexts. It is intended to provide a space apart for patients undergoing treatment, providing a physical and visual climate that mitigates the stresses inherent in the clinical context. The weakest point relates to the further, specific role of “the artist” in a functioning space: relaying images via mobile-phone cameras, for example, seems like a less than inspired and inspiring idea.

Augustine O’Donoghue, an art activist and general agent provocateur, occupies a major portion of the Digital Hub with a variety of projects, variously documented. Some involve her arguments with commissioning bodies and fellow artist Jochen Gerz, whose Ballymun Regeneration project, Amaptocare, she took issue with. She also chronicles student opposition to the possibility of moving NCAD to Belfield. But the main thrust of her work here relates to her involvement with Latin-American political movements.

Dominic Thorpe’s well-visualised research project (Digital Hub) concerns the incidence of suicide among young men within a given population. Also at the Hub, Ronan Sharkey’s exploration of the meaning of the term “multicultural” in Irish and other contexts is subtle and persuasive. Eight different individuals from various ethnic backgrounds narrate versions of one story: an account of a migrant from Northern Ireland in London. Some of the complexities, difficulties and realities of the migratory experience become apparent in the course of the narration, which requires time and patience, but amounts to a very good piece of work.

IT USED TO be that the NCAD sculpture graduates came up with a succession of installations characterised by a mood of brooding introspection, dealing with a variety of personal issues. And, as it happens, with some exceptions, that’s not a wildly inaccurate description of this year’s sculpture show, which has an air of personal issues revisited. Revisited, because one is inclined to feel: Haven’t we already done that? Not that things aren’t well dramatised and articulated, but there is a curiously retrograde quality to the level of self-absorption they entail. In her exceptionally well devised and organised installation, Priscila Fernandes (who, for the record, is under the heading of painting and not sculpture) comes across as being a more mature artist precisely because of her critical distance from material that deals with fundamental facets of identity. Fernandes, in fact, has devised two viable artistic identities, Francisco J and Ana Garcini. The former’s intricately elaborated theory and practice of sandwich-eating, together with a terrifically deadpan video, is worth careful study. But the essential point in relation to her (their) work here is that an artist can deal genuinely and convincingly with complex issues of identity outside of a gruelling mode of confessional autobiography.

At DLIADT, for example, Aayse Leflef’s Site Notice signalled a deconstruction of self, at least in terms of possessions, with considerable lightness and humour. Not quite as drastic, admittedly, as English artist Michael Landy’s systematic destruction of everything he owned, including his car, but effective all the same. Clothes, shoes, memorabilia, sketchbooks, paintings and more were bound to a series of huge tentacles extending from a skip. At show’s end, the residual contents were destined for a landfill site, though visitors could save individual items by staking a claim on them and explaining why.
Destruction was also to the fore in Kathryn Ryan’s Time Continuum at DLIADT. Hard not to warm to her rebellion against the tyranny of the clock, which involved the meticulously documented destruction of the kind of institutional timepiece that, she pointed out, had been a highly visible presence in much of her life to date.

At NCAD, Niamh White’s ingenious performative allegory of how we maintain emotional equilibrium is also a funny/serious piece, while Sylvia Hemingway’s research into a slice of her own family history broadens into a wider exploration of how destiny and identity are shaped by chance and circumstance. Aspects of childhood often provide a rich source of fascination for students. Hannah Doyle (DLIADT) invented an ambiguous fantasy world, mingling elements of salvation myths and the Pied Piper in her tale of a boy saviour. Gorey’s Marianne Cullen inventively combined painted and photographic animation in her recollection of past events in a strikingly evoked rural setting.

There was a storybook quality to Vera Klute’s brilliant amalgam of stills and video (DLIADT), in which a simple stroll became an investigation of perception and reality. Comparably, Anita Delaney’s staged animal-human videos (DLIADT) were explorations of language, communication and meaning. Perhaps influenced by William Kentridge, David O’Kane (NCAD) also plays with notions of illusion and reality in his fast-witted animation. The same influence is evident in Matthew O’Kane’s capable animation (NCAD), but his video of a winter train journey is particularly atmospheric.

AS FOR THE DJs, Gorey’s Daniel Smith’s video, Dance Music for Dummies, was exactly as the title suggests, and made a really good job of it. Meanwhile, Ross MacKay (DLIADT) invited visitors to generate music by jumping on speakers. Sarah Rubin, again from Gorey, bravely set off for Los Angeles to document at first hand the world of Krump music and dance, a competitive form of cultural activity that has to some degree replaced much more lethal pursuits. And, again at DLIADT, Rachel O’Dwyer’s sound installation was atmospherically powerful.

The contemporary taste for very focused painting with a wary, analytical approach to modes of representation and processes is richly evident in NCAD in works by Tempy Osborne, Anne Hendrick, Olive Ambrose, Aoife Miskella, Emma Roche, Amy Sheridan and Lucy Sheridan, while Sarah O’Neill’s constructed installation is essentially a bravura three-dimensional painting. NCAD’s Mary McDermot, meanwhile, moved from painting to video and looks exceptionally promising. Gorey was strong on painting, with Genieve Figgis’s corrosive figuration, for example, but also fine works by Denise Lavery, Kathleen Sheehan, John Fennell and Margaret Carty Byrne. Sheena Dempsey (DLIADT) devised an accomplished variation on the vogue for pinning masses of small individual drawings or paintings to the wall. Her coloured drawings, with a nice quality of line and form, outline a specific scenario: awakening in unfamiliar surroundings after a drunken sexual encounter. Images of half-consumed and rotting fruit (age-old symbols of carnality, she points out) were integral to the overall seedy scheme. Also at DLIADT, Paul MacCormaic’s pointed, deadpan surrealism attracted a lot of comment.

John Graham’s Projections/Plans/ Elevations(Location a) is impressively well done. Uniformly slow tracking shots explore the empty interior of the Digital Hub as a nondescript industrial space. A soundtrack establishes a correspondence between the idea of the space employed (for the MA exhibition) and deserted, and that of the human body alive and dead. The space in use is “haunted” by vacancy. Barbara Knezevic, brings life to the Hub with her disciplined, crisply organised performance piece, Fear of the unknown. The tension, empathy and discomfort that characterise performance works that put the artist in positions of stress are all here. Finally, if you find you’re a bit footsore negotiating the NCAD’s enormous show, take a breather in Johanna Hughes’s fully functioning chocolate cafe in the print department.