Junique Consare, Director of The Irish Museum of Modern Art, defends the Museum’s decision to acquire Conceptual Artist, Nevin D’Or’s N2O Vendor.

It is my fervent belief that the acquisition of N2O Vendor will be seen as a milestone in the history of Irish Art. Not only will it afford the Irish public an opportunity to experience, firsthand, the work of a Twentieth Century master, it will consolidate IMMA’s reputation internationally as a centre of artistic excellence.

The recent outcry in response to the purchase – fuelled by intemperate comments in the press and media – is an understandable reaction, but it is my belief that given the means to understand the work, the public will come to cherish it, seeing our stewardship of it for the privilege and honour it is.

Working outside the mainstream, the New York born D’Or has toiled at the coalface of innovation most of his professional life. In the mid-1950s, he produced a slew of highly experimental works, all traces of which he has assiduously endeavoured to destroy.

Walls of Jericho – his first iconic foray – was a dizzy, roller coaster of self-portraiture he toured through the photo booths of Europe, encircling the major museums like a photogenic Joshua. [1] An artistic coup d’état, it turned the post-war era on its head, leaving in its wake a transient pop aesthetic that bore all the hallmarks of D’Or’s mellifluous genius.

His Swinging D’Or’s video inhalations of the 1960s paved the way for the seminal W.O.M.B. bilaterals, [2] which taken in tandem with his ‘60s inhalations created the first of D’Or’s Breathing Cycles – the same Breathing Cycles that would kick-start the Environmental Art movement of the Seventies.

Ridiculed by a reactionary establishment, squinted at by a dazzled public, D’Or withdrew from the art world in 1969 and moved to Alaska. In 1970, he married Alaskan poet, Desiderata Formica, and spend the next eight years working on his cinematic masterpiece, the mythic, In More Ways That One, which he premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival to such critical acclaim.

The plot of In More Ways That One concerns a certain two-headed, serpent-tailed dog called D’Orthus, who is set to guard his master, (the three-bodied giant and king of the sunset isle of Vendeia), Greyno’s fabulous herd of red-skinned cattle. Having suffered years of abuse at the hands of Greyno, D’Orthus turns on his master and kills him. In the final section of the film (after setting the fabulous herd free) D’Orthus travels to northern Vendeia where, overcome with grief, he throws himself off a cliff. The final hours of the film – in what must surely rank as cinema’s most protracted death scene – are taken up with the two-headed D’Orthus’s fractious ruminations with himself. [3]

Of the twenty-four hour marathon, Cinéma Magazine said: ‘It takes the rabid dog of convention by the scruff of the neck and in brushstrokes of diffuse opacity tells it to shut the fuck up’. So impressed was the Cannes Jury they renamed the Grand Prix in his honour. Hence1forth, it would be known as the Palme D’Or and would represent all that was innovative in cinematography.

In the mid-eighties, D’Or returned to New York and the conceptual fold with a series of covert Manhattan soundscapes. Infamous for the impromptu use of anti-venues, (litterbins, public toilets, telephone kiosks, parking spaces), Candy Coated Concrete was a vibrant cauldron of collisions, crashes, gunshots, screeches, screams, and wailing sirens [4] that spliced pop poverty with a world-weary sense of refinement.

Having left the curatorial intelligentsia crying into their white cubes, the 1990s saw him innovating yet again, founding, in 1992, the landmark Queuing Collective. Transitionally archived on billboards and advertising hoarding, members of the Collective lined up to prostrate themselves before an array of consumer icons such as Hoover, Kleenex, Xerox, Band-Aid. [5] Though it lasted but a number of months, the influence of the Collective was immense, inspiring a generation of queues across the globe. It was queuing that dragged Performance Art out of its moral morass – the pseudo-religious, quasi-theatrical quagmire it had languished naked and reeking of dead fish in for over a decade – forcing it into new heights of interlocution. Queuing Collectives sprang up across the globe: Helsinki, Tokyo, Istanbul, Moscow, Montreal, all saw artists lining up in the name of D’Or. By uniting, however briefly, the conventions of cultural and mass consumption, aD’Orers – as its practitioners were known – transformed that most soulless of social conventions into a radical realignment, an adjustment described most memorably by Bentley Bennett in his essay, aD’Oring for a Living, (Bedfellows Review, 1993), as ‘the fattened calf of entropy roasted … on the quantum spit of empathy’.

D’Or formed his last queue, a bloated snake of debauchery called Waiting-in-line for the Twenty-first Century, on the 31st December 1999.

At two minutes to midnight, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with leukaemia [6] and told he had but a couple of years to live.

Defying medical opinion, he would survive for seven more years, and taking fate by the ears, dedicate himself to distributing his work across the globe to the institutions he felt would be their best custodian.

Commercial transactions of any sort are anathema to D’Or, so the price he charged (inclusive of a modest stipend to cover his palliative needs) would cover production and administration costs alone. Considering that the finished pieces have taken decades to mature, this was generosity on a monumental scale.

And so in 2002, under a billowing cloud of secrecy, Tate Modern acquired his personal exegesis, Head Wrench [7] – his decade-long quest (he wore a Gingham pinafore for the duration) to carve 10,000 monkey wrenches from his hair follicles using laser-technology – and in 2004, under that same taut shroud of stealth, the Bilbao Guggenheim saw his anti-retrospective, Ground State Transition 9,192,631,770, [8] flounder timelessly in a Waterford crystal aquarium in the shape of an AK-47 assault rifle. [9]

Now it is the turn of IMMA to embrace D’Or, and take its place among the Museums of the world.

How, one might ask, did we come to be the recipient of such a monstrous rarity? [10]

Though his selection methods are shrouded in secrecy, I suspect D’Or’s Irish ancestry played no small part in his decision to offer us  N2O Vendor.

Having researched various strands of his family history most of his life – D’Or’s great-grandmother emigrated from Donegal in the 1800s – he travelled, in a last-ditch effort to locate himself historically, to Ireland in the mid-1990s. This was when I first met with D’Or. [11] He mentioned in passing that he was seeking a home for his final work. “It’s based on laughter,” he said, “and I’m thinking of the Emerald Isle as a possible abode.”

It wasn’t till Desiderata phoned me four years later (from a hospice in the south of France) that I realised the acquisition was on the cards. In the mysterious world of D’Or, rumour is currency, misinformation the exchange – and the backlash from the overlooked (constituting a substantial slice of the curatorial cake) has resulted in his being pencilled out of the contemporary cannon in many quarters.

After our initial conversation in ‘98, I was under strict instructions not to disclose any details of the acquisition till it got the legal go ahead, and given the small body of work D’Or’s produced, I remained sceptical the acquisition would come to fruition, all too keenly aware, as I was, of the many high-profile vendors who’ve been D’Ored down the years by the glint-eyed prankster.

It was late 2007 I was finally able to announce, with immense pride and no small measure of relief, that a space was being constructed in IMMA to house our latest acquisition,  N2O Vendor by terminally ill Artist, Nevin D’Or.

April 2008, with the formalities completed, the work was delivered to IMMA under cover of darkness.

As with all D’Or’s output, the title is key to understanding the work of this most tenacious of craftsman, and  N2O Vendor with its complex overlapping formulas and formalities is no exception.

Before studying archaeology, history, and political science, D’Or trained as a nuclear physicist, [12] and the rigours of this discipline have stayed with him down the years.

N2O is the chemical symbol for Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas as it’s more commonly known, so we might think of D’Or as an  N2O vendor, a vendor of artistic laughing gas, and indeed, the emitting of a laughter gas is intricate to  N2O Vendor’s functioning, its enfolding itself into IMMA, Dublin and the island of Ireland beyond.

As N2O Handle, (the handmade instructional booklet that accompanies the work), stipulates: ‘all laughter produced by N2O Vendor is to be recorded and archived in the underground storage facility, Chamber D’Or’.

Designed by D’Or himself (working from his deathbed in a joint venture with the Northern Ireland Art’s Council), the Chamber is currently under construction in the Mourne Mountains [13] and will house, as part of a cross-border initiative, the extracted Southern laughter.

Returning to the title, we notice it contains the two outer constituents of D’Or’s initials, N and O, with a binary 2 taking the place of the truncated D. By placing his Christian name – the original Latin of Nevin means sacred bone – in relation to the Or in his surname, D’Or exhumes himself within a negation, fashioning from the excavated ore the Golden Bone of Contention [14] so much in evidence in  N2O Handle.

If we ignore the number 2, the title reads, No Vendor, a central theme in D’Or’s Breathing Cycles, that of separating the life-giving oxygen of creation from the poisonous carbon monoxide of commerce. [15]

Dropping N2O Handle’s 2, on the other hand, provides a ready caution to the overzealous sleuth. We would do better to stick to what N2O Handle invites us to do; repeat the No Vendor mantra while breathing deeply of the laughter gas till, amid the chuckles and guffaws, our words splice into the Artist’s name itself. To quote briefly from  N2O Handle again, ‘drop and chant, drop and chant, No Vendor, No Vendor, No VenD’or …’ with the formula  N2O – 2 = ∞, the circle connecting artwork, artist and audience in a loop of life-sustaining laughter.

It’s through intricate formulas such as these D’Or redefines our expanding global conversation. As a cultured people, he says, we laugh at that which is narrow-minded and formulaic, and feel a sense of liberation in this divisive act of derision. But, he says, we must beware, for this is a complex laughter, [16] a laughter that must be buried like toxic waste in the Mourne Mountains.

This subversion is characteristic of all D’Or’s output, his deepening of our understanding of what it means, collectively, to express ourselves within the complex vocal modalities of volition and comprehension. D’Or weaves his meanings wholesale, he both mines and undermines, and throughout his work not just mathematical and molecular but highly personal formulas proliferate, vying with each other for that most emblematic of plaintiff primacies: inexorably probative or audibly triumphal,  the terminal, palliative laugh.

But it is in his political perspectives, his end-of-the-day panoramas, that D’Or’s work engages most fully.

When I was a sweet-toothed youth, dentists used  N2O as a tool for deadening the senses. Now D’Or resurrects the practice and this time he’s drilling a nation’s molars, and the side of an Irish mountain, eliciting that most soluble of utterances, the gaudy-giddy rumpus of hilarity.

Delve again into the transcendental Vendor and notice  N2, symbol of nitrogen, nutritional essence encircling the earth, and as  N2O Handle points out, used and abused as an artificial fertiliser: ‘The artefact of fruitfulness driven into the earth’, just as D’Or pulls laughter from the Irish body politic and drives it into the windswept Irish landscape.

“To create now,” he’s reported to have said when he heard he was dying, “is the wound in the last alignment.”

And so D’Or, steeped in decline, weakened and weighted with cancer’s anarchic ambivalence, asks this: will ours be the laugh of the liberator or the smirk of the damned, the grin of redemption or the murderous snort of derision?

Tucked away in  N2O Handle is a memoir clear as daylight, a paragraph describing how his late grandmother, Annie D’Or’s laughter marked his early years. Detailed in prose that sparkles with an electromagnetic lustre, he tells how when she died his sense of belonging was sundered.

“It was nuclear disintegration,” said the onetime physicist, “like Rutherford splitting the atom.” Standing in the N2O Vendor Room, N2O Handle before us in its box of purest perspex, we slip comfortably into the past, Annie D’Or’s laughter tinkling amiably in our heads. All’s well that ends well, we think. All’s well with the world.

The  N2O flows, the pages rise and fall, the ambience waxing mirthful.

As the leaves turn, we’re pulled into a wintry present. A series of images – maimed and mangled carcasses – confronts us, D’Or’s equation shape-shifting one more time.

Bloodlines drip and splatter in a hell of road kill statistics. It’s the motorway with the highest accident rate in Ireland, the deadly  N2 winding its transports of violence through roundabouts as cancerous as D’Or’s corpuscles. [17]

A positively charged tear is shed as the laughter comes full circle.

At the end of the month an audiotape will be sealed and shipped north for burial.

As death draws near, his Breathing Cycles approaching their summation, D’Or beckons us to come closer. We would do well to heed his words.

It is my fervent belief that when it opens to the public, N2O Vendor – and the Kellsian N2O Handle – will take its rightful place, both north and south, in the Irish heart, Irish mind and Irish imagination. I commend it to the Nation.

Benjamin Robinson

This text was first published in The Benefactor Magazine; more here.

1. Inviting members of the public to join him in the booth for quadriptych renditions of annunciation, desertion, defilement, and atonement.
2. The W.O.M.B. (word-of-mouth breathing) bilaterals were an attempt to incubate, through D’Or’s hybrid mastication system, new linguistic vectors by passing key phrases back and forth from mouth to mouth.
3. The shattering of the heads against the rocky Northern Vendeia shoreline, shot on location in southern Venezuela, has been widely interpreted (Farrow and O’Deery, et al.) as D’Or attempting – in the context of his Irish-Americanism – to re-birth his identity through the war-torn labia of Socratic obfuscation.
4. D’Or produced all the sounds effects with his own voice, save one stray clamour: a hollow tapping of bone on wet gold heard outside the Consulado de España on East 58th Street.
5. Reiterating his Breathing Cycles with this one: a suck-blow-copy-cover configuration that implies both the presence and healing of a wound in the last alignment.
6. Through each turn of the chemotherapy screw, Head Wrench’s barren struggle would reverberate as dislodged clumps of hair wound themselves into a tightening noose.
7. He was ahead of the posse here, process and product welded tight-as-a-bun: Think Rodin’s The Thinker as a cross-dressing Samson tearing his hair out.
8. Under the International System of Units, the second is currently defined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.”
9. Training its sights inward, this pellucid piece of über-booty pivoted weaponry’s role in conflict resolution round an outré act of depletion.
10 As far back as Walls of Jericho, D’Or was aware of the monstrousness of his originality – the photo-booth photos were eventually fashioned into a disposable trumpet and blown by D’Or at the opening of Candy Coated Concrete.
11. A frail figure, he was wearing gold shoes with thick rubber soles and his trademark beige suit with orange piping – a ‘bout ya’ to his Northern-Irish grandfather – topped off with a cone of slate-grey hair.
12. It was within the subatomic quark-mire he first sniffed artistic pay dirt.
13. A mountain range in the south-east of Northern Ireland, close to the southern border.
14. The idea for the Golden Bone of Contention came to D’Or while shooting, In More Ways That One. Describing his time behind the camera as, “the wishbone of hope Spanish dancing on the blood-stained ingot of oppression,” he would remain, for the rest of his life, ambivalent about his Venezuelan enterprise.
15. Akin, D’Or says, to the separation of Church and State and another clue to his choosing Ireland as the work’s custodian.
16. The hybrid mastication system, turning its back on vector incubation in favour of a horizon of rogue hysterics.
17. O+, naturally.