author: Hilary Murray
byline: Hilary Murray is a writer.
venue: Ballymun, Dublin

John Byrne: Misneach (courage), at the foundry, April 2009; photo Paul McAree
caption:John Byrne: Misneach (courage), at the foundry, April 2009; photo Paul McAree

There is an eerie mixture of old and new to the town of Ballymun, Dublin. Besides the dominant police station that stretches for a block, the Axis Civic Centre sits alongside and forms the centre for artistic endeavour for the new Ballymun. Yet for all this newness, the spectre of the tower blocks can still be seen in the breaks between the newer buildings. This arbitrary situation reflects the frenetic development of Ballymun throughout the past ten years. Any move beyond the main street and one is immediately amongst the remains of what was Ballymun, still present, permanent and unchanging.

The most recent commission by Breaking ground, the art-based regeneration programme for Ballymun, is an installation by artist Kevin Atherton at Balcurris Park. The reflective surface of this piece morphs the surroundings into a concentrated viewing platform of the estate behind it. The idea of the installation deals with notions of broken identity; each part of the sphere is separate and incomplete, much like the original idea behind Ballymun. However, the question arises, does the idea of Ballymun alter a work of art in such a manner that we come to the work with the same prejudices that we come with to Ballymun itself? Atherton’s Another sphere and Andrew Clancy’s Cathode/ anode, which sits outside the Civic Centre, are unusual in that they can be easily accessed from the outside; other projects are intricately involved in the community. Paul McAree, the project manager for Breaking ground, argues that the idea behind the work commissioned was always to have a varied programme, from works accessible to everyone, such as Another sphere, to more private projects such as Jeanette Doyle’s Portrayals, developed in collaboration with the women of Star Project, a local drug-rehabilitation initiative.

Much of the artwork commissioned over the past nine years has, however, remained intimately related to an older idea of Ballymun. In fact, the dramatically changing environment that surrounds the populace situates the inhabitants in a constant state of flux. When one examines the historicity of Ballymun we can see that this situation is the exact problem. In 1966 the first tenants moved into the ultra-modern Ballymun complex, frequently from city centre slum-clearance areas. The estate was still in the process of being built. The government pursued a policy of providing incentives to those vacating local-authority dwellings in an effort to increase the number of units available to those on housing waiting lists. Therefore a constant wave of dislocation attached to the towers; they were rarely viewed as a full-time home, though as we know, for many people they became just that. The situation of Ballymun and the lack of infrastructure left the burgeoning community socially isolated and stagnating. Social-policy expert Anne Power, who first visited Ballymun in 1968, argued that “people were being plucked out of established communities into isolated, separate and dislocated boxes, with few social networks.”1

What is often levelled at housing strategie such as Ballymun is that they created an overly aestheticised vision of the home, one that was impractical for families. Images of modernist architecture and their demolition seem to coexist in today’s society such is the ease with which we have seen so many disappear. Modernism espoused rationality, lack of sentimentality, lack of historical context, and functionality; such buildings are definitively not ideal for use in social housing. Yet in saying this, apartments such as those in Ballymun are architecturally historically relevant. Many similar developments in the UK have remained and been repackaged for single occupants and pensioners. The bonus to such a scheme is that many of these buildings, so influenced by the aesthetic of the contemporary, are naturally at ease with a host of concomitant artistic outlays, such as galleries and theatres. The integration of art into such estates is easier than might seem likely.

In 2007 Breaking ground became internationally noted as an important art initiative with their commission of Seamus Nolan’s hugely successful Hotel Ballymun. This work focused on the sense of abandonment felt by the removal of the towers. Nolan’s ‘occupation’ of the towers advanced the notion that by abandoning the towers (themselves so synonymous with Ballymun) one risks eliminating the historicity of the place and those that grew up there. A certain denouncement of heritage occurs when the childhood home is permanently erased and can cause a dissociated ambivalence within the neighbourhood. As we have seen from discourse surrounding Irish emigrants living abroad, their sense of identity and belonging has been dislodged, resulting in a semi-existence where they do not belong to their foreign home, yet remain permanently removed from their place of birth. This isolation is felt more severely when economic upheaval occurs within the time-space of emigration.

McAree argues that people are nostalgic for the flats and old buildings, and so projects such as Hotel Ballymun create “an immediate relationship, something familiar”; it also “allows an opportunity to think about what might have been.” It is asking a lot for artwork to provide this connection to lineage as well as repair the sense of isolation felt by the residents, yet many of the artworks chosen by the regeneration project do attempt this feat.

In earlier works such as Doyle’s Portrayals and Niamh Breslin’s Playhouses, we see that socially engaged commissions run the risk of becoming an outlet for much-needed counselling or childcare services within the community. One can argue that here art has entered into the dilution of the public sphere. Does this compromise art? Or, more to the point, is this the only way one can cajole the community into art, by playing to their weaknesses? In recent years this distinction has been ironed out. Firstly the Axis Centre is based here – permanently, so it is part of the community. Works that deal directly with the architecture of the place, such as Stephen Brandes and Brigid Harte’s Superbia, Paddy Jolley’s Here after, and the exhibition Art in the life world, which was held in the old swimming pool, incorporate the social identity of Ballymun whilst actively engaging the community. Another move by Breaking ground to challenge the pitfalls of compromise is the commissioning of well established artists such as Mark Francis and Corban Walker. Francis’ painting Expose and Walker’s Zip are classic pieces by well known artists that just happen to be situated in the Axis Centre, Ballymun. Placing works such as these, works that can often be seen in larger gallery spaces, situates contemporary art in relation to the community; however, it does not limit it to such a community relation.

For Ballymun on the eve of 2010 there is a sense in the community of moving past the old idea of Ballymun. For McAree this has been reflected in the Breaking ground commissions; “we realised that halfway through the regeneration process, Hotel Ballymun would probably be the last moment to work within the flats – after Clarke Tower was demolished we were symbolically beyond the half-way point, and wanted to focus more on the future, the Ballymun that was ahead.” Commissions for 2010 reflect this forward-looking attitude. John Byrne’s Misneach (Courage), a monumental sculpture of a teenage girl on a horse, is to be installed in February 2010, incorporating the heritage of Ballymun and the determined community attitude of moving beyond their imposed identity.

An Art Map of all offsite permanent commissions across Ballymun and a major publication documenting Breaking Ground projects from 2002 – 2009 are available from Axis Ballymun.

1 Anne Power, Estates on the edge: social consequences of mass housing in Northern Europe since 1850, London: Routledge, 1993