There is much to be excited about regarding a publication such as Creative Ireland: The Visual Arts, which aims at presenting the visual arts of the twenty-first century in Ireland through the selection of 100 artists and a series of essays, an excitement that is almost inevitably accompanied by disappointment or frustration. Such an act of selection stakes a necessary but controversial position which, like its immediate predecessor, Robert O’Byrne’s Dictionary of Living Irish Artists, is bound to attract angry reactions about who is in and who is not, as well as the method of selection. 1 But it also offers opportunities to discuss how the visual arts are represented and whether this should be challenged.
Creative Ireland is published by Visual Artists Ireland and is co-curated / edited by Noel Kelly and Seán Kissane. The comparison with the Dictionary of Living Irish Artists is worth developing as both volumes share more than publishing proximity (the Dictionary was published in 2010) and their similarities are as telling as their differences. Both selected a set number of artists – two hundred for the dictionary – giving each two pages: one with text – including a short bio – the other with an image of their work 2; both stick to a dictionary-like approach, organizing artists by their names in alphabetical order.
But whereas the Dictionary nominally places itself within a lineage which started with Walter Strickland’s dictionary of ‘dead’ Irish artists in 1913, emphasising the artist’s legacy, Creative Ireland, in focusing on a given period of time – the first decade of the twenty-first century – and what artists did during that time regardless of their previous career, sets the accent on the works in the making. Thus not only are emerging artists more generously represented, but established artists are given a fresh approach – for instance the work of Dorothy Cross, included in both volumes, is here represented by Sheet, 2004, described by Kissane as “a Shroud of Turin of jellyfish,” and is completely free of cowhides or udders.
This leads to another difference: the choice of image and artwork that represent each artist: the Dictionary relied on images provided either by the artist or her / his representative and they are presented in parallel to a generic biographical text. The editor /curators – emphasis on the later – of Creative Ireland chose the work and the image and focused the accompanying text on it. As a result the text, although very short, manages to be very specific. This approach also shifts the emphasis onto the artwork rather than the individuality of the artist.
A valuable addition to the latest publication is a series of specially commissioned essays sited at the end of the volume, which draw on the cultural, institutional, academic and economic context. The essays, by Mebh Ruane, Valerie Connor, Colin Graham, Fiona Kearney and Brian Hand, offer different perspectives on the decade, enriching our understanding of the artworks produced and to an extent compensating for some of the selection shortcomings.
One might indeed regret that a more decisive departure in the choice of criteria for the selection was not made. Both Dictionary and Creative Ireland relied on presentation in galleries, key institutions and recognised collections to lead their choice of artists. In his introduction, Noel Kelly may well claim that it is a “transparently curated volume” by revealing the assessment points for inclusion of a system that would ‘self select’, which eventually avoids personal bias. It remains that these criteria themselves remain unchallenged: not only do they perpetuate an individualist approach to art-making – although some collaborative practices are present they remain under-represented – but it leaves out some of the most exciting developments of the visual arts in Ireland in the last ten years: the rise of artists’ collectives, of artist-run organisations, of peripheral practices that choose to engage with a specific context or community – an issue that is addressed in Valerie Connor’s essay. These practices would have a poor gallery / collection representation and would have had little chance to figure in the selection – if one comment is to be made on the selected artists themselves, it would surely be to point to the absence of Kennedy / Browne, for their collaborative or their individual practice.
Although Creative Ireland does challenge some aspects of the representation of Irish artists in previous undertakings, it perpetuates a selection process that promotes the individual rather than the collective and competition between peers rather than cooperation. On this note we might speculate on the appropriateness of Visual Artists Ireland publishing such a selection at all: VAI is an organization whose aim is to provide services to, support and represent its 1,500 paid members and more generally the 3,500 registered artists in Ireland – and not a selected few. It may be argued that it is published under the aegis of Printed Project, but as it is edited / curated by VAI’s own ‘Chief Executive Officer’ the ambivalence remains. This issue might be indirectly addressed by Kelly’s choice of title Primus Inter Pares for his introduction: but ‘First among equals’ sounds just like another way of saying that some artists are more equal than others. Other ambivalences may be pointed out between a stated aim to address a general / wider audience and the adoption of the sober sophistication of Printed Project’s design – this is no coffee-table book; or between a seemingly straight endorsement of the ‘creative economy’ – the marketing and the title – and a series of insightful and critical essays.
Although they could have been given a little more space in the layout, the essays not only give a good overview of what has been but point to pertinent issues for what will be. What emerges is that issues of national identity and postcolonialism have been superseded by the crisis of history and the conditions for a collective subject. In When Borders Cease to Exist, Colin Graham concludes that in spite of Tony Blair’s willful call for amnesia in 1998, “that we could all finally put the burden of history behind us,” the Peace Process had failed to challenge “identitarian forms of thinking in Northern Ireland” and that the ‘two traditions’ model has won out. An alternative to this amnesia / tradition dichotomy is the archival approach to history that is proposed in Valerie Connor’s That’s the Art World for You, somewhat akin to Michel Foucault’s idea of genealogy, which he describes as “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” and “opposes itself not to history but to the search for ‘origins’.” 3 Connor further supports the urgency to document and archive collective and collaborative work with a quote by Jan Verwoert stating that “a sense of history is intrinsically linked to a sense of freedom,” which continues with “the freedom to read the past, envision another future, and thus make other choices than those the powers of the present force upon you.”
Just as the Dictionary of Living Irish Artists may have been a trigger to its publication, let’s hope that Creative Ireland, regardless of its shortcomings, will generate further debates around the representation of the visual arts in Ireland and its place within Irish society; to this end we can only relay Kelly’s call for future books to “provide a glimpse into the other generations, styles and practices that exist in parallel to the ones featured” here. And nor should we deny our pleasure at flipping through these elegant pages and discovering new works.
Creative Ireland: The Visual Arts is a Printed Project publication, published by Visual Artists Ireland. September 2011