“Pure Potential…has been created by Smirnoff to celebrate the launch of a new icon and stylish bottle for the brand…"

I’ve heard of art exhibitions created to raise awareness of political conflicts, to celebrate the accession of our twelve new neighbour states in the EU even, but to launch a new shape of vodka bottle is a new one on me. That’s not to say that I didn’t go along to the opening of the event and partake of some of the free liquids being dispensed from said bottle, however. It seemed that many other people had the same idea as me, and Arthouse was jammed with people, so much so that the doormen got quite snotty. People getting turned away from an exhibition opening – surely that’s another first? Those inside were also treated to some very tasty bites (catering by Wagamama, I must give them the mention that they deserve). I had missed dinner to attend, so I did of course indulge myself generously.

While roaming around the gallery, I couldn’t help but notice that none of the work had name tags underneath, except for three pieces on the upper floor that were commissioned by Smirnoff…in case anyone missed the fact, the labels were printed not only with the artist’s names, but the brand new Smirnoff logo (just in case we forgot why we were here). The three commissioned works, by three different artists in the show, were hung together and away from the other works they had contributed, which visually and thematically made no sense whatsoever (except to emphasise Smirnoff’s supposedly generous and altruistic support of young artists).

Young artists are of course the perfect candidates for such a promotional event, for a number of reasons: they are equally eager for such publicity to kick-start their careers and the sponsor can present itself not only as a generous benefactor, but one that takes risks on fresh new talent (doesn’t that sound like it should be in a press release somewhere). This is in addition to the fact that young twentysomethings, the same demographic as the artists being supported here, are of course Smirnoff’s prime target market. So what’s to lose? Well, three paragraphs into this review and still no mention of the art! It would be hard to prioritise the artwork as it was patently clear from the opening that this occasion was a PR and marketing event, the exhibition functioning as a prop to allow it to happen. Even the words used to describe the work were using advertising lingo: the theme was described as ‘urban’, a lazy and general description commonly used to describe fashion trends.

Photography and video dominate the show, punctuated by some works in painting and drawing. In fact, the show as a whole inadvertently illustrates the closing gap between ‘fine art’ and commercial material in our image-saturated environment, calling to mind how the former can be co-opted and consumed by the latter (thinking for example of how Gillian Wearing’s Signs work was ripped off for a Volkswagen ad).

That is not to say that the work by these artists is not strong in itself, some of the photography in particular merits attention. Pauline Rowan’s photographs, the Showroom series, are excellent, depicting a model kitchen, bedroom and sitting room, all nervously inhabited (in the pristine kitchen, for example, a girl is crouched on the floor over a camping stove). Clearly related to the lifestyle concerns of a consumer society, these images speak of a desire for a degree of independence or self-sufficiency on a personal level within larger structures. They betray a mistrust of appearance and surface, both in terms of the photographic medium and at deeper levels.

Martin Cregg’s Freedom by the water series shares similar concerns to do with simulational representations and depthless surface, deftly explored through the highly appropriate medium of photography. The two works in the show depict billboard-hoarding images of tropical water, both in context and out of context with their surroundings; these works share with Rowan’s a rich irony. They manage to be gently humourous as well as being very clever.

Stephen Farrell: A landing in Ballymun’s Connolly Tower, C-print; courtesy The Workroom

Stephen Farrell’s photographs of Ballymun represent one of the most penetrating enquiries into the ‘urban’ theme, revealing a concern with the personal and social impact of the built environment. One photograph depicts an interior view of a landing, taken at Ballymun flats, scrawled in graffiti, the evidence of an impulse to appropriate or personalise the space. The other work on show depicts an exterior view of the towers, and a ghostly presence of young children playing. These works are quietly complex and invite contemplation on the sometimes difficult relationship between person and place, and ideas to do with the struggle for, or against, permanence.

From Pure Potential: Rhona Byrne, Urban Cowboy, video projection on sugar cubes; courtesy Smirnoff

Christel Chaudet’s Portrait of a woman as Venus is a rhythmic DVD piece that depicts a posing woman on a sofa, shifting uncomfortably. Sound and motion have been slowed down, altered and overlapped, creating an enticing rhythm that draws you into looking at the work. The presence of a goldfish bowl, and the use of murky underwater sounds, make an obvious point about viewership and the awareness of self-display that seems to be at the core of the work. Rhona Byrne’s Urban cowboy is a clever use of video projection. The work depicts the figure of the title, an ‘urban cowboy’, a young boy on a horse walking through Smithfield market. The piece is projected onto sugar cubes. Other works worthy of note are Gavin O’Curry’s deadpan photorealistic paintings of multi-storey carparks.

All in all, there is some genuinely engaging and interesting work in this show, and it’s great to see such quality work by young artists being presented to the public. From some angles, it does seem like this is a win-win situation for artists and promoter, but is this really the case? It’s probably just a young artist’s naïveté, but I can’t but feel a deep ambivalence about this show and its promotional strategy / use. Obviously there is no such thing as a neutral space to show artwork, and every venue has its own agenda which the artist willingly or unwillingly participates in. This show raised some questions for my own practice, namely, would I refuse to partake in such an event if I was offered the opportunity to exhibit work in such a prime location in Dublin?

While I valued the work on display (and thought it worthy of the standard of many of the commercial galleries) these misgivings remained unresolved for me as I participated in the whole affair, sipping an Ocean Breeze and chewing thoughtfully on sushi bites. The sponsored nibbles and my enjoyment of them did nothing to clear my mind or elucidate my thinking on my part in all this, complicit as I was by my consumption. In fact, the whole thing left me feeling rather confused. When I revisited the show after the opening, without any corporate canapés to stick in my craw, I felt able to look at the work on its own merits, but does this exhibition format really represent the win-win situation to artist and promoter that it seems? How does a critique of consumerism, arguably present in the work of Pauline Rowan for example, function in this context…is it subversive or subsumed?

Sarah Browne is an artist and writer currently based in Co. Kildare; she has also been selected for this year’s ev+a exhibition in Limerick.