Irish literary figures loom large in Dublin, often used to turn a profit at the expense of the tourist (which seems to directly counter-balance the amount of turning the author might be doing in their grave), from the annual Bloomsday celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to the Samuel Beckett Centenary Festival. Unlike these émigrés, W.B. Yeats was a spokesman for the contested nascent Irish national identity, trying in his poetry to reclaim an idealized, windswept Celtic heritage. The inaugural Dublin Contemporary, conceived as a documenta-style quintennial, took its title – ‘Terrible Beauty’ – from the refrain of Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’, adding to it a lengthy subtitle: ‘Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance’. Calling in the international art brigade to curate the affair – albeit interesting choices in Brussels-based Peruvian artist and curator Jota Castro and New York-based Chilean curator and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné – then having them name the whole thing after a Yeats poem had more than a whiff of condescension (oddly enough, Victoria Noorthoorn’s concurrent Lyon Biennial pulled the same title out of the hat).
Castro and Viveros-Fauné aimed to draw parallels between the cultural potential of the 1916 struggle for Irish independence and the country’s current economic volte-face. This was an expressly political show, but if anything was taken from Yeats, it was his sense of melodrama and theatrical politics: this ‘terrible beauty’ was loud and earnest, with the affectation of straight talking. Dan Perjovschi and Thomas Hirschhorn did their thing, which has grown perhaps too familiar but is still effective. Teresa Margolles’s The Keys of the City (2011) involved Mexican key cutters telling of their experiences, while the protagonists of Chen Chien-Jen’s video Empire’s Borders I (2009–10) relate in detail their failures to be granted visas by the Chinese authorities. Getting a graffiti crew to spray straight onto the walls of the National Gallery of Ireland felt like this ‘direct’ impulse trying a little too hard. Several strong works – from Superflex and Omer Fast, as well as Margolles’s In The Air (2003–11), Alicia Frankovich’s short film Volution (2011) and Declan Clarke’s video Cologne Overnight (2010), which traces German author Heinrich Böll from a devastated postwar Cologne to Ireland’s own current ruins – mediated the politics with a more appropriately ambiguous approach. ‘Bigger is better’ won the day, though. Next to an oversized, angular reflective sculpture by Castro himself, was a wall text with this remarkable claim: ‘Large-scale art works have often preyed on superficial aspects of pop culture and the media to attract attention. In the case of artists like Wang Du, Thomas Hirschhorn, Wilfredo Prieto and other artists in this exhibition, the normal rules of spectacle need not apply – criticality and viewer participation instead stand in for entertainment and passivity.’
Dublin Contemporary’s main venue, the old medical school Earlsfort Terrace, was an amazing setting used to frustrating effect, with essentially one artist shown in each of nearly 100 rooms. While this approach suited punchy things like Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s concrete-covered painting Horror Vacuii (2011) or Matt Calderwood’s plasterboard sculpture, more often it left many works hanging with a debilitating air of theatrical expectancy. For example, in one set of adjacent spaces, the glitz of Jim Lambie’s chair sculpture I Remember (Square Dance) (2009) was juxtaposed with Nina Berman’s 2007 series of photographs documenting the marriage and home life of a US Marine disfigured by a suicide bomber in Iraq, giving the photos a cheap staged feel, and leaving Lambie’s sculpture looking flippant. Away from the main venue, there were some baffling curatorial choices: not only the inclusion of the trippy fluff of Lisa Yuskavage, but her pairing in the Royal Hibernian Academy with James Coleman’s terse contemporary recasting of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (an ongoing project titled 2004–2011).
But underneath all this were works that didn’t have to shout, as well as a few genuine surprises. The glow from the caged refrigerators of Masashi Echigo’s Satisfy (2011) said more than the myriad outspoken works throughout the city. While the plastic bags, photos, buckets and bottles of Miks Mitrevics stood out possibly more because it was the only installation in the exhibition with an open, beneficially unfinished feel to it, the room of Italian duo vedovamazzei had an air of playful threat, two broken wooden pallets defiantly facing a defaced portrait.
There was a particular tangle of promise and spectacle embodied in the large, half-warm, half-mistrusting face in Braco Dmitrijevic´’s vast portrait, Casual Passer-by I Met at 3:46pm, Dublin (2011), which adorned the front of the main venue. Castro and Viveros-Fauné attempted to perform and to create a certain activated citizenship, and while Dublin Contemporary’s spectacle became self-imploding – its own terrible beauty – the promise was perhaps ultimately fulfilled by the accumulative parallel events, exhibitions and the city itself. The Festival of Terrible Beauty, anyone?