Athlone bucks trend with new gallery launch
The Luan Gallery hopes to build on Athlone’s annual drama festival and broaden the region’s cultural image, writes AIDAN DUNNE
Does Ireland need another public art gallery at the moment? On the face of it, no. Substantial arts centres in several parts of the country, including Letterkenny’s Regional Arts Centre and Carlow’s Visual, are struggling to function effectively in trying financial circumstances. It is against this difficult background that Athlone is launching a new gallery, propitiously situated on the Shannon at the western edge of the town bridge. Its name was chosen by popular vote: the Luan Gallery derives from the Irish Baile Áth Luain.
The question is not as simple as it seems, however. For one thing, the Luan Gallery fills an obvious gap. It’s accurately described as “the first purpose-built, modern visual art gallery located in the midlands”, but this is not the whole story.
While a substantial part of the building is new – it was designed by Keith Williams architects, which is responsible for the Wexford Opera House and Athlone civic offices – the project tactfully extends a well-known building, the 1897 Fr Mathew Hall, fondly regarded by many in the town for its erstwhile roles as library, town hall, concert hall and cinema. The budget was €3.4 million, invested by the town itself, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Border, Midland and Western Regional Assembly.
The original building, the location next to St Peter and Paul’s Church, and the compact, architecturally impressive castle with its decagonal keep set the scale, so that the gallery’s several exhibition spaces are capacious but very manageable and approachable.
They are also equipped with impressive audiovisual and other facilities. The inaugural exhibition, Borrowed Memories, shows off the space well.
Drawn from Imma’s collection, it is intriguing for the number of regional connections one can discern, even though that wasn’t the rationale governing the selection. In several cases there’s a sense that work by these artists really should be seen here, and we may well gain insight into it by viewing it in context.
For example, Longford-born Daphne Wright’s 2000 installation Where Do Broken Hearts Go alludes to the Irish fondness for country and western music.
Using tinfoil to create an installation of giant cacti, she mingles the prosaically domestic and the culturally exotic.
Another Longford-born artist, Shane Cullen, shows his text-based installation Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV. In it he reprints the hunger strikers’ messages smuggled out of the H-Blocks in 1981, tiny, compressed and perishable things, in the form of an establishment monument: in fact, the apparently stone slabs, incised with chiselled lettering, are polystyrene.
On the one hand it can be read as monumentalising the republican struggle; on the other, it might suggest that in the long run republicanism is institutionally comparable to the order it seeks to replace. In this regard, the nature and texture of the language used in the messages is particularly interesting and worth close attention.