City to city, together and apart

 

The selection of two socially engaged artists – who together make three – to represent Ireland at this year’s Venice Biennale is in tune with thoughtful, recessionary times, writes AIDAN DUNNE.

EVEN THOUGH IT has long been surpassed in terms of economic importance by innumerable art fairs, the Venice Biennale remains the most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art in the world, something that may well have to do with the unique beauty of the city itself. More than 70 countries are represented at each biennale and, when the 53rd opens on June 7th, Ireland will be represented by two – no, make that three – artists, Sarah Browne, Gareth Kennedy and Kennedy Browne. The latter is, in fact, a composite of Browne and Kennedy, but they are keen to make it clear that their collaborative work is quite different in character from their individual projects, and amounts to a distinct artistic identity.

Hence, as Kennedy says, their exhibition in Venice “is presented quite clearly as the work of three artists”. This is more than a gimmick. Their combined input, Browne confirms, “always generates something else, something neither of us would have come up with individually”. As their work for Venice makes clear, individually and together they work loosely within the ambit of relational aesthetics. That is, the focus of what they do is on the social, the communal and the public. Meaning emerges from the network of interactions with groups and individuals generated along the way. It’s all about people.

So Kennedy will be bringing eight buskers encountered on the streets of Dublin to perform in Venice, Browne will be displaying a hand-knotted carpet commissioned from Donegal Carpets to her own design, and Kennedy Browne will show a video, Dublin 167. The title of the video refers to the estimate that at least 167 languages are spoken by the residents of Dublin. That, Kennedy suggests, is symptomatic of the city’s openness to the flow of capital and a transient, international labour force serving a globalised economy.

In the video, filmed on the roof of Liberty Hall, a woman pares a pencil down to a stub. Her action is intended as “a gestural riposte” to a 1980 monologue by economic guru Milton Friedman. In it, he cited the humble pencil as evidence of the market’s ability “to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world”.

AS PART OF Kennedy’s individual project, the buskers have already been in action in Dublin’s Docklands. Architectural photographer Ros Kavanagh has photographed them against contemporary buildings there – incongruously, as Kennedy notes.

“Docklands was supposed to be this new, thriving urban quarter,” he says. “You have the utopian language of the architecture, but it’s unfinished, it’s aspirational, and now its future is unclear, and the buskers look out of place against these empty glass facades. They’re part of the informal, human economy, as opposed to the official economy.”

The photographs will be on display in Venice, where the buskers will perform and, all going well, accumulate quantities of coins which will be displayed in a vitrine in a corner of the Irish space.

“There is always a public dimension to what I do,” Kennedy says of his work. “I like taking the notion of the vernacular, of the way people take what is given and somehow manage to make it their own.”

It’s vital for him that his work occupies a social milieu, and that its meaning arises from the process. This approach has risks, he acknowledges.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. Often, you just don’t know how it’s going to go,” he says.

Browne habitually works with specific groups and communities and is particularly interested in economies of exchange based around craft and domesticity. In the past, for example, she’s organised a home makeover competition as part of a project at the National Sculpture Factory.

She was attracted to Donegal Carpets as an ambassadorial company that emphasises our craft traditions, even though, as she observes, it was founded by a Scot. Carpets are not made by hand there any more, but she re-employed two women with experience of hand-knotting and, using surplus stocks of yarn, devised a geometric design inspired by the Irish modernist designer, Eileen Gray (Donegal Carpets had actually made carpets to Gray’s designs in the 1960s).

“In the past,” Browne explains, “Donegal carpets were used for our embassies and other prestigious locations, and I was thinking of the pavilion as a space of diplomacy.”

Browne and Kennedy both studied sculpture at the National College of Art and Design, graduating in 2003. Their collaborative practice began in 2005 when they travelled and worked in Thailand, having been awarded an Arts Council bursary.

Last year, there was some surprise when Irish commissioner Caoimhín Corrigan named them as Ireland’s representative at Venice, because they are relatively young and little-known. At the last biennale, Gerard Byrne, who has a significant international profile, was the Irish representative. But Browne and Kennedy have actually worked and exhibited quite a lot internationally and, as Corrigan noted, their professionalism has from the first been exemplary.

Browne and Kennedy – and Kennedy Browne – will not be the only Irish artists exhibiting at Venice. They share a building with Northern Ireland’s representative, Susan MacWilliam, and John Gerrard, who is showing work in a major related event on the island of Certosa.

MacWilliam, though not a high-profile figure, is widely respected for her elaborate installations derived from her research into aspects of paranormal phenomena. She is interested in the way the category of the paranormal is defined, documented and employed in the framework of wider social structures and power relations, often involving the politics of gender. These concerns will be evident in her Venice exhibition, Remote Viewing, which has been curated by Karen Downey.

Gerrard, who has established a significant reputation for work that combines his expertise in digital imaging technology with philosophical reflections on change, time and history, will show three large-scale projections in Animated Scenein a former monastery on Certosa, under the auspices of RHA Projects, with curators Jasper Sharp and Patrick T Murphy. The works are inspired by a photograph from 1935 in which a dust storm engulfs a town in Texas, part of the North American “Dust Bowl”. Gerrard is also showing in Infinitum, a show organised by Axel Vervoordt at the Palazzo Fortuny.

THERE IS NO escaping the fact that the 53rd Venice Biennale takes place against the background of a global recession. During the last biennale, the boom in the contemporary art market was at its height. Traditionally, Venice had stood apart from the more crassly commercial aspects of the art world, but it was all too clear that commerce had arrived in force in 2007, with lines of collectors’ yachts moored close to the main exhibition venue, the Giardini, lots of deals done, much conspicuous consumption, and spectacular bling on display. The mood is likely to be much different this time around.

Even this year’s biennale title, Making Worlds, bestowed by director Daniel Birnbaum, hints at a more responsible, Obama-like agenda. That, as it happens, is very much in keeping with the spirit of Browne and Kennedy’s work, and their participation may prove to be timely.


The 53rd Venice Biennale runs from June 7 to Nov 22. See www.cultureireland.gov.ie/news or, for updates on Ireland at Venice, www.irelandvenice.ie