A change of art

Thu, Dec 29, 2011, 00:00

CULTURE REVIEW 2011: An innovative new generation is making its presence felt in the Irish arts scene, writes MICK HEANEY, looking back on a year filled with fresh ideas and a more spontaneous attitude

AS 2011 draws to a close, you could be forgiven for thinking the arts in Ireland have just come through the year-long cultural equivalent of a slow news day.

There were few fresh theatrical smashes, no blockbuster albums and little in the way of landmark work from the big names of the literary world. Nor were there many big breakthroughs by new faces, certainly none that equalled the spectacular ascents of some Irish singers and playwrights over the past two decades. So, not a vintage 12 months, it would appear.

Yet 2011 felt like a pivotal year, during which Ireland’s cultural landscape started to take on new, as yet unformed, contours.

There was no shortage of pyrotechnics in theatre, music and visual art, but many of the most exciting new ventures were underpinned by an ethos different from that of their predecessors.

This emergent crop of creatives, many of whom favour the collective and the ephemeral, is too disparate to yet constitute a bona fide new wave, much less displace Ireland’s established artistic names. But 2011 saw the first signs that the generation of writers, filmmakers, playwrights and directors who have defined Ireland’s culture for the past 30 years are ceding the imaginative initiative to fresh voices.

Anyone surveying the literary scene of the past year might, at first, find such a notion fanciful. The leading lights of Irish fiction were busy, with Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue and Dermot Healy all publishing new novels. But if the big names produced solid books, the new volumes – with the possible exception of Healy’s typically mercurial volume, Long Time No See– consolidated or confounded reputations rather than break new ground. Enright and Donoghue took different turns with, respectively, a skewed romance and a divorce drama, while Sebastian Barry’s incantatory novel of emigration, On Canaan’s Side, again failed to find favour with the Man Booker judges.

Among the first-time novelists, Belinda McKeon won praise – and an Irish Book Award – for Solace,while John Butler gave a dot.com-era twist to tales of emigration and rites-of-passage with his novel, T he Tenderloin. But the most inspired debut of the year came from Kevin Barry, whose novel, City of Bohane, was a bravura – and blackly hilarious – vision of a dystopian Ireland in the near future.

These works suggest Irish literary fiction – the jewel in the crown of Irish writing over the past 20 years – is in a healthy state, but its primacy is quietly being questioned by another, less vaunted, genre.

Crime fiction continued to thrive last year, with writers such as John Connolly and Stuart Neville, and newer arrivals such as William Ryan and Conor Fitzgerald, showing how Irish authors can compete in this huge international market.

Down These Green Streets, an anthology of homegrown crime writing edited by novelist Declan Burke, showed how such writers can weave contemporary issues and darker themes while maintaining entertainment value. Such work may not have quite the same highbrow appeal as “serious” fiction, but the fact John Banville’s latest volume, A Death in Summer,was published under his crime-writing nom de plume, Benjamin Black, is further indication of how the genre has taken centre stage in the public imagination.

IN THEATRE, THERE were also signs of dominant paradigms being eroded. There were few new plays that significantly added to Ireland’s heritage of meticulously crafted, author-oriented drama. Most of the best-known writers, from venerable veterans like Brian Friel to younger playwrights like Conor McPherson, were quiet.

The national theatre staged fresh work by writers such as Marina Carr, Stacey Gregg and Paul Mercier, which addressed contemporary concerns or sought out new territory without quite clicking. The Gate, meanwhile, hosted international hits and Irish revivals but little new drama, aside from the adaptation of Hugo Hamilton’s memoir, The Speckled People.

Companies such as Druid and Rough Magic, which have in the past encouraged innovative voices, favoured revivals such as Big Maggieand Peer Gyntover original material. Even Enda Walsh, the most imaginative Irish playwright of recent years, recycled an old manuscript of his own for Misterman, with much of the drama’s impact coming from the Cillian Murphy’s stage presence.

Into the breach came new companies such as Theatreclub and Thisispopbaby, staging productions that focused on the immediacy of performance and the inventive potential of collaboration. As Fintan O’Toole noted in his overview of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, site-specific productions such as Laundry, Tradeand Heroinwere bellwether works, where the all-pervasive authorial voice – previously the mainstay of Irish theatre – took second place to immersive experience and emotional impact.

Such a freewheeling approach yields the type of theatre that is more responsive to the national mood of anxiety, dealing with current concerns, from institutional clerical abuse to drug abuse. The relative downgrading of the text, however, may rob them of longer-term resonance.

As yet, there are not enough similarly minded new troupes for this year’s output to be classed as a revolution, but their fresh approach acted as a rejoinder – and hopefully a spur – to more traditional theatre forms.

WITHIN THE WORLD of popular music, the live arena has long been the primary sphere of activity – or at least income – thanks to the collapse of the record industry. Hard Working Class Heroes, the annual forum for new Irish acts, was possibly the most febrile homegrown musical event of the year.

Megastar acts such as U2, who still operate in the old world of million-selling albums – or at least aspire to – seemed out of touch, whether desperately hawking their past with €400 boxsets of Achtung Babyor venturing in misfiring new directions, like their widely panned Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

But there were those who bridged the spontaneity of performance, the DIY capabilities of digital recording and the opportunities of the internet age to produce exciting new albums.

Lisa Hannigan, who has made a virtue of her artisanal attitude to the music business, saw her international profile grow thanks to her second album, Passenger,while Annie Tierney, an alumnus of the old sign-’em-and-drop-’em experience with major labels from her time with Chicks, produced a superb slice of digitally distributed chunky grooves under the name of Tieranniesaur.

Even in fields where finance and expertise is vital, such as film, a welcome sense of impulsive creativity made itself felt. John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature. The Guard, was imbued with an air of anarchy and unpredictability rare in recent homegrown cinema: encouragingly, it struck a chord with local audiences, who made it a box-office smash.

In visual art, it was a year of mixed fortunes, with the variety of work on show at the Dublin Contemporary exhibition overshadowed by organisational travails and the institutional galleries enduring uncertainty, Ireland’s wider visual culture was stronger than ever.

Dublin made it to the final shortlist of three to be World Design Capital in 2014, a huge endorsement of a creative area often overlooked in Irish cultural circles.

Meanwhile, the continued strength of the indigenous video-game business speaks of vibrancy in a sector which is challenging music and even film as the pre-eminent entertainment industry.

TAKEN SEPARATELY, these disparate developments in the literary, theatre, music and visual spheres are exciting; viewed together, they can be seen as the first tectonic shifts in a culture as affected by doubt and upheaval as the wider economy. After all, the current cultural climate was essentially shaped during the extended period of turmoil and decline that ran from the oil shocks of 1973 to the chronic recession of the 1980s, which swept away the institutional cultural caution of before.

Pivotal writers such Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín emerged from this period, as did film directors such as Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, while companies such as Druid and Rough Magic started the boundaries of Irish theatre during this time.

The vision forged by such artists – engaged and socially aware while maintaining high-minded, carefully crafted aesthetic values – has essentially defined the cultural template since. It is too early to say that 2011’s flowering of fresh ideas and more spontaneous attitudes heralds a changing of the old guard. But if the big names of Irish culture are not yet waning, an innovative new generation is making its presence felt.

The results this year were promising rather than game-changing, but Ireland’s established cultural hands should not rest on their laurels.

Turn the dial up to 11: alternative moments of 2011

1 Amy Conroy

In September, Amy Conroy’s one-woman play, Eternal Rising of the Sun,stood out as one of the most powerful and lingering performances in a month full of them.

2 Cork by Southwest

We flew south for the summer this year to the Cork by Southwest festival in Skibbereen, where lucky crowds were treated to sets from Echo and the Bunnymen, Patti Smith and Fred, and (in keeping with a summer trend for what can only be described as ukelelemania) the West Cork Ukulele Orchestra.

3 All That Fall

Something magical awaited those who made it to Pan Pans production of Becketts one-act radio play, All That Fallat Project Arts Centre in August. Scattered about the upstairs theatre, darkened but for the hanging light bulbs, were dozens of rocking chairs. It felt like being inside a giant old radio as the audience sat immersed in sound. We’d love to see a similar approach to other radio plays and programming.

4 Upstart

Just as election fatigue was kicking in, along came Upstart (upstart.ie) with its alternative election posters, offering a glimmer of hope that maybe there was some imagination left on the island. The group has secured €10,000 from the Better Together Giving Challenge so watch out for its next project.

5 Sufjan Stevens

Speaking of fairy godmothers, is that Sufjan Stevens in a pair of giant feathered wings? For two nights, the Detroit singer-songwriter squished his larger-than-life show on to the Olympia Theatre’s relatively tiny stage, much to the delight of all present.

6 Chris Judge

In February Judge’s The Lonely Beastwas on the shelves. The Irish illustrator follows up his gorgeously drawn debut with The Great Explorernext February, and his Alphabeast app for children is now available on iTunes following a successful Fundit.ie campaign.

7 Eat My Shorts

Castlepalooza at the Charleville Castle has long had a reputation for a little festival with a big heart and this year’s addition of the Eat My Shorts film festival (eatmyshortsfestival.com) only endeared it to us further.

8 Dublin Zine Fair

Print-lovers were buoyed by the variety and quality of Irish comics, zines and self-produced artist books on sale at the Dublin Zine Fair at Ranelagh Arts Centre in August. Check out loserdomzine.com for a flavour of what’s out there.

9 Loving Dublin

Designist’s delightful range of Love Dublin mugs and totes were in good company when they were launched last month, adding to a glut of Dublin-inspired designs such as Cake Cafe’s pinny (thecakecafe.ie) and All Joy’s laser-cut map (alljoydesign.com).

10 Beetle-mania

This year saw home-grown artists Steve McCarthy (right) – mrstevemccarthy.blogspot.com – and Emily Flynn (above) – EmilyFlynn.wordpress.com – sprinkling a little magic dust over some surprisingly beautiful pictures of insects and pests, respectively. (McCarthy also illustrated another Irish children’s book published this year, Sally Go Round the Stars.)

11 Independent bookshops

The Gutter bookshop in Temple Bar celebrated its first birthday in November, giving us pause to be thankful for the staying power of it and similar independent bookshops, from the Winding Stair to Kinsales Bookstór and Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, not to mention the newly opened Loft on Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. – EMMA SOMERS