Fail again, fail better - Heaven's Gate comes to Carlow


One artist’s interest in failure led him to rebuild the roller skating rink scene from a box-office flop – and challenge visitors to experience art in a different way

MICHAEL CIMINO’S Heaven’s Gate is notorious as the film that broke United Artists, the studio that financed it.

Flushed with the runaway success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino lost all sense of proportion and his production, as detailed in Steven Bach’s book Final Cut, ran massively over budget and over schedule. Cimino himself was portrayed as a vainglorious megalomaniac and his epic, released in 1980, bombed at the box office.

The very title Heaven’s Gate is virtually a synonym for gigantic flop, and to take such a failure as a starting point for an art project seems slightly perverse. That is exactly what Brian Duggan does, however, with Everything Can Be Done, In Principle, a formidable, participatory installation that is a centrepiece of the Éigse Carlow Arts Festival at the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art.

In fact, Duggan explains with a rueful smile: “The notion of failure has always been there in my work. I’m interested in the idea of grand failure, of a complete mismatch between aspiration and achievement. A lot of the performative pieces I’ve made have been about people trying to do something and failing . . . failing, well, ridiculously. There’s an element of slapstick to it, of putting yourself in the position of making a fool of yourself.”

Heaven’s Gate is a fictionalised account of the Johnson County War, which took place in an area of Wyoming in 1892. Incoming European settlers and small ranchers were pitted against the established big ranchers who grazed their vast cattle herds on land that was, theoretically, in the public domain. The big ranchers hired gunmen to tackle “rustlers” and after several deaths there was a stand-off between the gunmen and a local sheriff’s posse.

The events have been viewed as a straightforward class struggle, as a clash between corporate and individual interests, and even as crystallising a transitory moment in agricultural strategy, relating to land management and ownership.

One of the hubs in the film is the town’s roller-skating rink. Oddly enough, Duggan notes, although it may seem unlikely, this is historically accurate. In the film, the rink where everyone – be they settlers, ranchers or lawmen – skates in a spirit of playful communion around a centrally positioned stove, is a neutral, social space. He liked the idea of that social space.

A couple of years ago, Duggan made a piece called Step Inside Now Step Inside based on a motorcycle wall of death. “I was sitting having a cup of coffee with the curator, Helen Carey,” he recalls. “She said it reminded her of the roller-skating rink in Heaven’s Gate. That hadn’t occurred to me at all.”

He did know the film, though, having been introduced to it by a friend of his, Michael O’Connell, who had died in 2004. The conversation with Carey was the starting point for Everything Can Be Done, in Principle. He teamed up with Carey (now director of the Limerick City Gallery of Art) with a proposal for Visual when the centre looked for ideas for a project, which was to be co-funded by it, Carlow County Council’s arts office and Éigse.

When Duggan began thinking about the film, it immediately chimed with his interest in failure.

“It is,” he says, “famous as a disaster but, strangely enough, as I began to talk to people about it, I was surprised at how many of them said it was one of their favourite films. I mean, there are things wrong with it, it’s slow, there are stretches where it doesn’t seem to move forward, sometimes you’re not quite sure what’s going on, but there are brilliant things about it as well. It has become a cult film.”

It also brought to mind for him the heady days of roller discos. In any case, the proposal that went into Visual was to build, in its huge main gallery space, a recreation of the roller-skating rink in Heaven’s Gate.

While previously he’d made several pieces in which he engaged in various kinds of athletic or mildly acrobatic activities, this time he envisaged the work as an invitation to others to take part.

Turn up at Visual and you’ll find yourself in an anteroom resembling a saloon bar in a western. There, you can find a pair of roller skates that fit, and you can don an item or two of 19th-century western garb before making your way into the atmospheric interior of a spacious Wyoming wooden barn, complete with iron stove in the centre. If you feel confident about your roller-skating abilities, you’ve plenty of room to test them.

While researching the background, Duggan met John Hurt, one of the film’s stars. Hurt told him about the strange experience of working for the autocratic director at a remote location. Barred from leaving by Cimino, even though he’d finished shooting and was overdue in London to begin work on The Elephant Man, Hurt had to escape in a light aircraft at the crack of dawn.

Duggan enlisted composer and musician David Mansfield to perform on the opening night of the show. When he was only in his early 20s, Mansfield was commissioned by Cimino to write the score for Heaven’s Gate, and he appears in the film as a roller-skating violinist.

He was, says Duggan, startled to enter a life-size recreation of the movie set after all these years.

Did he see Everything Can Be Done, In Principle as an allegory about contemporary Ireland at the outset? “Not exactly,” he says, “Though more and more parallels and resonances emerged as we went on, on different levels.” He means this in terms of the historical events the film deals with, and regarding the ill-starred production itself.

Within the narrative, Duggan says, “There is this view that money is more important than people.” Then there’s the hubristic nature of the production. The studio was so committed to the project that it became, as it were, too big to fail.

Coming out of all this, for Duggan, are questions about what a community should be. “Is it about money, or people? For me, art is a way of asking questions about the world. What I’m trying to do is put people in the position where they can think about the art gallery in a different way. We’ve tried to transform the “white cube” of the gallery into something that people can really see as their own social space, not something apart from them. And that has to do with wider issues about society as well.”

That space, in Visual, will be a venue for many events during Éigse and afterwards. But Duggan also likes the idea that people will visit it at quiet times, when they might have it to themselves.

During Éigse, it’s a good starting point to see what else is on offer, including Anthony Lyttle’s fine show Accumulation in Visual’s Digital Gallery; Paul Mosse, Paul Monaghan and DesignCore at Gallery 43 at 43 Tullow Street; and Remco de Fouw, Rachel Joynt, Brian Hand, Michelle Byrne, Cathy Fitzgerald and more at Deighton Hall on Dublin Street.

Everything Can Be Done, In Principle is at Visual Centre for Contemporary Art until August 26th. Other Éigse exhibitions run until June 7th. See