‘It’s a bit of fun, kind of kitsch’: Sculpture unveiled on Dublin City Hall’s O’Connell plinth

Alan Phelan’s RGB Sconce, Hold Your Nose is first of six Sculpture Dublin commissions

“The original is delicate. This is more blobby, clunky and handmade. It’s a bit of fun, kind of kitsch and gaudy. It’s not taking itself too seriously, and that’s a good thing. I like humour.”

Alan Phelan is talking on Dame Street in Dublin, outside City Hall, on a crisp autumnal day, about his play on an etching of a rococo lighting sconce, which inspired a new public artwork in Dublin. A cluster of people has gathered near his striking and jolly new sculpture, a giant, brightly coloured, twirling, decorative sconce with bright yellow candle “flames” at the top.

This is the first of six commissions by Sculpture Dublin, a Dublin City Council initiative launched in July 2020, and Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland and some of the steering committee managing the new artworks are here to see it in situ. The temporary sculpture will be displayed beside the entrance to City Hall for a year, sitting atop the O'Connell plinth, which has been empty since the Liberator, John Hogan's monumental statue of Daniel O'Connell, was removed in the 1860s. (The Liberator  is now inside the building.)

All these years later comes Phelan’s RGB Sconce, Hold Your Nose. It might be fun, as the artist says, but the piece, which is more than 5m tall, also pulls together a bunch of historic and contemporary references to emancipation and hope, says Phelan, “in a wider sense, in terms of human rights and equality, and what the tribunals revealed in there, and equal marriage and repeal [the 8th]”, as well as Irish independence and EU presidencies: a multitude of history associated with the area.

‘Rebellious’

The design is an almost cartoonish version of the stucco plasterwork of the surrounding Georgian architecture. Phelan chose to focus on the baroque and rococo art style, which is “more rebellious, theatrical and illogical”. He likes that it’s a burst of colour amid the grey of the “amazing backdrop” of the Georgian buildings, yet also picks up on their style.

The RGB of the title refers to its primary colours, red, green and blue, while Hold Your Nose – Phelan is tickled by the “olfactory revulsion” – subverts a reference in a poetry pamphlet during the 1884 Dublin Castle scandal, instructing “decent men” to “hold their noses” so as not to breath in the supposed debauchery of homosexuality at the castle.

The sculpture was made in sections by a 3D printer, then covered by layers of paper – a kind of mache – which were painted and varnished.

Karen Downey, Sculpture Dublin’s programme director, says Phelan’s proposal was the unanimous choice for this spot – “It was the right fit.” Seeing the sculpture coming up Dame Street this morning was “a real moment”, she says, after the long and involved process of the several commissions Sculpture Dublin is handling. “It works on so many levels” – the stucco, the symbolism of emancipation , the symbolism of the site. “And the candle, offering hope in the darkness.”

There were up to 40 submissions for each of the six sculptures, “an impressive response”, and artists did much of the initial work, on scale models,at home during lockdown. The five remaining sculptures, which will be permanent, will be unveiled later this year and in early 2022.