Look of the Irish: why we're now a visual culture

Dublin is one of three cities on the shortlist for designation as 2014 World Design Capital

Dublin is one of three cities on the shortlist for designation as 2014 World Design Capital. It's a sign that Ireland's visual imagination is alive and well, and catching up with our literary heritage, writes MICK HEANEY

IN MARCH 2010, at the Wood Quay Venue in Dublin’s Civic Offices, Ali Grehan, the city architect, hosted a meeting of 100 or so Irish designers. The invited guests, who worked across the design world, had gathered to discuss a proposal that was bold and, for some, foolhardy: the launch of a bid by Dublin to be designated World Design Capital in 2014.

As the afternoon wore on, the debate grew spirited, with some worrying that Dublin did not have a sufficiently strong pedigree to warrant a title previously held by Seoul and Turin. “Some expressed concern that we would not be at the races,” says Grehan, “but others felt we had to try.” The bid went ahead, under the banner of Pivot Dublin. And despite the early reservations, the initiative is now on the brink of success, emerging from a field of 56 cities to make the final shortlist of three, along with Cape Town and Bilbao. The winning city will be announced next month.

“It has been incredibly satisfying to get to the shortlist,” says Grehan. “Just going on the judges’ visit here in July, they seem to have been really surprised, in a good way, how such a strong and rich bid came from a city that wouldn’t be known, internationally at least, as somewhere that’s strong in design.” The judging panel are probably not the only ones surprised that Dublin has made the shortlist. After all, Ireland’s visual culture has long been eclipsed by accomplishments in other creative fields. At home and abroad, Irish art and design have been seen as the poor relations of the country’s literary, theatrical and musical traditions. Even Jack B Yeats, probably Ireland’s greatest painter, lived in the shadow of his elder brother, WB Yeats.


But things are changing. The visual imagination is not only alive and well in modern Ireland but is arguably more vibrant than some its more illustrious creative cousins. Dublin Contemporary, the sprawling exhibition currently running across the city, showcases how Irish artists hold their own beside their international peers. But the visual scope extends beyond the marquee names of Willie Doherty and Brian O’Doherty, Louis le Brocquy and Sean Scully. There has been a surge of grassroots activity, with young artists staking out creative territory in exciting new ways.

The art world tells only one part of the story, however. Visual creativity in Ireland is thriving across a host of areas, from fashion and graphics to animation and video games, as the Pivot Dublin bid attests. Meanwhile, we have apparently become more comfortable with visual media.

Literature may have shaped Ireland’s creative heritage in the past, but it seems that visual culture pointed the way to the future.

"The argument would be that as Ireland became more modern, the image caught up with the written word, because modernity is bound up with spectacle," says Luke Gibbons, professor of Irish literary and cultural studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. "So as Irish cinema and pop culture take off from the 1980s, that's all part of the expansion of a wider visual culture: even rock music and Riverdanceare bound up with image and spectacle." The supposed reasons for literature's primacy in Irish life are well rehearsed: a strong oral tradition, the centrality of the Irish-language issue in politics and culture, the poverty that prevented the growth of a patronage system that would nurture artists.

But Ireland never lacked a sense of the visual. Ireland’s unique ancient heritage was visually based, from Celtic motifs to the illuminated manuscripts of the early Christian era. Even in the early modern era, a distinctive visual heritage could be detected in Ireland.

After encountering the populist art and design of 1930s Mexico, the rebel fighter turned writer Ernie O’Malley identified the rugged austerity of everyday Irish artifacts, from cottages to clothing, as a deeply ingrained visual vernacular.

National identity has been subtly shaped by image in more recent times too.

Gibbons points to the strong look created by Aer Lingus in the 1960s and beyond, from its livery to its uniforms and posters, which not only promoted the airline but projected a definite idea of Ireland: bright and friendly, homely and green. The visual has always been present in Irish culture, even if it has not always been apparent.

“All artists pick up on energies in the culture,” says Gibbons, “so it could be argued that the visual appeal of Ireland, including its scenery and landscape – the look of the Irish, so to speak – is really where the reawakening of visual culture has come from. And there has been a reawakening, a new awareness of colour and form, not just in art but in fashion and design.” This renaissance owes little to one of the most conspicuous cultural trends of recent times, the huge growth of the Irish art market. The increased demand – and inflated prices – for Irish painting and sculpture during the boom years may have led to greater appreciation of art as a side effect, but it was essentially another example of the acquisitive mentality of the era.

THE REAL CHANGE took place on the ground. Young artists, frustrated by a lack of exhibition opportunities, took matters into their own hands and started opening small spaces in unexpected locations. “Around 2006 there seemed to be a boom in new spaces, a huge energy to use anything, shopfronts or offices, to exhibit work,” says Peter Prendergast, who co-founded Monster Truck Gallery in Dublin in 2007. “There was a sense you could do anything, be it set up a studio, an exhibition space or a graphic design company.” Such projects went against the prevailing consumerism of the time, operating on tiny budgets and working on a collective basis. This improvisational quality has better equipped them to survive the recession. “Ironically, things have got better for us since the crash,” says Prendergast. “We still work on a shoestring, but things have improved incrementally.”

These spaces have tapped into the creative energies of a generation of young (and suddenly dispossessed) artists. Exchange Dublin, which opened in 2009 in Temple Bar, holds shows by young Irish artists and international designers (such as the recent retrospective of the German design guru Dieter Rams) while also hosting performance and acting as a creative hub. It is hard to imagine an equivalent space in the literary or dramatic world. “I talk to people in other artforms, such as theatre, and there doesn’t seem to be the same passion there,” says Prendergast. “There’s a real can-do attitude in the visual world.”

This energy is testament to the rising number of young people who have been drawn to fields of visual creativity as a vocation. Undergraduate enrolment at the National College of Art and Design, for example, has more than doubled since the late 1990s, from 450 students to 1,100. (At the same time, Irish literacy rates are falling sharply, slipping from fifth place in the OECD education rankings in 2000 to 17th in last year’s survey, suggesting literature’s cultural supremacy is in decline.)

Perhaps the most febrile visual activity takes place in the margins, where art and design collide with other fields. Since opening in 2008, Science Gallery in Dublin has become arguably the most innovative exhibition space in the country, facilitating collaborations between artists, designers and scientists that open up new horizons for local visual culture. Michael John Gorman, founding director of Science Gallery, sees the venue as a hub for creative exchanges that in the past may have slipped under the radar or not happened at all.

“When I returned to Ireland after 17 years away, I found the visual arts scene a bit staid,” says Gorman. “But there were interesting projects bubbling up which weren’t sanctioned by the arts establishment. Our institutions tend to have thought in terms of boxes, be it art or theatre, and so have missed out on the exciting areas in between. By being too rigid in your definition of fine art, you miss interesting work, be it posters, album covers or new digital devices.”

These are precisely the fields that have fostered a greater openness to visual culture among the public. Whether it is the cool aesthetics of the latest Apple product, the look of a video game or the greater dissemination of arresting images via internet memes or microblogging applications such as Tumblr, the digital era has placed a new value on different ways of seeing.

“There is a generation who may not know it but appreciate work in visual culture,” says the social-media entrepreneur Damien Mulley. “Things have gone the full multimedia route online in the past few years. To use the video game example, young people expect movie production values. So it’s not obvious, but it’s maybe seeping through.” This new consciousness is essentially passive. “The whole gaming industry is huge,” says Gorman, “but how many people are using computers to create visually?” Nonetheless we seem more attuned to developments in image, look, form and style than we have been before.

If there is a problem with this fresh visual vibrancy, it is the sheer diversity of the fields it manifests itself in. There are the signature floral motifs of Orla Kiely, ubiquitous on everything from high-end handbags to cheap tea caddies. There is the indigenous animation industry, from Don Bluth’s pioneering studios in the 1980s to current companies such as Brown Bag films. There is the globally recognisable work of Richard Baneham, the Dublin-born Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor on Avatar.

Such work permeates public consciousness but operates at the interface between art, design, commerce and technology, which is often overlooked during discussions on Irish culture in favour of the literary. But as Science Gallery shows, such exchanges can be harnessed to public and critical success. “I find cross-disciplinary conversations take place easier in Dublin than other international cities,” says Gorman.

Whether the resulting work has a distinctively Irish flavour, in the manner of literature, drama and even music, is less certain. “The image tends to be borderless in a way that word isn’t,” says Gibbons, “but that’s the challenge.”

On the upside, images transcend nationality and language, allowing easy access to a worldwide audience. “Visual art is a global medium for a reason,” says Prendergast. “People love it. And Dublin is getting on to that: not just the galleries but in contemporary art spaces interacting with the environment around them.”

There is still work to do. Ireland’s lively but disparate visual scene, in all its forms, has yet to make its presence palpable in the public imagination in the way that, say, art and design are central to Italian self-image. But when its strands get together, as with Pivot Dublin, the look of the Irish is a force to be reckoned with.

“You only have to look at the tourists visiting the Book of Kells to see we did have a visual tradition,” says Grehan. “Maybe we just lost touch with it. But now we need to reawaken it.”