Skateboards and see-saws: gripping art in Galway

John Gerrard, Howard Hodgkin and Richard Gilligan shine at Galway Arts Festival’s visual-arts strand, while Heneghan Peng’s giant wooden see-saw bench is a big hit

A brooding presence at the centre of the Absolut Gallery on the Headford Road, John Gerrard's Cuban Schools offers a melancholy vision of a system in decline. The schools are indeed Cuban, built in the 1960s and now visibly fraying at the edges, but as Gerrard presents them, they stand as symbols of various kinds of unravelling, not necessarily Cuba per se. They could be any piece of infrastructure, doomed to entropic decay once the energy is turned off.

Energy is often the crucial issue for Gerrard: its sources, extraction, uses and destructive misuse. While his work is ominous and often quite dark in mood, it is also usually strikingly beautiful. That’s true of the Cuban schools. The crumbling modernist constructions, copiously documented onsite – between four and five thousand high-definition photographs each – and meticulously recreated as “virtual sculptures” using real-time 3D software, have an austere, geometric beauty that recalls minimalist abstract sculpture and its successors.

There is no beginning or end to the works: they endlessly track their way around the perimeter of the desolate buildings. Time passes but there is no linear, narrative structure. The intermittent appearance of two caretakers is the only indication of human inhabitants. You can watch for a couple of minutes or for hours. Either way, you’re aware that you’re getting a glimpse into a parallel reality.

It's a fine, thoughtful centerpiece to the cluster of exhibitions in the gallery, where an architectural theme prevails. This is most obvious in Shifting Ground, the touring show based around Ireland's representation at last year's Venice Architectural Biennale. That might sound a little dry, all blueprints and cardboard models – if you haven't seen the show in Venice or Dublin, that is. It is getting a fantastic response in Galway.


'Please sit on the exhibit'
Most obviously, people warm to Heneghan Peng's giant wooden see-saw bench, which was the Irish Pavilion in Venice. It's unusual to be invited to "Please sit on the exhibit", but visitors don't have to be asked twice and clearly love the idea.

Another big hit is Grafton Architects' juxtaposition of large-scale photographs of the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast and the mountainous 15th-century Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru, an inspired combination.

Both are iconic. What's surprising is the close correspondence between the two. Grafton Architects was invited to exhibit at the biennale by its director, David Chipperfield, and, having won a competition to design a new university campus in Lima, it opted to celebrate the work of architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (and they picked up an award).

Chipperfield also invited the participation of O’Donnell Toomey, whose main structure is not replicated, but its generous and inspiring display of the “architects, artists, writers, poets and performers” who sustain the practice is.

If you don't read the label first, it may take you a while to figure out what photographer Richard Gilligan's urban landscapes and portraits in DIY are about (they are published in book form by 1980 Éditions, a volume already out of print). Gilligan has skateboarded since his teens, and over a period of several years he has visited the unofficial skateboard arenas constructed by groups of enthusiasts throughout Europe and the US.

The practitioners of the phenomenon – also called DIY – form a distinct movement within skateboarding. A level of secrecy is necessary because they co-opt marginal, abandoned or neglected spaces and reinvent them, creating sculptural interventions as arenas.

Typically coverage of skateboarding concentrates on thrills and spills and the vagaries of youth culture. Gilligan does something much more profound, creating a series of classically contemporary urban landscapes that celebrate co-operative action in the making of social spaces. What might be thought of as marginal to or outside social norms, he suggests, actually encapsulates the essence of communal spirit and provides a blueprint for social action.

Good though it is, everything mentioned so far might seem a bit dutiful. Time out is provided by a substantial show, a retrospective more or less, of Howard Hodgkin’s prints, organised by the Barbican. Hodgkin is known and liked for lush, colourful abstract paintings that allude to his own experience and occasionally drift over into more direct representation. He’s been chided for focusing his art on a life that appears to be quite comfortable, with many visits to exotic locales, lavish dinners and luxurious settings. However, he also indicates emotional travails along the way.

Like many celebrated painters who turn to print, he’s taken care to work with the best printmakers, and the quality of the work on view is fantastic. This is not to take away from his role. He is clearly attuned to print techniques, explores them in depth and notes that he has pioneered one method: “liftground etching and acquatint combined with Carborundum intaglio”, with added, unique finishing touches.

Róisín Coyle's The People of the Sea is a superbly effective video installation that gives us a seal's underwater eye-view of a currach passing overhead, with a plangent soundtrack provided by Mike Smalle. Several film works by the renowned Pat Collins are also on view at the Absolut Gallery.

In the Art Corridor of Galway University Hospital you could pass by Kathleen Furey's miniatures, On Paper. These meditations on how we make personal histories and invest meaning in our lives are intricate and involving, and worth stopping for.

Mellors' barmy family
In his work, Doncaster-born Nathanial Mellors, showing at the Galway Arts Centre, has ranged widely across sculptural installation, performance, music, writing, film and video, collage and much else. He has gained increasing acclaim since his inclusion in Tate Britain's Altermodern in 2009, where his knockabout farcical fantasy Giantbum was notable for being even more shambolic that his fellow RCA graduate Spartacus Chetwynd's mock-trashy melodrama Hermito's Children.

Production values in episodes one to four of Ourhouse, which form his Arts Centre show, are noticeably, dramatically higher. A certain commonality with Chetwynd is still there in that he takes a number of popular and high-cultural forms including soap opera, comedy and serious television drama, mixes and mangles them and produces a nominally coherent but absurdist composite.

Ourhouse centres on a barmy family in an English country manor house. The dramatic catalyst is the arrival of an outsider. But don't expect it to conform to any narrative norms. It refers to several of them, and momentarily might seem to adhere to one or other, then lurches madly off. It's a shaggy dog story, or an encouragement to look more sceptically at conventional narrative manners. To get the work's overall flavour will take about two hours of your time.

Cuban School: John Gerrard. Prints: Howard Hodgkin. DIY: Richard Gilligan. The People of the Sea: Róisín Coyle. Shifting Ground: Beyond National
Architecture. What Remains: Pat Collins All in the Absolut Festival Gallery, Headford Rd Until Jul 28. Ourhouse: Nathaniel Mellors Galway Arts centre, Dominick St Until Jul 28. On Paper: Kathleen Furey University Hospital Until Jul 28

John Gerrard is interviewed in
tomorrow's Weekend Review