Art show to give UCD's old home new life


The curators of next autumn’s Dublin Contemporary exhibition are thrilled to be able to use Earlsfort Terrace as their canvas

THE MAIN VENUE for Dublin Contemporary, the international art exhibition scheduled for September, is to be a large part of the complex on Earlsfort Terrace that incorporates the National Concert Hall, the indoor real-tennis court to the right of the main buildings, and the Iveagh Gardens to the rear. “We couldn’t believe that it was just sitting right there in the centre of the city,” says one of the two lead curators, Christian Viveros-Fauné. “It’s such a fantastic space.”

The first time he and his co-curator, Jota Castro, visited the site, “the project immediately took on a new life. I mean, Jota and I, we were like little children when we walked around. Suddenly we could see the flavour of the exhibition in this physical context. The white cube is a very effective way of presenting a lot of contemporary art, but it’s not the only way.”

Rather than trying to create a series of white cubes within the huge network of rooms, they intend to work with the existing historical fabric of the complex. “It has a history, and that is part of its appeal. We want to leave a lot of those physical traces, the wear and tear, the markings on the walls, even a lot of the signage, like the names on offices. Not if it’s to the detriment of the work, obviously, but we’ve found that when they see the building, artists perk up. They are really keen to work with it as it is.”

The site overall has a long, culturally significant history. Some of the surviving fabric was part of the vast Exhibition Palace built for the Dublin International Exhibition in 1865. The exhibition was one of the industry, science and arts expos that stemmed largely from the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, at the specially built Crystal Palace in London, in 1851, and became immensely popular during the Victorian era. The Dublin exhibition ran for six months and drew close to a million visitors, an extraordinary number then and now. For comparison, Dublin Contemporary’s projected audience is 150,000.

The glass and cast-iron wings of the Exhibition Palace were dismantled and moved to London and the remaining buildings adapted and enlarged, first to serve as the Royal University and then, with the addition of the striking Gandon-inspired facade, University College Dublin. Since UCD mostly relocated to Belfield, in the 1960s, substantial parts of the buildings have remained unused. By no means all, though. The National Concert Hall opened in 1981, and before that the complex was a terrific venue for Rosc 80, a precursor to Dublin Contemporary.

Passing by Earlsfort Terrace or even visiting the concert hall provides no sense of the scale and extent of the interior spaces beyond it. Sixty-eight rooms are available to Dublin Contemporary, offering a fantastic variety of spaces, mostly with very good natural light. “Basically there are three kinds of room,” says Viveros-Fauné. “Offices, classrooms and lecture halls. They range from small to enormous.” They are also in generally good condition.

“I think that its pedagogical history, and the fact that it has been used as an exhibition space, is important,” he says. “It has that past, yet at the same time it is slightly offsite, so to speak, in that it’s not recognised as being part of the city’s gallery infrastructure. This means we are able to take possession of it in a different way than if it was an established gallery. We want to challenge the conventions to some extent, and, well, to put it like this: we can own it spiritually for the two months of the event; we can impart the values of the exhibition on to it.”

Judging by the artists already named as taking part, those values will be noticeably cosmopolitan, with representatives from all over the globe. And it’s a safe bet that the exhibition will feature a strong strand of what is usually termed institutional critique: art that engages critically with political, economic and social structures. The controversial Cuban installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera, for example, usually manages to provoke the powers that be, at home and elsewhere. The photographs of the American Nina Berman are incisively analytical of her own and other societies and ideologies. The Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen produces almost apocalyptic visions of recent history and current realities.

The real-tennis-court building, which served as laboratories for UCD, will be an audio gallery with myriad pieces. “We’re toying with calling it All Together Now, after the Beatles song, as we like the idea of inviting people to take part, of getting them involved.” Further audio works and sculpture will be sited in the Iveagh Gardens. The Office of Non-Compliance, a strand of the show that comprises discussion of, debate about and reflection on cultural meaning and possibility, will be “made concrete inside the main space”, occupying a lecture theatre.

The overall title of Dublin Contemporary, which runs from September 6th to October 31st, is taken from WB Yeats: Terrible Beauty – Art, Crisis, Change. A more comprehensive list of main exhibitors, probably numbering at least 70 artists, international and Irish, and a full programme, will be released next month. The general curatorial strategy at Earlsfort Terrace will be to site introductory and documentary material, and relatively few artworks, on the ground floor and begin the exhibition in earnest the next storey up.