Interrupting life with a message of love


ONE EVENING last June, Garrett Phelan organised a musical conversation between the bells of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin.

As he saw it, the performance, which lasted about 25 minutes, with 10 alternating one-minute contributions from both, consisted of calls and responses from one group of bell-ringers to the other. It was part of his project New Faith Love Song, which culminates in the exhibition currently on view at Imma’s New Galleries at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

It all began more than two years ago when Imma curator Rachel Thomas approached him about making a work. He came up with two possibilities: setting up an impromptu radio station, as he has done on several occasions, and something based around the cathedrals, and the bells. “I wanted,” he says, “to make something about love, something celebratory, addressing people in the city.” Despite the cathedral settings, the “new faith” he has in mind is not religious faith. Rather he is viewing the cathedrals as places of social communion, and as being woven historically and culturally into daily life and experience in the city. Against the stress, anxiety and tension of city life he proposes them as restorative spaces apart. No criticism of religion or worship is implied or meant, incidentally; it’s just that for him the work is not about religion per se, but about love beyond religious differences, and about our enduring faith in life and in each other.

“There’s an architectural dialogue between the cathedrals, the two spires, and I thought to get them literally talking to each other.” He approached the two Deans and found them agreeable, then began to explore the involved world of bell-ringing. Christ Church has a world-record number of 19 bells for full-circle ringing, St Patrick’s a formidable 15. They range in weight from quarter of a ton to well over two tons. Phelan faced a steep learning curve in grasping their acoustical mechanics, but it was a rewarding experience, he says. The bell-ringers, he found, form a dedicated, disciplined and highly skilled community.

A series of short, drawn animation films offers visualisations of the world of bell-ringing, literally and figuratively. Drawings with a distinctly retro quality (they were made on paper manufactured in the 1950s) map out the development of Phelan’s ideas of love and dialogue. He set out, he says, to make fake archival documents, evoking layers of time. Silver gelatin prints by Ronan McCrea document the full complement of bell ropes in both cathedrals, looped and at rest having been rung – a mute though curiously musical and atmospheric work.

New Faith Love Song could be thought of as an intervention in the city; in his work Phelan has come to specialise in interventions of one kind or another. Dublin-born, he was drawn to art but disillusioned when he began to study it at third level. “I was,” he says, “a difficult student.” Instead he opted to work on the other side of the fence, curatorially, first at the Hendriks Gallery, then with John Hunt at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios.

Following that, he was in Imma where he worked as a technician. “That can cut both ways,” he observes. “You gain skills but you can become obsessive about it, and that’s not necessarily good for your own work.” Nonetheless, working on exhibitions with two artists in particular, Canadian photographic artist Jeff Wall and sculptor Dorothy Cross, was pivotal in encouraging him to return to making art himself.However, his technical facility led him into working as a web media developer for some time. “There were people there who were so incredibly good, so talented, I realised that it had to be what primarily interested you if you were going to excel.”

He was wary about becoming overly preoccupied with technological fine-tuning, and that did happen, to some extent, with some early projects. He spent some seven years on a (very good) film project, Racer. “You can tend to over-think things,” he notes wryly. His characteristic artistic voice is technologically aware but often favours a low-tech aesthetic. FM Radio has become a staple medium. “If a curator asks me to do something, that’s the first thing I think of,” he says. “I love the way it transcends space, and time too; it travels infinitely. It’s a personal thing that’s also public.”

His FM projects have taken the form of interventions, cutting across the official channels of radio communication, ephemeral pirate stations broadcasting discussions and commentaries on diverse subjects. “It’s true that I’m always inclined to challenge convention. I think it’s good to push things, but of course that’s probably counter-productive, for me, as the art world likes predictability. If I settle into something at all I will get the urge to end it, even to do the opposite.”

In keeping with the interventionist, low-tech rationale, his Interruptions are anomalous, “amoeba-like”, usually large-scale site-specific drawings that interrupt architectural and cultural space.

“They are just what they are,” he says. His idea is that you have try to deal with this interruption in your otherwise predictable experience and that the questions it prompts will spill over into other areas. Despite, or perhaps because of their disruptive intent, they’ve gained favour with curators in Ireland and elsewhere, to the extent that Phelan is a little unsettled by their popularity. “Yes,” he sighs. “I think I’m going to have to give up making them.”

New Faith Love Song, an exhibition of drawings, sculptural installation, animation and photographic documentation by Garrett Phelan, curated by Rachel Thomas and Enrique Juncosa. The New Galleries, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin