Ways to escape tedium and reasons to be cheerful

VISUAL ART: Aidan Dunne reviews two exhibitions in Dublin.

VISUAL ART: Aidan Dunnereviews two exhibitions in Dublin.

Somewhere but here, another other place

New work by Maria McKinney. The LAB, Foley St, Dublin 1 . Until August 28

In 1869, King Ludwig II of Bavaria began building Neuschwanstein Castle in a stunningly picturesque setting at the edge of the Alps, above the village of Hohenschwangan. The ruins of two interlinked castles had previously stood on the site, but rather than being restored or incorporated in the new building, they were demolished.


The new castle, though, was expressly designed to evoke an earlier age, in a flamboyantly theatrical, story-book fashion. Not surprisingly, while an architect oversaw the practical side of construction, the shape and style of the buildings were provided by a stage designer, closely overseen by the king himself.

Ludwig II was a passionate fan of the operas of Richard Wagner and he intended Neuschwanstein as a tribute to the composer. The past that the castle recalled was a fantasy, fictional past as imagined by Wagner in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.

As such, it's an extreme, iconic example of what became known as the castle romanticism of the 19th century. And it was incredibly effective. It satisfies our expectations of what a fairytale castle should look like. Many millions of visitors have flocked to it for that reason. It has featured as a backdrop in several films, and inspired the castle in Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Now it features, many times over, in Maria McKinney's exhibition Somewhere but here, another other place.Her work has featured in several group shows. Its concerns have, broadly speaking, been boredom and ways to escape it. One way repeatedly referred to is recreational shopping, and the apparatus of shopping, in the form of the wire basket and the shopping trolley, have featured in McKinney's work and feature in some of the work in this exhibition.

She associates the basket and trolley with obsessive behaviour, and also with a staple element of modernism, the grid. In Elements of the Supermodern IV, a wire basket forms the framework for a basket within a basket, this one hand-woven from fishing line. We could read this as mass consumerism juxtaposed with slow, repetitious craft.

There's a similar approach in Horny grids, in which a mass of baskets is surmounted by two horns (of plenty?), dotted with spent matches, and a shopping trolley is upended so that it vaguely resembles a horned creature.

There is lots of ambiguous symbolism in all this, perhaps too much, and it might be argued that McKinney doesn’t really translate the given imagery of the basket and trolley into something compellingly her own. Even as they open up lines of possible interpretation, her additions and embellishments can seem a bit underwhelming, visually and conceptually. Luckily, there’s more to her show than that. There’s her treatment of the image of Ludwig’s castle, and what she does with it may mark a significant step forwards for her.

Neuschwanstein Castle, with its unlikely proliferation of towers and turrets and its exceptionally picturesque setting, became a very popular image, particularly when coated with snow. It features as the subject of many jigsaws, and McKinney has managed to get hold of a substantial number of them. She looks to the recreational pastimes of making jigsaws and, in other work in the show, doing crosswords. Both involve the artificial process of reassembling something that was complete and has been deliberately taken apart.

The jigsaw puzzle, she notes, attained its height of popularity during the Great Depression. People diverted themselves making images of inviting, picturesque places, enjoying fantasies of escape, not just looking at, but constructing an inviting alternative to a difficult reality. For the title-piece installation of her show, she’s built a domestic castle of her own, a tower of living-room tables of myriad styles and sizes.

That’s what you see as you enter the main gallery – and it’s striking. Get closer and you see that every single tabletop contains a completed jigsaw of Neuschwanstein castle through the seasons and from several angles. Somehow this is all quite compelling and a little eerie. She takes a number of individual elements that are separate, complete and fairly innocuous in themselves and manages to make something that is much more than the sum of its parts.

All her characteristic concerns – boredom, the desire for escape and diversion, the strategies used in mass consumerism and culture, uniformity, obsessiveness and futility – are expressed in an installation that is visually impressive and subtly disturbing. You can get a panoramic view of the mountainous edifice she’s made from the balcony gallery, a vista of Neuschwanseins combined with stuffy domesticity.

Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo

Group exhibition. Kevin Kavanagh.

Chancery Lane, Dublin 8. Until August 28.

The standard recipe for a summer group show is to get a work or two by each of the artists that make up a gallery's stable. Kevin Kavanagh has tried something a little more adventurous with Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo. It was curated by Davey Moor and it features work by gallery artists, sure enough, but also by many others – something in the region of 40 in all. And maybe the term "stable of artists" triggered something with him, because everything he has included is about animals in one way or another.

It’s a packed and hugely entertaining show, with 128 listed exhibits and prices starting at €20. There is a great deal of beautiful and often witty work. From Arno Kramer’s sensitive watercolours featuring hares, to Aileen Murphy’s reindeers coated with yellow snow. Moor has ranged far and wide and, while there’s no typical age profile, it is notable that he’s invited many younger artists, which is refreshing. And it’s interesting because what comes across very convincingly is that, despite the dire straits we’re in, there is on the whole a fundamental optimism and good humour to their work. Go on, cheer yourself up, pay it a visit.