Open season on Cork's vertical invaders


Visual Arts/Aidan Dunne:The Crawford Gallery's Crawford Open 2007: The Sleep of Reason attracted some adverse pre- publicity when a Cork-based artist, John Kelly, wrote an open letter in which he was critical of the selection process.

Rather along the lines of Limerick's EV+A, the Crawford Open employs a "vertical invader" selection strategy. Outsiders (who, in all likelihood, will not be familiar with the local art scene) are drafted in to make the hard choices. For the current show, the vertical invaders were the director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Enrique Juncosa, and Tate Modern's head of collections (international art), Frances Morris.

Faced with a formidable battery of entries from about 750 artists, they emerged from one day's work with a show comprising pieces by just 16 artists (two of them working collaboratively), which is a cruel rate of attrition. Kelly pointed out that, of this meagre number, eight were linked in some way to one or other adjudicator. Furthermore, since much of the work selected is time-based (which necessarily takes time to view) and since, presumably, some work that didn't make it through the selection was also time-based, to what extent could the adjudication be fair and thorough? There wasn't even time for the adjudicators to see everything.

Open-submission shows are not open, in the sense that submission does not imply inclusion. They are by their nature unfair, in that artists voluntarily subject themselves to what might cynically be termed curatorial whim. Between them, Juncosa and Morris brought a huge amount of experience to their task. It is an odd but unacknowledged fact that though time-based works, often lengthy ones, occupy a central position in contemporary art, they are far more likely to be sampled than viewed in their entirety by pretty much everyone involved in the art world. There just isn't the time.

As it happens, most of the video works in the Crawford Open are brief and, because it's essentially a one-liner, you can get the point of the longest, Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi's Infinity, almost instantaneously (by endlessly retracing their steps in a piece of parkland, they wear a path into the grass in the shape of the mathematical symbol for infinity).

As selected by Juncosa and Morris, the exhibition looks good and is a comfortable fit in the Crawford's various available spaces. It is admirably cogent and concentrated, and amounts to more than the sum of its parts. There's lots to like about it and plenty to argue with, which is no bad thing. For example, Sam Plagerson's Freud Collector, a mock-up sitting room dominated by a collection of ornamental china pieces, all bearing the visage of Sigmund Freud, boasts an intriguing central idea. But Plagerson doesn't seem to know what to do with the idea, and the installation is strangely inert.

Fumiko Kobayashi also transposes a living space into the gallery. Dorothy is an engrossing installation in which an individual's possessions are crammed into the tightest possible configuration. The title is not explained. Perhaps it relates to the heroine of The Wizard of Oz, whose adventures lead her to conclude that there's no place like home. In her other exhibited piece, the stop-action video, Nestkasten, we see Kobayashi making and unmaking another nest-like assemblage of personal belongings. The work is playful and thought-provoking.

Both Yvanna Greene and Maggie Madden deal with aspects of consumer culture. Greene charts processes of production, consumption and waste in a slightly stilted way. Madden's installation, Detritus of Contemporary Life, is a sprawling construction composed of discarded packaging. It too highlights consumption and proliferation, a cross between an endlessly expanding metropolis and a vast organism. It is visually fascinating and conceptually rich, and really well installed, spanning two storeys.

Tom Molloy's ambiguous Fall, a terrifying wall-sized watercolour that might at first glance be an abstract pattern but resolves itself into a multiplicity of falling, skeletal human figures, is a sombre, eloquent statement on human aggression. Abigail O'Brien opts for humour in her Raspberry Decoy, a battle tank as raspberry fool, equipped with a gun barrel that periodically deflates and inflates. It could be that she over-eggs the pudding.

The show's subtitle, The Sleep of Reason, refers to Goya's celebrated etching, The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and most exhibits are thematically appropriate. Martin Healy's stunning photographic works, however, are particularly apposite in that they seem to be at home in Goya's vision. They feature a bird of prey, hooded and at rest, and invite us into a nightmarish internal imaginative space. Amanda Dunsmore's video portrait of Martin McGuinness in this context also invites us to wonder what is going on his mind (it has previously been exhibited opposite a similar portrait of the late David Ervine).

It's good that the show highlights the work of Michelle Deignan, who operates inventively in the sphere of contemporary media representations, exploring our plight as inhabitants of a constantly mediated world with wit and insight. There's wit as well in David Theobald's traffic-jam animation, Greensleeves. Andrew Vickery's Beyond the Sea is great if you haven't already seen it once or twice, Lorraine Walsh's animation is okay, but Paul McAree's paintings are distinctly disappointing.

The winner of the inaugural Crawford Open Artist Award (worth €5,000) is Michael Guhry, a young artist who shows two short, memorable, claustrophobically intense videos that display an ability to visualise extreme inner worlds. He's a reasonable choice as winner. What did the judges say? They said: "His work addresses youth culture but evokes a knowledge of the unforeseen, of premonition." We're not told who wrote those words, but it is worth pointing out that they don't make any sense. One part of the sentence doesn't connect with the other (what's with that "but"?), and it sounds like the kind of lazy rhetoric that gives contemporary art a bad name. Which may come as no surprise to John Kelly.

The Crawford Open 2007: The Sleep of Reason open-submission show is at Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork, Mon-Sat, until Feb 9