The art of turning art inside out
Aileen Corkery put Temple Bar on the international outdoor arts map. Now she's moving on, she tells Aidan Dunne how she attracted the artists she most admired to Dublin
Apart from a couple of projects still in the pipeline, Temple Bar's Outside Visual Arts programme was effectively wound down at the end of last year. Outdoor film screenings and other cultural events in Temple bar won't cease, but the particular visual arts strand initiated in 1998 and shaped and managed by curator Aileen Corkery has reached a conclusion with her departure from Temple Bar Properties (TBP). However, she will follow through on the works in progress: new films by Rosalind Nashashibi and McDermott and McGough.
Throughout its life span, Outside Visual Arts evolved into one of the most innovative and successful arts initiatives in Dublin and indeed the country as a whole, and its achievements stand as a tribute to the cultural vision of TBP and to Corkery's curatorial flair and inventiveness. For it became apparent, early on, that she rapidly formulated an exceptionally ambitious strategic sense of what the programme might be.
Outside Visual Arts consisted of two complementary aspects: bringing existing artworks and artists to Dublin, and commissioning original pieces. It took its character from Corkery's passion for film. "Film is where my interest lies, it's what most engages me."
Born in Maryland, in the United States, Corkery moved to Ireland from New York in 1988 and has been based here since. Now she sees herself as not exactly Irish, but probably more European than American. "I just don't think I'd feel that much at home in the US."
The genesis of the programme was a one-off event she curated in 1998, comprising temporary sculptural installations throughout Temple Bar including, memorably, Paddy Jolley's Cenotaph: a spectacular stack of four tractors. "You know," she recalls now, "every single piece was battered or compromised in some way by the public. It was incredibly disheartening. But I also realised that Temple Bar Properties were willing to put money into public art, that they were committed to trying."
Jolley's work particularly excited her. The eloquent bleakness of his outlook, conveyed with characteristic visual flair, came across in a looped video Hours of Darkness in which a body falls perpetually down a stairwell. So TBP commissioned a new film from Jolley and his collaborator, Reynold Reynolds. The Drowning Room is "an underwater soap opera", viscerally imparting a sense of the claustrophobia of domesticity.
The film was duly screened in Temple Bar. Corkery was pleased. "Then it just went off all over the place winning awards. I felt this was extraordinary. More and more people started hearing about the Outside Arts programme; word came back."
Another Jolley/Reynolds commission ensued, again treating the quiet desperation of the everyday, this time using fire as a metaphor in the succinctly titled Burn. Cue further awards. Both Jolley and Reynolds have gone from strength to strength. A joint feature-length film will show in New York this spring, and Jolley is doing preparatory work on a solo feature length project.
Corkery proved to have a good instinct for artists. Dorothy Cross, who made a film, Figure for TBP, was well established and highly regarded, but Corkery can claim to have been quick to see the potential not only of Jolley but also of Gerard Byrne, whose New Sexual Lifestyles, based on a 1973 panel discussion in Playboy magazine, was a TBP commission. Byrne has become one of the most prominent of younger Irish artists, with a developing international profile. The same goes for Phil Collins, who works with photography and video, and whose hallmarks are unorthodox social interaction and an empathic relationship with his subjects.
"I wanted to work with them, with all of them, because I was gripped by what they were doing. In a way, through Outside Visual Arts, I've met all my heroes without ever planning to do that. I approached artists I admired."
The other aspect of Outside Visual Arts involved bringing art and artists to Dublin. There were many outstanding names and works, including the young Finnish film artist Salla Tykka, the celebrated YBA Richard Billingham, the iconoclastic photographer Jurgen Teller, Douglas Gordon's influential Feature Film based on Bernard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's Vertigo, Julian Schnabel's biographical Basquiat and William Klein's tremendous Messiah documenting performances of Handel's great work around the globe.
Corkery's greatest coup here was undoubtedly Matthew Barney, now one of the biggest names on the world art stage, Bjork's partner, and someone who has been described by at least one reputable journal as the most important living American artist. Barney, who began his artistic career as a performance-video artist of offbeat individuality, has become celebrated for his five-part film series The Cremaster Cycle, a composite epic on a Wagnerian scale. A visually dazzling, circular, self-reflexive narrative of labyrinthine complexity, baffling symbolism and genuine strangeness, along its tangled way the work encompasses an inventive retelling of the myth of the formation of the Giant's Causeway and a prolonged sequence inspired by TT Races on the Isle of Man.
Again, Corkery worked to screen the initial Cremaster instalments - they were not made chronologically - before the overall cycle attained its eventual, celebrated status. That stood her in good stead, because it earned her Barney's tremendous goodwill, and resulted in the remarkable screening of all five films in Meeting House Square in August 2002. So accustomed were we by then to Barney's Dublin visits, and his work, that we'd come to expect nothing less, but it's worth remembering that the event put a free, open-air venue in Dublin's cultural quarter on a par with several of the world's premier museums, including the Ludwig in Cologne, Paris's Modern Art Museum and the Guggenheim in New York. All hosted the Cremaster Cycle. And, Corkery points out, we were the second venue, not an afterthought.
It's something she is still proud of, and something she still sounds surprised by. Not just in the case of Barney, but with regard to the other artists as well. They didn't need it. You could say there was nothing in it for them. But, she says, "something about working at this grassroots level appeals to them."
A vital part of her approach was that the artists came here with their work. "It was never just a case of putting the thing on, never just an impersonal process of slotting something into the schedule. I wanted them to get involved here, to meet interesting people, so that conversations start about Ireland in other places. And that's what happened, really."
The programme never seemed to highlight commercial sponsorship. No, she agrees, and she regards that as positive. She feels such high-profile sponsorships can alter the nature of an enterprise. "TBP were terrific. We got the lion's share of what was available. But I'm proud that we did what we did free of conventional sponsorship. There was never a corporate logo at a screening in Meeting House Square, for example. I liked that there was this extraordinary sense of integrity. It wasn't even a real venue in the accepted sense, just an open space. Then the artworks just occupy it temporarily."
However, she acknowledges "sponsorship in kind. So many people were so good. We simply couldn't have done what we did without the help of Marie and Joe Donnelly, for example, or the Clarence Hotel, who were incredibly generous." Part of her skill, it must be said, lay in building up networks of support to underpin the overall programme. Working now on a freelance basis on several projects, she feels that art scene here has changed enormously since the beginning of Outside Visual Arts.
"Things are much more open, people are travelling so much more. It's a very promising, exciting time for Irish art."