Bones of contention
EXHIBITION:No stranger to controversy, having been the scourge of ‘Liveline’for past works – such as an exhibition that featured live dogs in cages – Séamus Nolan is tackling another thorny issue, the Corrib gas dispute
TWO YEARS AGO, an unexpected and unique hotel opened in Dublin. Despite being booked out every night, it remained open for just short of a month, and then closed again, its designer furniture was auctioned off and the proceeds donated to a local cause. This was Hotel Ballymun, on the top floor of Clarke Tower, one of the Ballymun’s seven towers, due for demolition that autumn. Hotel Ballymun boasted “spectacular views” and “individually designed bedrooms . . . furnished with one-off pieces”. Stripped of gaudy wallpaper and patterned carpets, and presented instead with bare plaster walls, and quirky furniture all remade from pieces found in the condemned block, Hotel Ballymun was suddenly the coolest place to be – but it was not without its problems.
“Poverty tourism,” snarled some critics, as visitors came to Ballymun as if on an exotic safari, to look at strange and alien tribes. “But it’s generating local employment,” defended others (employment always being a sure-fire argument clincher) pointing out that women from the area were working as chambermaids, which only made things feel more awkward. The more you looked at Hotel Ballymun, the more ethically complicated and intriguing it became – which was exactly how Séamus Nolan, who had created it, wanted it.
At 31 years of age and dressed in black, Nolan is engaging, yet very softly spoken, with short hair save for a long ponytail down his back. He could, perhaps, easily fulfil your expectations of what an artist should be, except for the fact that his art confounds pretty much every expectation you might have of what art could be. For example, with the exception of one or two pieces, Nolan doesn’t make things to sell, and his exhibitions and projects are as much about the conversations that happen around them as they are about what you’re looking at.
Take If Art Could Save Your Life, which took place at the Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda, Co Louth, last February. For that exhibition, Nolan asked the local dog pound to lend him two dogs, which stayed in cages in the gallery (during opening hours, with time out for walks) for the show.
There was a storm of opinion. Animal-rights groups went mad, Livelineand Joe Duffy got involved, activists tried to rescue the dogs, offers to adopt them flooded in. The fact that, had they not been in the gallery, the dogs would have been put down as unwanted by the end of the week was ignored – as was the plight of thousands of similar dogs in pounds around the country. The anger seemed to be more about being forced to see and acknowledge something otherwise kept hidden, than about exploiting animals for art – though, in this instance, art really could save lives, as, by being on display, the dogs were suddenly wanted again.
Does it bother Nolan, whose work is definitely provocative, when things are taken up wrong? “Sometimes,” he says ruefully. “If it gets hijacked, that’s annoying, but even that allows the conversation to go further. It depends how far I want to go to make the points completely obvious.”
With Hotel Ballymun, he describes the issue as being about how you invited people into the project. “If I had made it €500 a night, that would have made it really obvious what the work was about.” In fact, Hotel Ballymun was free, with a “suggested donation” of just €50 a night. “I hope,” he continues, “that though I don’t really push the intention, it’s kind of obvious. I don’t imagine that everyone’s going to want to look too deeply into it. Some people will.”
So how does he feel about the furore over his dogs in Drogheda? “Yes, I got annoyed, but I started answering some of the people, and that was a mistake – getting personally involved. I was looking at animal rights and human rights, not animal welfare, which was a completely different perspective. I didn’t mind people getting involved in the discussions – it was the activists trying to demonise me, trying to get the dogs out. It was as counterproductive to the work as it was to what I’d imagine they were trying to do. But all those works help me to understand stuff better – that’s why I do them.”
Nolan was born and grew up in Kilkenny, where his parents are dairy farmers, before going to the National College of Art and Design, graduating with first-class honours. “I’d wanted to be a priest when I was about five years old, but then always an artist.” He’s the second-youngest of four brothers, and the farming background gave him, he says, “a DIY way of approaching things”. It also gave him a very different relationship with space, and with security. “I always feel really secure when I’m there – that I have this expanse of land underneath me.”
As the conversation develops, moving on to his next exhibition – which looks at the different sides of the Corrib gas field conflict in Co Mayo, and re-enacts the public hearings on video – I start to imagine family dinners at the farm in Kilkenny as being rowdy affairs, full of opinion and difference. Not so. “We’re kind of a quiet family,” says Nolan. “We didn’t really discuss much stuff. The television was a huge influence, because the generation gap was so obvious. A separate culture was introduced into a place with a very different way of socialising. The world of television is very exciting, and it’s only in hindsight you realise the value of what you were doing before.”
While his projects seem to gather controversy around them like static electricity (another one, involving the axes used to damage US military aircraft at Shannon, also making it on to Liveline), Nolan himself is not keen on media attention or the limelight. “I just really like basic stuff,” he says. “I’m not really very good socially; I’m not good at talking to people. I can do it when I have a reason, and sometimes it’s bad, because I seem to be asking people to do stuff, or asking people questions, and then when I’m calling them up as friends, it’s difficult, because they assume I want something – and then you feel like you’ve used up all your friendship chips.”
Nevertheless, he does have a talent for getting people involved in things that give them, and their audiences (and people who never even see the work, but who call Liveline nonetheless) the chance to see things from a different perspective. “I try to make it all as clear as I can,” he agrees. “And I’m surprised that they want to do it, sometimes. It’s kind of an odd job – what I’m asking people to do – and it doesn’t always work out well.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Maybe the guy who agreed to give us the dogs from the dog pound, maybe he would prefer he had never met me.”
Even though he doesn’t seek attention for himself, Nolan’s work is receiving huge acclaim, and this month it can be seen around Ireland. The Corrib exhibition is at Project in Dublin, while he also features in shows at the RHA in Dublin, and in Limerick. The RHA exhibition is Futures, where – alongside Aideen Barry, Kevin Cosgrove, Maria McKinney, Sinead Ní Mhaonaigh, John O’Connell and Mark Swords – Nolan is billed as one to watch for the future (although it could be argued that he’s already being watched, and has been for some time). I ask him what drives him. “I don’t try to be provocative, but it seems we’re all allowed to do what we want, and we shouldn’t necessarily be judged for what we do, but we should all examine what it is that we do.”
Corrib Gas is at Project in Temple Bar, Dublin, until October 10th, 01-8819613, www.projectartscentre.ie. Futures is at the RHA Gallery, Dublin, until September 27th, 01-6612558, www.royalhibernianacademy.ie. Nolan’s work also features in Noughties But Nice: 21st Century Irish Art, at Limerick City Gallery of Art, until October 18th, 061-310633, www.limerickcitygallery.ie