CONSTRUCT: a young curators project working in collaboration with the public art collections of the Department of Finance & Personnel, Stormont, Belfast and the Office of Public Works, Dublin
During the academic year 2014/15 a small multi-disciplinary group of undergraduate students from Belfast School of Art worked with the Department of Finance & Personnel, Belfast and the Office of Public Works, Dublin to select artworks from their respective public art collections for a group show which would tour to four venues throughout the island of Ireland from September 2015-January 2016. The students had complete control of the shows theme, selection of artworks, catalogue design and its content. They worked with the curators and staff in each of the two government’s departments to understand more thoroughly the role of public art collections and gain a richer understanding of contemporary curatorial practices. A key component of the project was the students’ examination of the role of the artist within society.
The project was designed to encourage and support the students to become active agents in their learning experience. The changing higher education landscape has seen the evolution of learning and teaching activities, where the learning spaces we create for our students need not be bound by physical or time constraints. How we shape, re-shape, use and re-use spaces can be transformative to learning. Technological advancements have made possible hybrid models of interactive learning; promoting access, collaboration, sustainability and global awareness. While student engagement with public bodies is nothing new within higher education, this project aimed to innovate a new approach to the delivery of writing and critical analysis skills, in a format that was inclusive and equitable for all learners.
The following documents the group’s activities, further information, works etc collated and created throughout the project.
(Construct logo designed by Aine Curley)
The group as depicted by themselves
Middle row from left: Jesssica McAfee, Bethany MIllican, Wendy Walker, Catherine Magennis
Bottom row from left: Daniel Newcombe, Aynsley Longridge, Christopher Kennedy, detail of group drawing collage
Workshops and visits to the collections at Stormont, Belfast and OPW, Dublin
Collected ideas on possible exhibition theme from all members of the group
(Illustration above by Aynsley Longridge)
Reflections on Construct
Digital collages compiled by Daniel Newcombe using drawings made by the group
Digital drawings made by some of the group
Alan Phelan discusses Cockatoo and more with Aine Curley
After providing me with a wealth of information, Phelan also agreed to answer some outstanding questions that I still had about the ‘Cockatoo’ and his work in general:
Was there any particular reasoning behind your choice of material (marble) for the original ‘The Seven Oracles’ installation?
Marble was a good contrast of material from the original sources which were soft toys – soft furry to hard stone. The making process involved me adapting existing toys (or making up some from parts, like the cockatoo), and dipping them in plaster to make them solid and fixed in a pose. I had a sculpture made with the same place in China before and so the plaster maquettes were sent there and scaled up in black marble. The previous work made there was also a toy, the modelling hand, also scaled up. As I said before it was for a show in Shanghai and it seemed logical to get the work fabricated relatively locally. Doing this enabled me to make a large work on a modest budget for a show very far away. It was in a commercial gallery and it almost sold which meant it would not have had a second life!
Leading on from that, was there a particular reason for choosing a household latex glove to incorporate onto the ‘Cockatoo’ – did you want a deliberate contrast between luxury and banality, did you want to add humour/quirkiness or an element of the unexpected to the sculpture?
There is indeed a contrast between the sculptural materiality of marble and the domesticity of the latex glove. The work is of course tongue in cheek as with a lot of the ‘Handjob’ pieces, humour is important in the re-contextualisation of many of the pieces in the show. There is a flippant visual connection between the headdress of a cockatoo and fingers, more so then as the original bird was a parakeet in the psychic animal mix. So I was changing the bird type and shifting it into a different context altogether. The mix of high and low materials is something that worked across the show in a kind of collage/bricolage way as the works were ideas borrowed from other artists and remade with their permission by me. I took fragments of their work and shoved it into a totally different context. Everyone was game for this as artists are generally with other artists messing around with their work. Curators however have a different code of practice or safe guards, especially with institutional positions where they are custodians of collections. My recent intervention in IMMA in the Fragments collections show repeated this in some way. I radically changed the way works were shown and because it was me, an artist doing it, I had a different kind of licence to do this. It refreshed the work and for a museum with a small collection this is important for them to do. I will be doing something similar at the Hugh Lane next March also but intervening with a series of new works in film and sculpture around a historical painting exhibition.
Also, was there a particular reason you chose it over the other animal sculptures from your installation to develop further and reinvent for further exhibitions?
Well no and yes. The headdress seemed appropriate to re-work as fingers. It was a good solid piece for the window of the gallery framed as it was by the vinyl drawing by Douglas Rodrigo Rada of a large hand with a tied up finger as ring. It was important to have a non-sexual work fronting the show given the overtones of the title. In fact there was nothing terribly sexual in the show at all, just some bad puns and elusive references.
What made you choose to use your exhibitions to respond to Žižek’s ‘The Fragile Absolute’ (were there theories in it that particularly resonated with you or that you felt you had to address?).
Yes lots of things resonated with me about Žižek which made me structure the project around his writing. What I sometimes seek is a structure to bring different conflicting ideas together. Without going into too much detail the word extraction from the Žižek text (I used only the words in italics) was a glib yet interesting summary of his book. The structure and system it created allowed me to explore the my reaction to the politics of the Balkans, car culture, sexuality, Irish history, labour history, hidden histories, bad correlations, mobile phone masts, perception, modernism, world war 1, psychoanalysis – all in a contemporary popular cultural context. Žižek tends to use a lot of cultural references in his writing and this I greatly enjoy in his breaking of academic barriers. He is also from the former Yugoslavia and so as the project bean, for IMMA anyway, with the car sculpture, it was important for me to root the project with a great thinker and commentator from that part of the world. It was part homage then but also critique as my work spins in so many circles it’s hard to know what is actually going on, or what the ‘big message’ is, just like in Žižek’s work.
And lastly, what appeals to you so much about collaborating with or working under the instruction of other artists for your own exhibitions?
What attracts me to this is the diffusion of authorship, the destruction of meaning, the reconstruction of other meanings, the curatorial games, or progressive public strategies, the clustered connections, the circulation of ideas instead of a blank and joyless appropriation, the provisional versus the precise, the continent language games; the contradictions inherent in all these objectives and they generally fail (fantastically).
As I said in my artist’s statement about the show: In the end what is fascinating are the choreographed systems of chance that are sometimes in synch and then again not. When they do, they seemingly obliterate each other or maybe just quietly cancel each other out. Is this hedging towards an expanded sense of meaning or some semiotic collapse? Not sure anyone cares. Whether subjectivity can break free of the subject is only something that can happen when concept and material are absent. These are other people’s ideas. Cultural delivery systems seem to be central to the way things get understood when distribution not reception is key, or at least less relevant. For the moment there are only elusive fluxes of memories, shifting identities, open-ended narratives, contrapuntal dialogues, diffused authors, and other circulations related to the hand.
Opening Night of Exhibition at Ards Arts Centre, Newtownards
Speeches at the open evening, Major of Ards Borough Alderman Alan Graham, Simon Harris TD, David Stering DFP Permanent Secretary.
Young Curators Group