Civic Exchanges
February 2015

If the physical core of ‘Phoenix Rising: art and civic imagination’ (Hugh Lane Gallery) is the exhibition which features five individual and two collaborative artists, in practice the curatorial reach is both more conceptual and more rhizome-like. In addition to the exhibition there is the usual Hugh Lane education programme, guided tours, and artists’ talks on and around their installations. On top there are films, extensive use of the gallery’s website, and text-based publications which are added to through the duration of the exhibition. The latter is designated as ‘research’ though in fact one wing of this is a project onto itself—a collaborative college project for architecture and film students that has its own exhibition at a different venue. Some might see this absence of fixed boundaries as confusing; others might view this demonstration of open-ended research as the new way of doing things; not to mention the networking involved, something that tends to become an end in itself. My short response to ‘Phoenix Rising’ is restricted pretty much to the core exhibition and related literature in the publications, or ‘newsletters.’

The theme of ‘Phoenix Rising’ seems such a perfect fit for The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery. This 2014/15 exhibition draws on Dublin’s 1914 Civic Exhibition and the title, as revealed in the first newsletter, is based in the original 1914 attempt to re-imagine Dublin as the ‘phoenix of cities’ following the ideas of Patrick Geddes, its guiding light. The newsletter states the aim as focusing on ‘urban experience and civic ideals’; the text also makes a comparison between the social issues and strife of 1914 and today. What it neglects to mention is that the history and role of the Hugh Lane is intimately connected to all of this though, in its defence, the Gallery has had related exhibitions in the recent past. If ‘Phoenix Rising’ seeks to be innovative in respect to diversity and the participation of a large number of interested parties, it is more conventional in respect to its apparent neutrality in a prognosis on ‘urban experience and civic ideals’. The exhibition literature establishes connections with 1914, offers a few pointers, and leaves it to participants to develop themes and ideas.

The exhibition devotes almost half of one room to the 1914 exhibition using directly related documentation as well as contextual information. The featured object here is a centuries old gilded wood phoenix from Charlemont House itself. The sequence of artist installations starting at the entrance is, Stephen Brandes, Cliona Harmey, Stéphanie Nava, Mark Clare, Vagabond Reviews, and Mary-Ruth Walsh. As the only non-resident, Nava is at something of a disadvantage as her installation is not supported by her presence at the artists’ talks, nor is there an interview with her. Since her installation is a small segment of her project on allotments and since the drawings here are mostly diagrammatic representations of a social system and thereby idealized, the sociability of allotment existence is not immediately obvious. While the rather narrow representation of Nava’s work means there is a danger of further extraction of an already reductive view of local, small-scale food production, the small-scale, repetitive, diagrammatic form does tend to stick in the mind, similar to a blue-print—as intended, no doubt!

While Mary-Ruth Walsh installed three semi-hidden sculptures in ‘unexpected’ places in the Gallery, her main contribution, more closely related to the theme, is a five minute video, or ‘film’ as she prefers, entitled, Take a deep breath now. A clue to the title is offered in part by the accompanying information which states that her film is dedicated to Geddes daughter, Norah, who created gardens on derelict sites in both Edinburgh and Dublin. The film includes photographs showing the structure of plants though it consists mainly of black and white stills of the city. The presence of Vertov and Chris Marker in the credits indicates a primary concern with film-making itself. Cliona Harmey also uses the camera but merely as documentation rather than as a structural consideration in image production. Her installation extends a number of Geddes’s interests into the present. Taking the notion of Geddes’s ‘Outlook Tower’ Harmey has constructed receivers based on information gleaned from the Internet, and with these she has intercepted sound waves from NOAA weather satellites which are then translated as images. Her installation consists of bits and pieces of hardware, but most particularly she has lined-up the resultant images adding specifics on the co-ordinates and so forth. The repetition of the procedure produces more-or-less the same image; they are simply gradations of grey similar to, in terms of old technology, a photocopy that hasn’t worked properly. Of course the ‘images’ barely qualify as such and the meticulous pursuit of procedure may be interpreted as anti-image or anti-aesthetic in intent, but it is more profitably viewed as an exercise on the limits of representation. Representation is the main focus of Vagabond Reviews’ contribution. They asked over fifty people to contribute a title to a book not yet written, but which should be written, on the city. The titles were transposed to a cover design on a book of blank pages and exhibited. In their statement they write, ‘A point of departure from the already known, Missing Titles explores the city as an object of scientific knowledge and imagination, on the boundary between the thought and the unthought ….’ An example of one of the more provocative titles is Gráinne Shaffrey’s, ‘The City that mistook its Crisis for a Plan’.

If a difficulty with Vagabond Reviews’ project is that their selection of people are people already selected as important, those with proper overview in how the city is deemed to operate, or could operate—architects, city-planners, and various professionals—is symptomatic of ‘Phoenix Rising’ as a whole. The emphasis on knowledge as objective, the effect of which is to privilege a notion of objective knowledge, is reversed somewhat in the installations by the two other artists. Stephen Brandes and Mark Clare return to a traditional artistic form in the city: the monument. Brandes commands the entrance to the exhibition which is dominated by the massive ‘wallpaper’, Per Laborem, depicting rider and horse on a plinth with a Latin script translated as ‘By Labour and Courage—from the fire I will rise again’. The monument is presented as a civic focal point which is obsolete, with little prospect of the heroic figure rising again. This is an abject view of what civic once meant. The initial work for Mark Clare’s contribution predates ‘Phoenix Rising’. The sculpture, La Fontaine du Réalisme, was made while on residency in Paris. Located in a park his facsimile fountain was based upon both Gustav Courbet’s Realist Manifesto and several universal expositions that took place in Paris between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries—Courbet had had work rejected for the 1855 exposition. Clare has installed the base of his fountain in the Hugh Lane wrapped Christo-style. It is now titled, Le Fantôme de Réalisme. It is accompanied in its dark room by a projected photograph of the original installation in the Parisian park. While the bulk of ‘Phoenix Rising’ presents the artist as a positive worker in civic endeavour, Clare reminds us that modern art has an avant-garde strand which critiqued normative, social values. The installation serves as an appropriate finale for an intriguing exhibition.


‘Phoenix Rising: art and civic imagination’ is at The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, 07 November 2014 – 29 March 2015.