A "Terrible Beauty" Is Born: Thoughts on the First Edition of Ireland's Dublin Contemporary Art Festival

In 2008 Ireland was the first European country officially to enter into recession post crash, and, together with Greece, it has almost become a symbol of the spiraling economic downturn that has since engulfed the Eurozone. So there's something particularly cheering about Dublin staging an ambitious, biennial-type exhibition. In troubled times, culture is usually the first to go, but evidently not in Ireland. Both public and private sector have rallied to back this contemporary art show modeled on Documenta. Result: 114 artists in five venues for two months. Dublin Contemporary begins big.

It's usually at this moment in the review that I start my rant on the vacuity of large-scale exhibitions' curatorial concepts, and how they systematically fail to represent the variety of art on display, except when they are so broad that they could encompass pretty much anything (think Venice 2011's "ILLUMInations"). I've stopped taking these concepts too seriously now, but couldn't help thinking that the premise brought forward by curators Christian Viveros-Fauné and Jota Castro falls into the second category. The title's reference to "Terrible Beauty" is, of course, a quote from Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and the show, the curators claim in the exhibition guide, addresses "art's inability to seriously engage society's problems" and is based on the conceit of asking you to imagine whether "we could do things differently." They kept their options open, to say the least. Yet beyond the rhetoric, there's a real can-do, middle-finger-to-the-status-quo attitude in many of the works on display, which resonates with Castro and Viveros-Fauné's own practice as artist and as critic respectively. They have often chosen to favor lesser-known artists, allowing for new discoveries. Dublin Contemporary also demonstrates an interest in the local art scene all too rare in exhibitions of this kind. It might be a biennial-type show, yet it's all but generic.

The "beating heart" of the exhibition (to borrow Viveros-Fauné's words) is held at Earlsfort Terrace, a large neoclassical building, former home to University College Dublin. Abandoned for several years, it has received a new lease of life with Dublin Contemporary, the derelict classrooms — some still equipped with blackboards — functioning as focused gallery spaces, hardly ever hosting more than one or two artists. On the top floor, Mounir Fatmi's "Oriental Accident" (2011) is a timely intervention. Its Persian-style carpet is equipped with loudspeakers broadcasting rattling noises and screams while anonymous hands are pictured on a TV screen deejaying, as if directing the sound — an ironic, if slightly obvious, evocation of the forces at play behind the representation of Middle Eastern news. In the nearby corridor, Irish artist Corban Walker has mounted a dozen door handles into the wall at regular intervals, much below their usual heights. They lead nowhere; their systematic repetition gives them the air of minimalist modules, but they also elicit something much more romantic, the Alice in Wonderland-esque possibility that behind the decrepit walls dozens of unsuspected kingdoms await your visit.

The blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, art and life, is a recurrent thread in Dublin Contemporary. For "Elmina" (2010), Doug Fishbone hired an all-West African crew to produce a film shot in Ghana in which he held the lead role. The white New Yorker plays a Ghanaian character, his ethnicity never once mentioned. As the film's dramatic plot of love and treason unravels, the elephant in the room fades away. "Elmina" is probably the only piece of Western contemporary fine art ever nominated for an African Movie Academy Award. Distributed on DVD throughout West Africa, "Elmina" exists, or attempts to exist, within two spheres that rarely ever meet.

Alain Declercq's whole practice revolves around military intelligence and the particular aesthetic of the images it generates. In his installation "War Games" (2006) the artist presents a large office table typical of the US administration, with four open hatches, each bearing a small monitor showing one of Declercq's video works. Shot with a hidden camera, "État de Siège" (2001) displays tanks in Paris, like an absurd replay of the capital's World War II occupation. They turn out to be driven by French soldiers preparing for the 14th of July parade, but the grainy quality of the images tint their content with a palpable feeling of threat.

There are several successful pairings of artworks at Earlsfort Terrace. David Adamo's vertical beams, whittled down in their middle as if by a gigantic axe ("Untitled", 2011), poetically echo Arte Povera legend Jannis Kounellis's installation featuring a wall clad with gilded wooden scraps of wood and a clothes tree loaded with black coats ("Untitled", 2009). Together, they could be a film set: Something has happened and the place has been left, waiting for further narrative development. Elsewhere, Monica Bonvicini's dark spray paint slogan "Add Elegance to Your Poverty" (2002) hovers like a fierce label on the wall behind the shimmery body of David Zink Yi's 20-foot-long ceramic squid splayed in its pool of ink, "Untitled (Architeuthis)" (2010).

Particularly striking from the younger Irish generation is the work of Galway-based Siobhan McGibbon, who presents a series of anthropomorphic wax sculptures in the lineage of Robert Gober. McGibbon's work has a distinct medical slant: she takes her cues from bodily abnormalities. The fragile, hairy breast "Congenital hypertrichosis languoniosa" (2011) is at once familiar and strange, attractive for its softness and disturbing for its multi-gender otherness. A terrible beauty, albeit of a very different kind than the one imagined by Yeats. Also notable is the work of Ella Burke, who has hung in Earlsfort Terrace's staircase an Irish flag soaked in soothing white paint. Overall, such works combine to give the show an affecting sense of uneasiness and eeriness.

At Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, an extensive survey of Willie Doherty's work further grounds the show within its Irish context. His photographs and films are a sensitive meditation on the invisible scars of urban and natural landscapes. Doherty was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, a city on the border with the Republic of Ireland he once called "a perfect theater of war". His early works are particularly steeped in the Troubles. "Protecting/Invading" (1987) is a photographic diptych showing two banal countryside views, rendered heavy with a sense of fear and expectancy by the two words of the title inscribed in their middle. (Doherty's show functions very well in conversation with Richard Hamilton and Rita Donagh's exhibition of political works, "Civil Rights etc.," held on the gallery's first floor, though this is not an official part of Dublin Contemporary.)

Other associated venues struggle to keep up with the level set by Earlsfort Terrace and Dublin City Gallery. A solo show by Alice Neel at Douglas Hyde Gallery only demonstrates how gaudy her pictures became after 1950. And the would-be titillating monstrosity of painter Lisa Yuskavage's naked ogresses at the Royal Hibernian Academy don't bring much to an exhibition, which, despite its 100-plus artists, had felt particularly coherent up to that point. The biggest letdown is at the National Gallery, which presents figurative, Po-Mo paintings by Dexter Dalwood and Manual Ocampo alongside the day-glow drippings of Alberto di Fabio, the whole display punctuated by graffiti spray-painted directly onto the gallery's green walls by Irish street art group the TDA Klann. There is no doubt something very laudable about attempting to expand what should or shouldn't be presented in a museum like the National Gallery, but institutionalized, street art loses all its bite.

Well, exhibitions held on this kind of scale are bound to have disappointing moments. But Dublin Contemporary succeeds on so many other levels that it is easily forgiven. The event has pulled off a difficult balancing act. It positions Ireland as a cosmopolitan capital of culture, but also captures the dark radiance of a country that finds itself, at this particular moment, in the crosshairs of history.