INVITED ARTISTS AND THINKERS DISCUSS THE HISTORY OF THE DOUGLAS HYDE GALLERY ON ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY.
This is an abridged version of a public conversation that took place on 17 May at The Douglas Hyde Gallery, as part of a year-long programme marking the gallery’s fortieth anniversary. The panel, chaired by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith and introduced by current DHg director Georgina Jackson, comprised artists who have previously had major solo exhibitions at the DHg. Each artist took the opportunity to reflect on the significant influence the DHg has had on their relationship with contemporary art.
Georgina Jackson: The Douglas Hyde Gallery holds an incredibly important space in Dublin, in Ireland and internationally. When Alice Maher was talking about her first important solo exhibition here in 1994, when IMMA was still in its infancy, she described the DHg as “the most important venue in Ireland and a launching pad for all aspiring artists. Everyone went there, everyone wanted to show there – it was a fulcrum of energy and a powerful place”. The gallery emerged out of the infectious enthusiasm and curiosity of a figure called George Dawson, a professor of genetics here in Trinity, who acknowledged the importance of artists, and art as necessary within the lives of students, Trinity College and beyond. This is a celebration of 40 years of the DHg and the many more years to come.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith: I have had a long relationship with The Douglas Hyde Gallery, which includes 17 years as a board member; so I get to go first, as Methuselah and seanchaí, and say a few words about my memories of the gallery. I was vaguely familiar with the Douglas Hyde as an exhibition venue in the early 1980s, as a student in UCD. The memory is hazy, but punctuated by a very vivid recollection of an Ed Kienholz show, ‘Tableaux’, in 1981.1 Other memories from the early years – the pre-John Hutchinson years, if you like – included the first show that really took my breath away, in a purely spectacular fashion, for the scale of its ambition: Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ show in 1990, when Medb Ruane was at the helm.2 More formative for me, as I was beginning to write about art, locally at first, was a series of exhibitions (in the transition into John Hutchinson’s tenure as director of the DHg) charting Irish art in the 1980s – four or five group shows organised thematically. But my most memorable show of the 90s, which in some ways was life-changing, was the show ‘Chlorosis’ by Marlene Dumas in 19943, which I recall very vividly for a number of reasons. Firstly, I had no expectations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to, it was a busy day, I was late to meet someone. I distinctly remember coming all the way down the stairs, out of breath, apologetic, looking for the person I was late to meet, finding him, saying sorry and then looking around. And just behind me was the title piece, a huge bank of watercolours on paper – a signature medium of Marlene Dumas then and now – and many other works, which completely stunned me. That was the beginning of a long interest in Marlene’s work, about which I’ve written several times, and a friendship I value.
Now, in order to indicate some notion of historical progression or chronology, I’m going to ask the artists to speak in the order in which they showed over the years.
Willie Doherty: I’m old enough to remember the DHg when it was a much younger institution. I was an art student in Belfast and I think there was a lot of excitement about the potential of this new gallery that had opened in Dublin, because these were in the days before IMMA. I think the art world generally felt that there really was a place for a dedicated art gallery that was serious, professional and had some relationship, not just with the city of Dublin and Trinity College, but with the rest of the world as well. So, there was always a degree of excitement around the exhibitions in the DHg and the ambition and scope that the gallery stood for. I actually took part in a group exhibition here in 1981 called ‘The Irish Exhibition of Living Art’, which I think may have happened every couple of years.4 I graduated from art school in Belfast in the summer of 1981 and to my surprise, they accepted a large photographic work that I’d made on three or four panels. That was quite a thing for a young artist who’d just left art school, to have a piece of work selected for an exhibition here. Like every young artist, you’re working from a position of invisibility and hoping your work might get somewhere. The first solo show I had here was in 1993. The work that I made was in some ways shaped by the architecture of the gallery itself. One of the things I’ve always liked about this gallery is you enter from the street and then you get this view from the balcony down into the space. I think it’s quite a unique perspective – you navigate the space from this entry point above. In that sense, the space has always presented a series of challenges for artists. Over the years, the way in which respective directors have understood the space evolved as the space evolved. Some of the shows John Hutchinson curated here really demonstrated a clear understanding of the dynamic of this architecture and the installation of the works here were often disarmingly simple, but complex at the same time. It’s always been for me a really important and very dynamic place, both as an artist and as a visitor.
Willie Doherty had solo exhibitions at the DHg in 1993 and again in 2008. He is a current board member of the gallery.
Gerard Byrne: Because I’m from Dublin, I feel like I’ve a very long history with the space. For me, something that’s really central for the DHg overall, has always been connecting practices in Ireland with practices that are centred elsewhere – I think that’s a really important gesture. Obviously, the Kiefer show was important because it was a blockbuster 5, but I remember the Bill Viola show here and that was really, really important.6 Viola came as a visiting artist to NCAD. Because it was media art, it felt very, very new at the time. I also have quite a palpable memory of Cecily Brennan’s show here in the early 90s – very large charcoal drawings from County Wicklow.7 I remember a feature in the Sunday Tribune on Cecily Brennan. An artist being written about in a newspaper – that was kind of a big deal in Ireland at the time. It was the first time I was able to make a connection between seeing something in a gallery space and actually having some sense of who that artist is, as a person. I somehow got involved in installing the shows at the DHg and that was a brilliant experience. The first show we installed was Jimmie Durham, which was an amazing show that came from the ICA in London.8 It was just so beautiful – I’ve loved his work ever since. Another very fond memory was the ‘Kalachakra Sand Mandala’ made by Tibetan Buddhist monks.9 My own show in 2002 was curated by Annie Fletcher. I made a photograph of Dorothy Walker specifically for the show, as I knew Dorothy through her son Corban. I don’t quite know what my rationale was for including it, except that somehow it spoke to the history of this place. I also made a work, New Sexual Lifestyles. I filmed it in the famous Goulding Summerhouse in Wicklow, designed by Ronnie Tallon of Scott-Tallon-Walker architects. Basil Goulding and Dorothy Walker were involved in a certain moment in Irish art, around the time when the DHg was formed in the late 70s. I was interested in somehow having that present in my show.
Gerard Byrne had a solo exhibition, ‘Herald or Press’, at the DHg in 2002. ‘A Visibility Matrix’ by Sven Anderson and Byrne was presented in the summer of 2018.
Isabel Nolan: Like Gerard, I have multiple relations with this space. It wasn’t until probably third or fourth year (in NCAD) that I started coming here regularly. I remember Marlene Dumas gave a talk and that was a phenomenal moment. But I think she still seemed so far away, and an artist seemed like such an abstract thing, that I didn’t really connect to it. In NCAD, everyone was talking about postmodernism, making collages and looking at Brit art. There was a lot of irony around at the time and I found it really uninteresting. Anyway, I walked in here one day, I was the only person in the space and there was an exhibition of these sulphurous, menacing, what seemed to me very large paintings by this Irish person called Patrick Hall, and I was blown away and I had this very simple insight that it’s ok to be thinking about death.10 I remember Bill Viola’s ‘The Messenger’ show was the first show that I absolutely hated. I thought I’d acquired some sort of criticality because I had the capacity to hate a show. I also spent a period here being a technician. Watching artists install their work, working in such a specific space with one curator, and looking at the way in which John worked with all of these different people and how they dealt with this space, was just phenomenal. It would go from someone like Miroslaw Balka11, who was this great big bear of a man, and kind of macho in a way, but the precision and exacting nature of his demands around making sure the show was correct. And then there was Koo Jeong-A, who had this show that was incredibly mysterious, called ‘The Land of Ousss’.12 I would wait all day for her to ask me to do something and she really didn’t need me. And I’d come in the next morning and a roll of Sellotape would have been moved one foot. You’d go, wow, it’s better. Mike Nelson… blew my mind because this space was quite empty with images around the walls and a whole installation underneath the stairs.13 So, to see all of that range of people and to watch it unfolding up close was really amazing. I was asked recently to write something about which artists have influenced me. It turns out that, at one point or another, most of them have shown here. For me, there’s something about this space and the architecture that, unlike many other galleries, has this incredible physicality and there’s something about coming in here and giving yourself over to the space. It’s a gallery you have a very bodily relationship with. And there was something special about the reliability of the DHg that it was going to offer something that was complex and kind of challenging and fascinating. I won’t keep going.
Isabel Nolan presented ‘The Paradise ’ at the DHg in 2008, while her solo exhibition, ‘Calling on Gravity’, was presented in 2017.
Mairead O’hEocha: It’s funny that you mentioned [Nelson’s] ‘Tourist Hotel’. That’s a really vivid memory for me, because he radically inverted the space. You came in here and there was a ‘fake show’. You went down the back and you stumbled into darkness. There were dirty sleeping bags, matchboxes with incense in them, coins, Disney masks. There were portable TVs with just the snow staring back at you. I hadn’t actually encountered an exhibition that so cleverly took on the space. He set a labyrinth of questions around culture, space and politics that left you delighted and confused. David Byrne’s How Music Works talks about creation in the reverse and how people have an assumption around musicians that they write, and the song comes out fully-formed. He said the reality is 180 degrees from that. And he always considers the venue when he’s making work. He goes on to explain how African music, for instance, evolved and is quite percussive as it is played and heard outdoors, while choral music has very long reverbs and because of the architecture of churches, the notes get extended. I think what he’s saying is actually quite relevant to contemporary art. Mike Nelson’s work was completely this idea of creation in a reverse. I was thinking about that, and how for the first show I had in the main gallery I started making this giant painting, as a curveball to the small paintings. In the end I didn’t actually include it at all, but it connected back to this idea of creating in reverse. When I had the subsequent show in Gallery 2, I was very aware of the small space not having any windows. I made a series of four paintings where each painting has its own light source, so they emit their own light – a fluorescent light, a flashlight, a kind of hallucinatory daylight. That space, Gallery 2, was always interesting, because its ethnographic objects seemed to really undermine the contemporary art in the main space – it seemed to have a clarity of purpose and intention behind it. I actually really liked that strange tension.
Mairead O’hEocha has shown in group and solo exhibitions at the DHg in 2011 and 2014 respectively.
Sam Keogh: I’m going to tell a very short anecdote about the Cathy Wilkes show here in 2004.14 I was about 16 or 17 and came in with a group from my secondary school. My memories of some of the works are kind of smudged together. There was the top of a baby wipes box, which was turquoise, and in my mind, there was some words smeared in paint or shit – something brown. But looking at the documentation that exists, there wasn’t anything on it. There were paintings on the wall that I don’t actually remember, and there were these semi-figurative, minimal sculptures, made of wood and bits of metal, on these kind of metal stands. They were all over the floor. Some of them were maybe tipped over. And there was a belt sander on the floor, which kind of threatened these wooden objects with being turned into sawdust. The main thing I remember was the reaction of my classmates. There was a bunch of lads in my class who were quite confident, and I wasn’t – I was quite awkward. They really didn’t like the idea that they should be looking at this stuff and considering it as art. Their paranoia made me feel like this bunch of stuff in a room was on my side. It made me think maybe there’s something to this enterprise of arranging things in a room, which is art. It was my first experience of seeing that there was a weird visual language being hammered out by somebody, that was separate from the way you might usually talk to someone. I trusted that she was trying to communicate something that was nearly impossible to communicate. That was a very weird and exciting thing to be presented with. How do we make a new language?
Sam Keogh’s work featured in the group exhibition, ‘Dukkha’, at the DHg in 2014, while his solo show, ‘Four Fold’, was presented in the gallery in 2015.
Sean Lynch: I want to make a bit of a counter-point about the incredible space here. It’s only open seven hours a day. A lot of hours of the day, the gallery is closed. I wonder how it performs during that time? At night time, when the gallery is closed, we’re all in different places. Good gallery spaces have the ability to transcend their physicality. They find themselves in different places at different times in people’s heads, trying to maybe be articulate, sometimes being verbalised in conversation, or just staying as a big empty space in your head as well, with the potentiality of multiple forms of art. I was too young to see Nicola Gordon-Bowe’s exhibition on Harry Clarke here, so she had to tell me about it.15 These particular strata that exist here – I’m interested in how we begin to understand them in conversation, before and after presentation, how they link communities together, and how they keep places like this as very relevant centres. You know, you’re all touching the ground of the Douglas Hyde Gallery now, which is touching Trinity, which is touching Dublin, touching the Atlantic, touching China… Somehow, we make our realities out of this flesh of the ground. Having an exhibition here last year was a very joyful time for me. My family and I were living in Vancouver and we moved back to Dublin for the duration of the show. I got to spend lots of time in the gallery, hanging out with the staff here and that’s a rarity sometimes, to have with an exhibition. I had such a gleeful and wonderful time with Rachel McIntyre working on the show. Michael Hill pointed at all the children’s drawings that you can see in the gallery space, done by kids on school tours. They’re still all here, not hidden away in different parts of the concrete. Sometimes you’ve made a show and you’re gone the next day. I felt a great sense of community here and it’s a very joyful place.
‘A Walk Through Time’ and ‘What Is An Apparatus’ by Sean Lynch were presented at the DHg in 2017.
The Douglas Hyde Gallery was founded by the Arts Council and Trinity College Dublin and opened on 1 March 1978.
1 Ed Kienholz, ‘Tableaux 1961-79’, 1981.
2 Anselm Kiefer, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, 1990.
3 Marlene Dumas, ‘Chlorosis’, 1994; ‘Hungry Ghosts’ (group show), 1998.
4 ‘Irish Exhibition of Living Art’, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1984.
5 Anselm Kiefer, solo exhibition, 1990.
6 Bill Viola, solo exhibition, 1989.
7 Cecily Brennan, solo exhibition,1991.
8 Jimmie Durham, solo exhibition, 1994.
9 Tibetan Buddhist monks, ‘Kalachakra Sand Mandala’, 1994.
10 Patrick Hall, ‘Mountain’, 1995.
11 Miroslaw Balka, ‘Dig Dug Dug’, 2002-03
12 Koo Jeong-A, ‘The Land of Ousss’, 2002.
13 Mike Nelson ‘Tourist Hotel’, 1999.
14 Cathy Wilkes, solo exhibition, 2004.
15 Harry Clarke, ‘Retrospective’, 1979.
Tibetan Buddhist monks, ‘Kalachakra Sand Mandala’, 1994; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Alice Maher ‘Familiar’, 1994; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Gerard Byrne ‘Herald or Press’, 2002; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Kathy Prendergast, solo exhibition, 1996; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Cathy Wilkes, solo exhibition, 2004; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Sam Keogh ‘Four Fold’, 2015; image courtesy of the Douglas Hyde Gallery.