‘Social Commons’

Liberty Hall Theatre, Dublin
2 – 12 May 2019 

Francis Fay, The Knight of Mirrors, 2019, performance, 2 May; photograph by Kathryn Maguire

Presented in the congenial lobby, stairs and bar areas of Liberty Hall Theatre, ‘Social Commons’ was curated by Kathryn Maguire and Siobh McGrane for May Fest – SIPTU’s “celebration of workers’ culture”. Where the ‘commons’ denotes a shared physical resource, ‘social commons’ can mean a dispensation of peer-to-peer relationships, parallel to private and State structures, aimed at promoting a ‘general good’. The term refers not just to redistribution, but to transformative communal self-understanding. At the base of Liberty Hall – a monument to Irish socialism and nationalism – the notion conjured unbounded scale. A tension was felt between consummate, utopic vision and piecemeal inflections of potential. 

Kate O’Shea’s Hardwired (2018) was a pivot for such unfurling schemas. Planted inside the glass doors and winding around the stair column, O’Shea’s installation of imbricated ink-printed pages reached the upper landing. With dislodged, floating political text, these zesty monochromes relayed urban or construction signage. The effect – frenetic but sanguine, like ‘80’s graphics – was calmed at the lower reception area, through the display of artworks by young people from Kilbarrack Sphere 17 Youth Centre (sphere17.ie). Six Portraits (2019) were tall and arresting works on paper. Carly Greene rendered a face with shuttered eyelids, her temples massaged by fingertips and displaying a patch of gaffer tape at the mouth. Alphabet of Sexuality (2019) was a considered, personal index of concepts relating to sexuality and identity, comprising a hefty stapled handbook of entries and sprightly letters affixed to the wall. 

The juxtaposition of young and amateur artists alongside trained and professional counterparts provided a compelling expression of inclusiveness. Upstairs, on windows overlooking Burgh Quay, were columns of small, acetate letters. This was Double Disadvantaged (2019), impactful spoken-word text developed by young Travellers associated with Sphere 17: You say, why should I stay in school/I say, education informs me, stop treating me like a fool/ You say, our traditions are backwards, outdated, stuck in the past/ I say we value our singing, our story-telling and long may it last… Amid The Garland of Worries (2019) – teary crêpe paper wind chimes, also created by Sphere 17 – was Safe Space (2019). These photographed clay sculptures and collages – with visages of Eminem, Tweety Bird and other characters – were made by children from an anonymous homeless hub in Ireland. 

Eve Olney, a member of the Athens-based ‘Urban React’ architecture group, presented videos works, entitled Kaisariani (2017). They document an innovative, ad-hoc regeneration project in this area of Athens and illustrate structures and relationships befitting a ‘social commons’. With local government tolerance, and backing from Bern University and crowdfunding sources, the project was endorsed by local residents, whose participation gave them direct access to Urban React. Founder Dimitri Panayotopoulos states that, returning to Greece as an unfamiliar immigrant without a social network, he began to orient himself through activities deriving from moral instinct, rather than habit. 

Áine ní Chíobháin’s Remedy for Wild Atlantic Dismay and A Lament for an Empty Sea (both 2019) were brittle ruminations on found and organic material; tenebrous disk-like forms on little supports. They were earthy and awkward in this artificial and frenzied environment (my visit coincided with an ‘Alternative Ulsters’ punk event), connoting policy and environmental dysfunctionality. The exhibition’s universal political concept was frequently disturbed like this, by showing the close proximity of social issues. In an untitled photograph by Daniel Idini from 2018, a figure in a sleeping bag blocks a doorway, with a plastic bag under their head and a paper cup close by. Food packaging is wedged in the door handles, while in the window, a ‘Jelly Babies’ poster displays an anti-racism message – “we’re all made of the same stuff” – evoking the dismal emergence of xenophobia and racism with competition for resources. By imbuing its prone subject with surreal beauty, the photograph reveals insidious powers of objectification and distancing. Such reflectiveness was also inescapable in Francis Fay’s opening-night performance, The Knight of Mirrors (2019), borrowed from Cervantes’s Don Quixote, in which Fay loitered absurdly outside the building’s entrance, wearing a white suit with trailing sleeves and trouser legs, with mirrors for his face and hands.

Danny Kelly is an artist based in Dublin.

Feature Image
‘Social Commons’, installation view’; photograph by Kathryn Maguire.

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