VAI Event | Sustainable Ambition

Joanne Laws reports on VAI Get Together 2021.

Jonah King, Upper_Sea, 2016, 2x Channel HD Video (video still), image courtesy of the artist. Jonah King, Upper_Sea, 2016, 2x Channel HD Video (video still), image courtesy of the artist.

Like many other arts organisations, the VAI staff debated at length on how to host our Get Together event – Ireland’s annual forum for visual artists, which was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits and disadvantages of physical and virtual events were discussed in detail; however, since the possibility of further lockdowns and cancellations in autumn 2021 could not be ruled out, it was decided to proceed with a three-day online event, hosted through the digital conference platform, Balloon. 

This online format had the added advantage of allowing contributors to beam in from across the world, including speakers in America, Europe and the UK, who otherwise might not have been able to attend. For the most part, the platform was user-friendly, offering a festival-like format, with talks happening on different ‘stages’. Other functions allowed direct messaging, one-to-one video chats, or ad hoc group discussions – perceived as the closest virtual equivalent of going for a coffee with someone. 

Staple Get Together formats – such as Artists Speak, Speed Curating, panel discussions and specialist clinics – were all hosted virtually, and while attendees missed the spontaneity of real-life encounters, everyone seemed to enjoy the events, nonetheless.

Artists Speak

The three-day event was officially launched by Kevin Rafter, Chair of The Arts Council, on the morning of Tuesday 5 October. Atoosa Pour Hosseini commenced the first Artists Speak session, offering vibrant insights into her moving image practice, with a focus on themes of displacement and alienation. Atoosa outlined recent exhibitions, and the purchase of a suitcase containing 50 reels of Super 8 film (comprising footage of insects, birds and plants) which the artist spent six months digitising for future use.

Responding to a core theme of Get Together 2021, Andi McGarry explained how his practice is sustained through meaningful collaborations, including a project in summer 2020 with Lar O’Toole. ‘CATCH / The First Fathom’ involved a series of installations on a beach, with painted canvases mounted on sticks to resemble flags. Andi discussed his involvement with the DIY and punk scenes in the northeast of England, and his ongoing interest in ‘music with a social conscience’ which has roots in folk music, protest songs and grass roots activism. 

Caoimhe Kilfeather reflected on the dichotomy of sculptural practice as utility or ornamentation. She also discussed practical issues like storage and the necessity for artworks to occasionally be dismantled and repurposed, as part of her material process. In a similar vein, Kathryn Nelson considered how artists can maintain more sustainable practices by refusing to reproduce a culture of overconsumption and challenging the model of the globally agile artist, while glass artist, Elke Westen, added that artists should be mindful of using environmentally friendly materials and processes. 

Chanelle Walshe discussed recent departures in their painting practice, as well as ongoing involvement in self-organised exhibitions, aimed at showcasing the work of female painters. New York-based Irish artist, Jonah King, considered ecologies of the body in the contexts of climate change, Artificial Intelligence and the Anthropocene. Jonah’s practice is epistemologically underpinned by the ‘Upper Scene’ – a concept which proposes digital media as an ‘evolutionary conclusion’ of stones, minerals and deep time. Jonah’s interactive installation, All My Friends Are In The Cloud (2017 – ongoing), digitally archives moments of intimacy forever – a particularly moving gesture for those whose loved ones have since passed away.  

Dublin-based Vietnamese artist, Duc Van Pham, views the subjects of his portraits – including a pregnant friend, a homeless cousin, and his father-in-law, who is recovering from cancer – as co-conspirators in the painting process, with his expanded compositions incorporating multiple layers and political commentary. Martin Marley reflected on his long and varied career in the arts, as a designer, craftsperson and educator. While his background in furniture design taught him traditional skills, through his work in ceramics and sculpture, he has experienced the tactile and intuitive qualities of materials. 

Sinéad Brennan is a glass artist, who recently developed a series of sculptures with weaponry inserted into cosmetics – like a compact mirror with inbuilt flick-knife – as metaphors for equalising male and female powers. She discussed how the cutting, reshaping and etching of found glass has offered a more environmentally and financially sustainable way of working. 

Elaine Harrington is a ceramics artist interested in the material histories of making and objects. Despite extensive training in ceramics, photography and printmaking, the artist felt a disconnect with her materials and wanted to have more direct involvement, from source to product. Residencies in different countries showed how materials are embedded in landscape, practice, and community. She now wants to make fewer actual objects, and has begun exploring performance interventions and land art. 

Panel Discussions

‘Craft Crashing Through the Walls of Visual Art Galleries’ was moderated by Louise Allen (Director of the Creative Futures Academy) and featured London-based ceramic artist, Aaron Angell, in conversation with New York-based glass artist, Amber Cowan, who tuned in at 6:30am (Eastern Standard Time). 

Amber’s exquisite glass works involve various fabrication techniques, including the 600-year-old Venetian tradition of glassblowing, particularly flamework. Amber combines antique objects with recycled glass from now-defunct American glass factories. Quite often, people send heirlooms or broken ornaments for Amber to incorporate into her fantastical dioramas and grotto-like assemblages. The artist recently collaborated on a film with John Galliano and is represented by Heller Gallery, a glass-specific commercial gallery in New York.

Aaron describes his London-based studio, Troy Town Art Pottery, as “a radical and psychedelic workshop” where he has hosted over 80 artists-in-residence, while selling pots to fund the residency programme. In 2017, Aaron curated an exhibition at Tate St Ives, ‘That Continuous Thing: Artists and the Ceramics Studio, 1920 – Today’, featuring artists from the UK ceramic underground of the 1970s and 80s – an ungalvanised community considered irrelevant, both within ceramics and contemporary art circles. This form of practice is often categorised as ‘high craft’ or ‘ceramics in an expanded world’. Aaron noted that ceramics comes in and out of fashion at art fairs, adding that: “Art collection is essentially a speculative form of money laundering!” 

Sustaining a Practice and Working with Ambition 

Echoing this sentiment, artist Lindsay Seers commented that investment in art is perceived as a way of storing money safely, during her compelling conversation with Helen Pheby (Head of Curatorial Programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park). Lindsay contrasted the millions spent on the current NFT craze with the contemporaneous reality of artist poverty, and the “vulnerability for the artist within the professional hierarchy”. As part of her campaign, which seeks commitment from galleries for fair payment to artists, Lindsay cited a letter written in 1972 by artist Hollis Frampton to Donald Richie, Curator of Film at MoMA, who said that Frampton’s solo exhibition at the museum would be “all for love and honour and no money is included at all”. In his reply, Frampton lists the cost of making an artwork – from the purchase of film to the museum invigilation – to highlight his lack of renumeration, despite generating income for others within the artworld. As Lindsay pointed out, there is not just one synchronised art world, but multiple economies; buying art is not an elite enterprise and we need to encourage wider approaches to redistribute the wealth. 

Lindsay’s work is experimental, immersive and site-responsive, fluctuating between documentary, narrative and fiction. Her artworks embody a “dynamic unfolding in response to site” while being imbued with the intensity of the journey, the travel and the many coincidences that happen along the way. She can hardly see the work until it is installed in the gallery, where it comes together for a short period of time, before returning to the artist’s imagination. 

Among many other fascinating points of discussion, the artist noted that everyone’s perception of reality is different, citing the term ‘the hallucinatory real’ to describe how we constantly reconstruct memories through a ‘faulty recall system’, adding that memory is simply “a set of misunderstandings that we hold onto”. Examples include looking back through old diaries, to reassess the truth as it was written at the time, or re-watching a film seen 20 years ago, and clearly observing the constructs through the lens of lived experience, which brings a different reading.

During lockdown, Lindsay took stock of her work, the “failures, chaos and exhaustion”, as well as the vulnerability she feels as a sole maker and woman in a male dominated space of sculptural fabrication. She began to see how obsessive making art can be; how artists share the world in a particular way and don’t clock off. The artist spoke of the raise in consciousness needed to recognise human supremacy as a damaging force on planet, and the pivotal but not widely understood concepts of Quantum Theory and metaphysical entanglement, which explain how our bodies share particles with the earth and the ocean. 

Practice & The Anthropocene 

Another interesting conversation unfolded between Jakob Fenger, a founding member of the Danish artist group, Superflex, and Chris Clarke, Senior Curator at The Glucksman. Over the course of three decades, Superflex has used a socially engaged model of collective practice to challenge the outmoded image of the lone artist, operating on the fringes of society. Superflex aims to reframe humans as the ‘centre of the world’, stating that “sometimes the best ideas may come from fish”.

An ongoing focus on water featured in Flooded McDonald’s (2009) which visualises the apocalyptic future of climate change through the submersion of a global fast-food chain. Similarly, Dive-In (2019) (commissioned by Desert X for Coachella Valley) is an installation and functional drive-in cinema that will later become an infrastructure for marine life, amid rising sea levels and a subaquatic future accelerated by climate change.

Interspecies Assembly (2021) was a series of sculptures, configured as a gathering site and installed in Central Park, New York City, to highlight ecological turmoil and human exceptionalism. An ‘Interspecies Contract’ was carved into one sculpture, encouraging a state of ‘human idleness’, to remedy dwindling biodiversity and allow other species to flourish.

Superflex is currently developing plans to rebuild a stone reef along the Danish coastline, depleted over the last century through human extraction of stone from the seabed. Given that sea creatures depend on hard surfaces, the artists want to build a city of sculptural infrastructure to encourage diversity. 

Being Part of Something

In his keynote presentation, ‘Being Part of Something’, Christian Jankowski discussed a range of previous projects, including The Hunt (1992) in which the artist – heroically armed with a bow and arrow – ‘hunted’ in a supermarket for essential goods. Sharing a similar sense of the absurd, Casting Jesus (2011) documented actors auditioning to play Jesus through a casting agency in Rome and employing a reality TV format. A judging panel of Vatican priests was tasked with selecting the ‘chosen one’. 

Christian was presenting from the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, just hours before the screening of his new film, Social Plastic Surgery (2021) commissioned by the museum to celebrate the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys. The film features interviews with Beuys collectors about living with the artworks for over 40 years, while a series of photographs depicts surgeons (from the nearby Youth Fountain Clinic plastic surgery clinic) re-enacting famous poses by Beuys or naming operations after him. As noted by a Get Together attendee, this work seems particularly appropriate, given that Beuys himself was a great self-publicist who created layers of mythologising around his own legend.

Joanne Laws is Editor of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.