Artful Dublin

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 20, 2002

Someone has crafted a dense, human-size spider web in a 17th-century baroque chapel. At the center of the swarming thread, a longhaired woman lies in a hospital bed, sheet to her chin. Silence, light filtering from stained glass, and her stillness trapped in the maze reminds the viewer of some old dada wisdom -- any work of art that can be completely understood is the product of a journalist.

Down the hall, in a large room, a young German is rushing around in a white jumpsuit. He alternately plays with toy airplanes and bakes cakes in a microwave, which every hour on the hour he blows up.

These exhilarating works of art from Chiharu Shiotta and Frank Werner were at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin recently, part of a show called "Marking the Territory." The images were compelling enough, but the real strangeness was that they were happening in Dublin at all.

For centuries, the visual arts in Ireland ran a distant second due to the superiority of the Word. But no longer. "This is an ideal place for an artist to be," Paolo Canevari said. The young Roman was represented at IMMA by "Differences," seven people on a bench on whose foreheads he methodically rubber-stamped religious denominations. "The Irish aren't jaded. There's no boredom with art."

Even Dublin's stinging humor, a style that is distinguished by an urchin's allergy to the sentimental and a duty to bring everything down to street level, has softened toward the public art of the city. The statue of the River Liffey, personified as a woman in a fountain, is still known as "The Floozy in the Jacuzzi," and a realistic sculpture of two middle-age women taking a rest from shopping will forever be "The Hags With the Bags." And what else could a giant metal spike proposed for the north side be called but "The Stiletto in the Ghetto?" These days, however, all street titles are said with affection and pride.

Every nation prizes creativity. But countries such as Ireland, which for so long had little but creativity, revere it. It is now museums, galleries and artistic work that are embraced, and not just the theater, pub wit and the writer.

One of the engines of Dublin's artistic boom is IMMA, only 10 years old yet housed in one of the most magnificent 17th-century buildings in the world, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Formerly used as a warehouse and steadily declining into dereliction, the place has been brilliantly restored. Bright galleries of dazzling art surround the vast cobbled courtyard. You can refresh your eye by strolling outside, through the extensive formal gardens, wide sloping lawns and parkland. The museum and grounds command the top of a hill with views north across the river to Phoenix Park, and to the east the spires of Dublin, under ever-changing Irish skies. To go to Dublin and miss IMMA would be like going to New York and missing the Cloisters and the Museum of Modern Art.

A Surprise in Temple Bar

After you've done IMMA, ask someone to point you in the direction of the Guinness Brewery at St. James Gate, and then walk east, always keeping the river on your left, until you hit Dame Street -- where, if you walk toward the Liffey, you're in Temple Bar. This part of town has a reputation as the place where the young, lured to Dublin by cheap airfares and favorable currency exchanges, can come to drink in the street, bellow and throw up on their shoes. But it has also, since its renewal some years ago, been an oasis for the arts.

Aileen Corkery curates video and performance art at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, a box of open space in the lanes and alleys crowded with galleries and boutiques that map the district. "Dublin is a fresh, sexy scene," Corkery, a transplanted Yank, said recently as she took in the buzzing Saturday market of the square. Food from every culture is sold in open-air stalls, as well as Irish organic produce and cheeses, leather and jewelry, all accompanied by a lone saxophonist gone in a Coltrane meditation.

Corkery described the two tracks of Irish art today that a visitor can explore: the old lions getting their due and the young ones being recognized.

"The Dublin scene is confident," she said. "We're no longer a backwater. Money is flowing in. No one wants to say that visual arts is the newest thing, but it is. There are some great galleries around now, really great. And of course tons of cowboys selling pretty pics to people with too much money."

Managing the difficult stunt of taking chances while making money is the Kerlin Gallery, located in a grotty alley of Dumpsters and ruined pavement. (Around the corner is Davy Byrne's, the pub where Leopold Bloom had the rarest of Dublin lunches, a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy. Go around 10:30 in the morning, before the mob, so you can look at the lovely, subtly erotic murals by Cecil French Salkeld. Perhaps the murals have attracted those having coffee or eye-openers at this hour, smartly dressed couples appearing stuck in the sad but still exciting moments of illicit affairs.)

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