Progress isn’t always written in stone. The existence of ghost estates and eerily bare structures around the island should tell us that. Not too long ago, during Ireland’s erstwhile boom, there was an incessant desire to build upon every available square inch of land. Our historic preoccupation with land and property ownership has always been present but never more apparent than during (whisper it) the Celtic Tiger.
The country’s fortunes rested on the seemingly safe but ultimately shaky foundations of the property industry. The result was, to name but one, a construction bandwagon that has scarred the landscape with thousands of vacant buildings and even more plots of refuse filled land once earmarked for development. Now the desire and means to build is not quite there anymore, but what to do with much of the wasteland now overgrown and under-cared for?
Sometimes development can start from the ground up but doesn’t always have to reach as high the shiny new buildings of the IFSC or Dublin’s docklands. It’s something I begin to think about when I step into the Art Tunnel in Smithfield to chat with German curator Sophie Graefin von Maltzan.
She is one of the key figures behind Field Work & Strategies, working to transform negative and disused space into an environment conducive to community participation. In the case of the Art Tunnel the aim is to show, through outdoor artwork and plant-life, that it is possible to give worth to a derelict site using limited funding.
“Partly the idea is to motivate people to think that a derelict space has the potential to become something else. Also there is nowhere in Dublin that has a public outdoor art gallery that has this much exposure with the Luas so close,” she explains.
It’s pretty much a trade-off and win-win-win; artists get to exhibit their work, the area benefits from an eye-catching focal point and at no extra cost to the original owner.
With pretty much shrapnel for finances and support from Dublin City Council, Field Work & Strategies have managed to convert a formerly junk strewn and depressing street corridor into a haven for citizens, flora and fauna. Stretched along a section of the Luas Red Line between Block T and the Dice Bar, the location lends itself quite nicely to its raison d’etre: a free gallery for the thousands of daily commuters and a retreat for anyone willing to get involved.
As an artist and landscape architect, Von Maltzan operates on the border of both professions. It is through her work with Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan that she actually came across the vacant Smithfield site and was able to negotiate a free lease with the owner. Granted the latticed support structure which juts out from an adjoining building provides a particularly interesting canvas, but I can’t help imagine that a number of defunct pockets of the city could also be improved by similar projects. Perhaps something to consider if the only alternative is to leave them as sinkholes for rubbish.
From the gated entrance to the grassy wildlife mound at the back of the site, the Art Tunnel’s path takes you through two sections: a rustic ‘prairie’ reserved for site-specific art, and another for gardening where community members have a chance to display their work. Currently hanging between the flowerbeds is a joint effort from a group of painters and budding young artists from the local school.
“The outside gallery context is great; it’s not a white cube and I think we get a lot of interest because of that. For the artist section we are actually booked out for the year but the community area is for everybody to voice their opinion,” she says.
Pointing to a building in the distance, Von Maltzan pretty much sums up what the Art Tunnel is about. “You see that tall render building up there? People think that is beautiful. But honestly, what is beautiful about it? It’s just new and our whole aesthetic idea is so conditioned by consumerism – everything that is new is beautiful.” The Art Tunnel definitely sparks a question and in some ways provides the answer that there doesn’t have to be an overhaul of the landscape and large buildings constructed to constitute development.
It took forty tonnes of top soil donated by the council to set the Art Tunnel on its way, but the project now relies mainly on local businesses and volunteers being generous with their time. For anyone interested in getting involved in project they are encouraged to contact the organisers via Facebook. There will also be a market selling handcrafted items and homemade bites on Sunday 14th July between 3-7pm. It could be a good opportunity to witness the work for yourself.