This fresh instalment of RHA’s Futures is replete with diversity.
“It’s always about truffling out these people”
Some 17 years ago, the RHA recognised a serious dearth of exhibiting spaces in Dublin for emerging artists; a perennial issue that, they acknowledged, encompassed their own Ely Place premises. This self-awareness ended up spawning the inauguration of “Futures” in 2001 – an illuminating programme that plucked six or seven artists in the earliest stages of their career, with not a scrap of facsimile work between them. “[Curator Ruth Carroll and I] wanted to create something that would build a relationship with [emerging artists] as, back in the 90s, the RHA didn’t have the format nor the relevancy for them,” Director Patrick T. Murphy recalls. Nearly two decades later – yet with similarly-barren showcasing options for Dublin’s early career artists – Futures’ driving force remains more imperative than ever.
The programme’s inceptive ethos, exhibiting artists with the ability to contrast and coalesce with one another, equally prevails. This winter’s showcase marks the second episode – meaning the second year – of Futures’ third series, having run the first from 2001-2005 and the second from 2011-2015. “We stop it every now and then… 2019 will be the last [Futures] for a couple of years,” says Murphy. “We’re not enslaved to putting it on every year, and so it doesn’t affect standards.” The six, ever-eclectic artists on show this year – Bassam Al-Sabah, Cecilia Danell, Laura Fitzgerald, Joanne Reid, Jennifer Mehigan and Marcel Vidal – have been whittled down after 18 months roaming across Ireland, during which Carroll and Murphy made numerous visits to studios, group shows and a variety of artist-driven initiatives. Murphy believes that “it’s always about truffling out these people. There are some great shows going on in the Dock, in Leitrim, or in the Solstice, in Navan, or Skibbereen…There are a lot more emerging artists being shown outside of Dublin than in Dublin, so you have to travel these days to find out what’s going on.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, as far as their creative ethos and employment of ideas is concerned, no two artists are remotely the same in this showcase. Al-Sabah’s multi-dimensional installation work, delving into arresting themes of war, resistance and perseverance, sit comfortably (if contrastingly) alongside Danell’s purposefully-imperfect Swedish landscapes, wherein she stretches the parameters of paint as a medium. Reid and Vidal may have a mutual focus on material culture, but their findings manifest in throughly different ways; with Reid’s striking yet delicate exploration of an object’s life cycle far removed from Vidal’s “volatile assemblages” built, in part, from castor wheels and hardware materials. Fitzgerald tackles a myriad of thoughts involving ethics and legitimacy (or lack thereof) in the life of an artist, offering up a humorous observation deck for viewers to perch on. Mehigan is no less multi-faceted than the above, with her semi-surrealist concoctions melding sentient and inanimate materials – lava, emeralds, human tissue… The thread of commonality that unites them all is “really good ideas embodied in some type of making process. Everyone is physically making something. For example, you have Marcel’s very elaborate, almost operatic installations… and he’s making objects, and paintings. Whether the chosen artists are painters or sculptors, you get this sense that [above all] they’re object-makers.”
It’s interesting to note the shifts that have occurred in our digital landscape since Futures was first launched. With a recent work by Mehigan themed around “trauma and its effect/affect on social media”, this is truly a modern-minded concern; one which simply would not have existed at the dawn of the 2000s. Has Murphy seen a shift in young artists’ principles, for better or worse, since the advent and rapid ascent of social media? “I think that artists can be contrarians: they can be contrary to the way things are going. Someone like Bassam is using CGI to a very sophisticated level, but he’s also making objects; it’s this idea that you can be immersed into a virtual, manufactured life and at the same time, have the necessity to put the real object into the world. It isn’t an ‘either or’ proposition; it’s an ‘and also’. You can be very digital and very object-based at the same time.” Whether it’s down to a positive harnessing of social media, or simply inner personalities at work, these artists are itching to bring new layers of accessibility to their creative output, and the space in which they operate. “They really want to communicate with a broader public. They don’t want to just speak to people in the art world – they want to speak to people, in the broadest sense.” Given the considerable attendance cultivated by the RHA, the artists’ platform to do so – the very breathable Main Galleries – couldn’t be better placed, nor a more refreshing contrast to the showcases that sandwich in, rather than space out, their multiple participants. “A lot of group shows can have too many people and too little work, and [the latter] is all jammed together – here, they’re not crowded, they can show a good body of work. Futures is always shown in our main galleries, because it’s an important commitment that we have to helping emerging artists and bringing them to the public’s attention.”
As for where these artists will next ascend to? The RHA are earnest in their supporting of emerging talent, coupling this initiative with individual shows and a studio programme – but like any other creative hub, they’re not in the business of telling fortunes. The alumni of Futures Episode 1, Series 1 ultimately split across several routes – some attaining prominence in both domestic and international art spheres, others vanishing into the ether. The latter has likely nothing to do with artistic meritocracy, but rather life taking them on very different trails. “Inevitably, an artist’s trajectory in Ireland is driven by themselves and their own determination. In other countries, where there’s a more sophisticated gallery system, that can drive [artists’] careers – but here it’s pretty much in their own hands. All we can do is bring them to a broader public… how they capitalise on that is really up to their own drive and initiative.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady