As the restrictions gradually loosen and something like normality reasserts itself in the public sphere, our memory of the pandemic period will be marked by several dominant facts and themes: the threat of contagion and sickness; anxiety about job loss; the sense of timelessness that we experienced without events to anticipate or remember; the ease and tedium of remote working, etc. One such major theme, and perhaps the most important, is the sheer effectiveness of government in regulating the behaviour of its citizenry.
For climate activists, this feature of the crisis may be welcome: the scale of collective action undertaken to combat the virus gives political legitimacy to the strategies and policies they advocate. On a cautionary note, however, the willingness of people to consent to the demands of government is a reminder that the state must always be subject to critique, as all of its aims are not as salubrious as the protection of its populace against a deadly virus. Agitation Co-op, the new group exhibition that is on show at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, picks up the mantle of governmental critique in a direct and compelling way.
The show is divided into two parts: a physical exhibition at TBGS and a digital exhibition of cinematic artworks. According to programme curator Michael Hill, the focus of the show’s critique is the political status of land and the worried relationship between culture, place and property. In particular, he “wanted to consider the effects of displacement, not just in terms of extractive industries, but also the movement of people.” The four artists exhibiting onsite are Michele Horrigan, Caitriona Leahy, Laurie Robins and Libita Sibungu. Horrigan’s and Robins’ films analyse the relationship between state and industrialisation. Horrigan’s Stigma Damages takes the aluminium refinery at Aughinish in Askeaton as the subject of its forensic and excoriating study. Construction for the aluminium refinery began in 1978, costing over a billion US dollars. This investment was welcomed, unreservedly, at a time when the country suffered from a severe economic depression, with no thought spared for the environmental impact that such a project entails. Aughinish ships in bauxite from Guinea, the mineral that aluminium is refined from, and which is characterised by a rusty blood-red hue. Red mud pits stain the landscape around the Limerick refinery, and Horrigan’s film makes good use of this visceral colour throughout. The work blends archival press footage and personal video and photography, evoking both historical objectivity and private biography as Horrigan weaves details of her childhood in Askeaton into the structural critique of commercially-incentivised environmental decline.
Robins’ contribution to the show, on the other hand, eschews Horrigan’s personal flair for a more detached, sociological, analysis of the nature of the mining industry in Butte, a town in Montana, USA. Robins combines a visually minimalist approach with a narratively maximalist one: he takes a stereoscopic photograph of the copper mine that Anaconda Mining Company opened in Butte in 1920 and focuses the viewer’s attention on small details with the use of digital software technology. double vision provides an exhaustive account of the town’s dependency on the employment of its inhabitants by AMC. As Robins’ narrative dissection continues, the symbolism becomes clearer: as the ore was transported out of the earth to create wealth for the company, the life of the town was equally mined and penetrated. The attention of the locals was directed downward, into the caves and tunnels, into the earth, as though it wasn’t that labour was bringing copper above ground, so much as bringing human energy, care and purpose below.
Sibungu’s and Leahy’s artworks contrast the films with photographic imagery. These pieces contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the exhibition, conveying a dark presence that looms over the spectators and suffuses the gallery. Sibungu’s artworks are large-scale photograms: images produced by placing physical objects onto photographic material and exposing them to light. Menacing and compelling in equal measure, these negatives belong to a wider project called Quantum Ghost that is primarily concerned with the consequences of British imperialism in Namibia, a republic in southern Africa. The artist discovered objects in the National Archives of Namibia that were used during the colonial era to mine precious minerals, and these form the starting point for her arresting artworks.
Counterposing these references to colonialism abroad, Leahy explores colonial rule in Ireland, albeit using an abstract lens: in the tradition of Irish artists like Heaney, Stoker and Tim Robinson, Leahy is fascinated by the geography of boglands. She stages an ensemble of twenty-four, black-and-white, photographs titled Metabolic Rift, a reference to the Marxist concept of ecological damage, in conjunction with a triptych of photographic panels named Critical Zone: Bog Study I, II, III.
Due to the anaerobic quality of the ground, boglands are repositories of the past, preserving the ephemera of Ireland’s often violent history. In addition, boglands are typified by a unique biodiversity that is substantially different to other forms of Irish countryside. The extraction of peat from bogs, then, means that they are also sites for political conflicts about sustainable environmental practices.
It’s wonderful to experience physical installations again, but the joy that accompanies this experience shouldn’t overshadow the online component of this exhibition. Forensic Architecture’s films critically analyse oil and gas extraction practices in Latin America and Israel’s conduct toward both Palestinian and Bedouin communities. Melanie Smith’s invigorating exploration of the oldest salt mine in Chile features beautiful aerial shots of explosions used to unsettle the terrain. However, the last film, produced by Eva McCrea Richardson and Frank Sweeney, deserves special mention.
According to Michael Hill, this film was “a key instigator” for the entire show. Made Ground investigates the transition of the Dublin Docklands area from its industrial heyday to today. The artists drew on the archive of the Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society, a group of ex-dockers who have amassed a large archive of photographic material, to evidence this historical change. According to McCrea Richardson, “the docks underwent massive change as containerisation was brought in. We were interested in linking this specific historical instance with larger social, political and economic issues of the area. As labour diminished on the docks, communities were suddenly without work. Now, large multinational corporations have come on the scene, accompanied by a highly paid transient workforce.” These changes are visible in the architecture of the city, notes McCrea Richardson, where “there are physical barriers between the older communities in the docklands and the newer, private, apartment complexes aimed at this new workforce.”
Apart from the absorbing narrative, McCrea Richardson and Sweeney’s film is aesthetically rich, utilising a two-channel arrangement “to avoid,” in the words of the artists “any grand narratives and have space for multiple, and at times conflicting, voices.”
Agitation Co-Op is on in Temple Bar Gallery + Studios until July 10.
Words: Tom Lordan
Feature Image: Michelle Hourigan Stigma Damages (detail), 2021, Video and sculpture
Elizabeth Magill’s Red Stars and Variations at Kerlin Gallery, featuring abstract and haunted landscapes that never fail to fascinate. (until July 10)
Sean Scully’s new exhibition at the RHA, Eleutheria. Impressive late-career show for the inveterate painter, displaying visions of his young son playing on the beach. (until June 27)
Luminous Void at the Project Arts Centre. An overview of the last twenty years of the Experimental Film Society, featuring the work of Maximilian Le Cain, Vicky Langan, Atoosa Pour Hosseini, Rouzbeh Rashidi, Michael Higgins, Jann Clavadetscher, Chris O’Neill and Shelly Kamiel. (until June 25)