PhotoIreland Festival curator Julia Gelezova sets out her stall when it comes to the medium and what we should be looking at and thinking about.
Julia Gelezova is the primary curator of this year’s PhotoIreland Festival, an event she’s been involved in since 2015.
“I wanted to work with contemporary photography in Dublin, which is quite tricky, as there aren’t many spaces dedicated exclusively to this field. I was delighted to become involved with this festival, which is so exciting, working in the production side of things. It was meant to be for just one year, but I’m still here,” she says, laughing.
PhotoIreland Festival is celebrating its twelfth year in business and Gelezova ascribes its longevity to the curatorial team’s ethos: “The most important thing for us is to bring invigorating and challenging lens-based practices to Ireland. We’re not really interested in entertainment, nor are we looking to impress with blockbuster names… Our goal is to question and enhance everyone’s understanding of photography, by engaging with new information, not only in exhibitions and with the artists, but through the ideas that they present.”
The high cultural values that shape the festival’s selection process are unsurprising given the calibre of PhotoIreland, which has established itself as a mainstay of the visual arts scene in Dublin. It was founded by the director Ángel Luis González in 2010 for the purpose of planning the festival, but the organisation quickly expanded into other areas.
The concept for a small book fair in 2011 has evolved into The Library Project in Temple Bar, which is both a permanent public resource library and one of Ireland’s only art bookshops. Last year, they published the first edition of Over Journal, billed as a ‘critical journal of photography & visual culture for the 21st century’.
According to Gelezova, “There are no other photography journals in Ireland, which was clearly a gap in the market, but we didn’t just want to produce a traditional portfolio magazine. We wanted to invite people to discuss all the different issues that surround photography and visual culture. Lens-based practices are our focus, our core, but it’s vital that we engage photography in the context of other practices, whether those are sculpture or science.”
I wonder is Julia’s passion for intellectual debate a factor in her choice for the festival’s theme – the poetics and the politics of food? “The festival topic stems from my research at the moment. I’m looking at how contemporary visual artists engage with the subject of Irish identity through food, or through conversations about food. Food is a universal, something that everybody on the planet has to deal with. It would be hard to think of another thing or object that has the same degree of relatability – it’s a constant presence in our daily lives, whether in abundance or as an absence.”
Moments before our conversation began, Julia was at the Project Arts Centre, putting the finishing touches to their main installation ‘Milky Way’ by the Finnish artist Herrta Kiiski. “We were zooming her throughout the day, showing her everything and she was making tweaks and changes. Obviously, it’s not the same as having her here. You can only see so much on the phone or in the webcam, the lighting looks different, but, you know, we made it work.” I confess to Julia that I had not heard of Kiiski before I read the programme materials.
“Herrta’s work is a good example of the kind of artistic production that expands our understanding of the medium. There’s a lot of photography in her work, which you may not realise immediately when you walk into any of her exhibitions, because you see structures, fabrics, lights and you don’t immediately think photography. We discovered her work when Angel and I visited another photography festival in Iceland about two years ago. She’s been collaborating with her daughter and niece since they were little, and now they’re about 14 years old.
Her work isn’t exclusively oriented toward young audiences – everyone can appreciate what she’s doing – but given her relationship to her family, she has accessibility in mind, you know, and she’s very playful as well. This playfulness is very evident from the show; she even describes Milky Way as a playground.”
Luckily, I was able to attend Herrta Kiiski’s exhibition in time for this feature. The space is large and shrouded in darkness. Three assemblages are clustered together in the middle of the room, surrounded by a halo of light that slowly changes colour. Two of the assemblages are wooden structures on which various kinds of cloth are draped, where images of cows and planetary scenes coalesce. Rubber udders adorn some of the squares of fabric. Everything can be touched and felt directly, which is always a thrilling possibility in a fine art exhibition. In the background, a harmony of cow’s lowing is counterposed with the intimate sounds of a woman breathing, chewing and humming.
The third object is a large screen filled with the image of two teenage girls. They carry carafes of milk that also incorporate udders. The girls are wearing clothes that I recognise as elements of one of the assemblages behind me. They stare at the camera or look away bashfully, and at other times look completely bored. In my hand I have a guide written by the Dublin-based artist Róisín White, commissioned in response to the installation.
The guide is titled ‘Young Milky Way Explorers’ and contains sentences like “What about when you squat down, do you see anything different from down low?” and “Why don’t you document all the animals in your life”? The general effect, to employ a word that is dramatically over-used, is one of liminality; we are between seriousness and play, between child and adult, between stars and livestock.
Kiiski’s exhibition will soon move to Rathfarnham Castle, where it will join the large group show ‘Bite the Hand that Feeds You’ and ‘Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation’ by Mathieu Asselin. However, Gelezova and her colleagues were keen to build on the strengths of last years’ mostly digital festival.
“Last year there were aspects of the online exhibition that we thought worked well. We decided to continue with them, which is how, for example, the Critical Recipes channel came about. We loved the idea of taking inspiration from cooking shows, and I approached some artists to make a work especially for this purpose. Speaking about the merits or flaws of the digital exhibition, I have to say that I think it makes a really big difference if the artist produces work for that medium.
All of our artists in the Critical Recipes channel have made new video work, and in the case of Ana Nuñez Rodriguez and the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, they will perform live events which will be recorded and screened.”
There is also a section of the festival devoted to cinematic artworks. Julia approached the Irish moving image collective ‘aemi’ to curate: “I really wanted to work with them. They thought about the project and then proposed Kevin Gaffney as a co-curator. It’s funny because before I knew whether aemi would join our project, I made a list of films to suggest for the screening and Kevin Gaffney’s ‘A Numbness in the Mouth’ was one of them! And my list was very short – I think there was only five films. So, for me, I knew that we had made the right choice.”
Speaking to Gaffney later in the day, the artist expresses his delight at being invited to curate the show, and praised Gelezova and her team for including moving image: “I think expanding the festival to include artists using film and video is a great idea because so many of us have photographic backgrounds and our work is informed by photography. Vicki Thornton, Bryony Dunne, Viktoria Schmid and Greta Alfaro all have both a film and photographic practice, while Jennifer Mehigan and Lana May Fleming work across many different mediums like sculpture, painting and installation.”
The film section is held on aemi’s website (viewing link here). Gaffney’s ‘A Numbness in the Mouth’ is indeed a rich, irresistible work of art, and the other contributions are fascinating. Critical Recipes is available on YouTube and Rathfarnham Castle is the location for the festival’s onsite exhibitions.
Whatever aspect of this year’s PhotoIreland Festival you decide to sample, I can assure you, you will not be disappointed.
Words: Tom Lordan
PhotoIreland Festival runs until July 31.