Thirty years is a veritable age for an art institution as innovative as Temple Bar Gallery & Studios. So they’re choosing to celebrate their anniversary in typically daring style: with a large-scale public artwork commission funded entirely by public donations. If its Fund:It campaign reaches its target of €14,000, artist Garrett Phelan will install an arcing mantra in industrial steel that will peek out from the roof of Temple Bar Gallery and beam down onto the square below. Cutting his teeth not only in the contemporary art world but through FM radio stations, Phelan’s artistic background harnesses the power of communication; pulling apart the discourse of religious and political institutions and reconfiguring them to create something new. This work is no different. For three years, it is proposed, it will become a new landmark for the city, broadcasting unapologetically it’s clear and simple yet multi-layered message: OUR UNION ONLY IN TRUTH. We spoke to Garrett about the challenge to make his vision come true.
So where did the idea for the piece begin?
The phrase ‘Our Union Only in Truth’ is in my work going back to 2003. There’s a lot of slogans, phrases and statements that recur in my work. Then the arch idea really came from driving my son to school. As you go over the Rathmines Bridge, on the right-hand-side heading into town, there are two arches, Saint Mary’s School, and another one after that. So in a tongue in cheek way it plays upon those kind of structures and religious orders we all grew up around. ‘Our Union Only in Truth’: it has a kind of preacher type ring to it.
Whose decision was it to use Fund:It?
I suppose it was mine. I was initially wary of it, because if it doesn’t achieve its target it could look really bad, and that’s a huge strain on anybody that becomes a part of a Fund:It campaign – you’re lobbying in the hope your career will be okay at the end of it as well. But that’s part of the risk, and the challenge. I find the concept of Fund:It and the way it operates interesting, and I wanted to play with the idea of using it, and the rewards, as a platform. The rewards aren’t what Fund:It is truly about, but they play a big part, so I decided to produce multiples so that the rewards are greater.
And what are the rewards?
There are 200 limited edition patches, 100 hoodies and 6 maquettes, which are beautiful. Creating all these puts me at a loss. This isn’t a money maker. There’s a political slant on the branding of the garments as an invitation to become part of something, and the multiples carry the message on so that when the sculpture comes down, someone might find an ‘Our Union Only in Truth’ hoodie in twenty years’ time in a second-hand shop. It’s art I’m making. I’m not making a t-shirt. It’s a critique on marketing and these processes of how we sell ideas to people. So you’re funding something, but you also get a piece of art back.
The target is €14,000. What does all that go towards?
We need several metalwork guys to actually do the fabrication, and the cutting of the lettering. We then have to cover the engineers costs, which are substantial, and it all has to satisfy health and safety. It’s about 4 meters wide, and 2 meters high, so it’s pretty big, and it’ll be backlit at night – you’ll be able to see it from Dame Street and Fleet Street, but the main audience is the highly populated Temple Bar Square. Then my fee is paid by the gallery, not by Fund:It. It’s a big target, and I completely understand that people are strapped for cash at the moment, but I think that what it offers is a very strong, potent, simple and direct message that relates to how everybody feels at the moment.
Is putting art in a public place an inherently political act?
Putting art where people can experience it easily allows your language to be experienced on a higher level than putting it in the gallery downstairs. I’m not part of a political party, and I don’t believe in becoming a part of a political party as they stand currently, so this is my way of being politically direct, this is the way I channel my politik. I would never differentiate between what people would deem a ‘public artwork’, or what I would make in my studio, or show in a gallery. I don’t edit it and I don’t censor it, I only make works of art that I really want to make. But I do think that statement is something a lot of people would subscribe to.
But do you worry about the public reaction?
Yeah! I tested it on lots of people, but then who’s ever going to be honest with you. It’s a very subjective piece though, and that’s one good component about it: anybody can apply meaning to it, and hopefully I’ve spent long enough with that string of words to anticipate every possible interpretation of them. Whether it’s a guy that’s completely hammered sitting over in the corner crying by the bank machine, or someone working in the area, or a politician making his or her way from the civic offices, it works on a political level, it works on a personal level, it works on a theological level, and there’s humour in it. I’ve looked at every aspect. I have to be able to stand by what I make.
To fund the campaign, visit www.fundit.ie/project/our-union-only-in-truth