Fergal McCarthy at the Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Aug 2013.
The first time I encountered a tent pitched in the middle of an art gallery it belonged to Tracey Emin. She wasn’t home at the time. But she had infamously stitched the names of all the partners she had ever slept with into the inner fabric of the canvas for all to read. It was a pre-Facebook era splurge of public self-flagellation and a deliberately provocative gesture. Along with her unmade bed installation it garnered her instant notoriety as a bête noir of those brash Brit artists that Charles Saatchi unleashed on the art public in the early 1990’s.
The artist Fergal McCarthy recently installed himself in a tent in the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda. In contrast to Tracey Emin he was present throughout the duration but there was no embroidering or cataloguing of names by this artist. Instead by actually living and working for four days in the gallery itself he was attempting dissolution of the parameters and strictures of the traditional exhibition space and what one typically expects to encounter therein.
But what is it with artists wanting to live in art galleries? It’s nothing new of course. Ever since the minimalist white cube became the normative exhibition space artists have been trying to break that restrictive enclosure. McCarthy’s sojourn is not the first time an artist has decided to vacate their studio and install themselves in a very public space. Becoming artist-in-residence in a very literal sense so to speak. In 1974 the German artist Joseph Beuys spent several days in a gallery in New York with just a blanket, a flash lamp, a cane and a live coyote for company. And in perhaps the ultimate affront to gallery decorum in October 2011 Marni Kotak gave birth to her son as a live performance in a gallery in Brooklyn.
All were attempts to revoke the position of the artist as social outsider – a perception that has evolved over several centuries. Previously the artist was a craftsman employed by the community – not a remote specialist.
Fergal McCarthy’s ‘Welcome to Drogheda’ was an attempt to re-integrate the artist with the public and the community. McCarthy is known for his arresting approach in encouraging people to assess the damage done to the fabric of our built environment during the last decade of boom and bust. His projects are usually set in-absentia of a formal gallery space and instead occur in the real world. With ‘Liffeytown’ in 2010 he floated oversized mock red and green illuminated Monopoly style houses in the river Liffey. Then with ‘No Man’s Land’ in 2011 he spent a week living on a tiny fake desert island marooned in the river opposite the empty shell of the intended new headquarters of the bankrupt Anglo Irish Bank.
For his Drogheda project McCarthy took as his jumping-off point an 18th Century painting of the town by Gabrielle Ricciardelli that is part of the Highlanes Collection. “I was inspired to seek out the same level of beauty that Ricciardelli portrayed,” said McCarthy, but from a contemporary viewpoint. The aim was a dialogue between the outsider’s fresh eye and the inherent knowledge of town residents resulting hopefully in a new perspective for everyone.
To facilitate this dialogue the artist as provocative outsider had created a mini palimpsest to the town’s identity. This highlighted Drogheda’s histories, local oddities and topography. Everything from fish and chip shops to art centres and local tyre fitters. A pre-ordained cultural ramble in the company of the artist led to scheduled meetings with butchers, bakers, publicans, shoemakers and tattoo artists. These encounters helped form a disparate and random array of connections and insights. The artist was thus a network facilitator, a guide. Interwoven with his encampment period in the Highlanes Gallery were talks and debates. These ranged from the best means for sustainable local tourism to how best to develop cultural audiences in non-metropolitan areas competing with a crowded art and media blizzard emanating from the big urban centres.
This al-fresco, formless and freewheeling engagement with the surrounding town felt improvisatory but equally genuinely participatory and collaborative. This resulted in an accumulation of knowledge of place through other people. The artist had become the conduit for exchange, or in McCarthy’s case literally a pied piper through the urban landscape of a town and its denizens allowing for re-engagement and insight with surroundings past and present. Leading the public on a merry dance across town, or in the formal language of art theory, an action piece or happening, is again nothing new. One evening in September 1963 the artist Wolf Mostel conveyed a group of spectators around the city of Wuppertal on a bus. Various events and activities were encountered. Different sites were visited including a car wash and a factory. The evening climaxed with the spectacle of a locomotive travelling at 130kmh crashing into a stationary Mercedes car parked across the path of the oncoming train. The destructive symbolism for a post-war German audience was clear by the end of the evening’s proceedings. Summation of a society can arguably be even more direct and detailed. Look for example at Pieter Breughel’s painting of ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’. Its myriad mini-narratives, caricatures and scenes encapsulate an entire village and its inhabitants in one canvas.
Perhaps McCarthy believes that his actions like those of Beuys before him could affect the world around him. The random encounter with people is at the heart of much of his work such as in his ‘Swimmer’ project recreating the journey undertaken by Burt Lancaster in the movie of the same name.
In the Highlanes project each day was bookended by McCarthy playing a specially commissioned musical anthem for Drogheda. The artist on solo trumpet performed this at both dawn and dusk from the roof of a car park in the local shopping mall. A wake up call perhaps, an elegy or a fanfare for the common man. All delivered in tuxedo – itself a signifier of an event, a performance or a bit of a do. The image of solo trumpeter evoked a defiant, indeed exuberant image of a man standing on the edge of a roof blowing for all he’s worth. The artist has thus metaphorically and materially left both his tent and gallery behind and become an urban purveyor for re-discovery rather than the exhibition simply being the end destination in itself. A gallery space of no boundaries is indeed achieved.
The Highlanes Gallery – http://www.highlanes.ie/
Fergal McCarthy – http://fergalmccarthy.blogspot.ie/
‘The Swimmer’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Swimmer_(film)