Credit: Sculpture Dublin via Twitter

New Public Art: Close Your Eyes

Public art, and sculpture in particular, has mildly excited some public comment this week with the installation of a new work at City Hall on Dublin’s Dame Street. This one by Alan Phelan is entitled ‘RGB Sconce., Hold Your Nose’ and netted the artist the guts of 50 large. Not to sniffed at, to keep with the nasal theme.

‘RGB Sconce’ is simply a reference to the gaudy colour scheme – red, green and blue- of the sconce, which is a type of light fixture. The fact that most people will not have one clue that this is what it means, presumably helps to involve the public in the appreciation of the public art for which they are paying.

The ‘Hold Your Nose’ reference is to the revelation that leading officials in the British administration in Dublin Castle in the 1880s were using male prostitutes. Part of Phelan’s project was apparently “Reclaiming this little-known history and subverting this term to show how much Ireland has changed.”

The publicity around the unveiling was described in the media as a reference to when “Irish Nationalists accused high ranking British civil servants of ‘homosexual activities’”.

The actual history is that in 1883 the United Ireland newspaper had revealed that prominent officials including RIC Inspector James French and the secretary of the Post Office Gustavus Cornwall had been involved in the use of male prostitutes. Cornwall brought a libel action against the United Ireland editor William O’Brien and lost.

O’Brien, who was an elected MP, was regularly prosecuted and imprisoned during this period as part of the state repression of nationalism. Torture, perjury, appalling prison conditions and occasionally execution and murder were the lot of those who opposed the corrupt Castle regime. O’Brien was not motivated by “homophobia” in his reportage.

It was believed that the state had interfered with the case in order to protect the Castle – including the political police section – at a time when it was engaged in a whole range of covert and overt actions against Irish nationalists. That history is not “little known” although clearly some would wish it to be, and furthermore that it be replaced by some extraneous “transgressive” narrative.

What Phelan does not subvert is the tired old liberal post nationalist dirge that we need to endlessly celebrate “different forms of emancipation that have occurred in the area, moving through Irish independence, EU presidencies, tribunals of inquiry, and important civic events related to marriage equality and reproductive choice.” It’s as if the whole objective of achieving Irish independence was to legalise abortion. Such nonsense.

Phelan’s reference to the rent boy scenario is somewhat less forthright and so resorts to post-modernist twaddle where it is supposed to be “subverting this olfactory phrase into the visual realm, builds in a self-critique where flamboyance and failure are united to reveal different narratives about the past.”

This sort of contorted and meaningless jargon is meant to convey to the hoi polloi that they are too stupid to understand what the Ortist and his buddies are getting at, and you wouldn’t like to be made look stupid if you were to ask. But seen as you did, it actually means nothing. And anyone who doesn’t believe me maybe ought to read something that does such as Alan Sokol and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense.

Work also began this week on the foundations for a sculpture to be placed in Kildonan Park, Finglas. Gript has reported previously on the campaign, supported overwhelmingly by local residents, to have a statue depicting Kevin Barry placed in that public space. This was ignored and the committee decided instead to commission a large metal object.

The commission was awarded to Sara Cunningham-Bell who has said that the piece was “informed by listening to, and learning from the people of Finglas.” Other than, seemingly, the 84% of people living in closest proximity to the park who expressed a preference for the below depiction of Kevin Barry. The committee of 8 that adjudicated on the commission contained one local councillor and two community representatives that were appointed by Sculpture Ireland.



I’ve been living in Finglas for 25 years and if Cunningham-Bell’s work represents what my neighbours are thinking then I’ll have some of what they’re having, thanks. Kevin Barry and the period in which he lived and the resonances all of that is an integral part of the folk memory of Dubs. We don’t actually need some person with no connection whatsoever to the place to tell us what we need to look at every day to inform us who we are. We already know or used to at least.

Chances are that the metal yoke will prove to be a fitting symbol of the anomie that is turning the city into just another soulless place to store people between work shifts and visits to the shops. In a few years’ time, it will almost be in the shadow of the new high rise one and two bed apartments being planned nearby. Oh, and covered in spray painted inanities. Water finding its own level and so on.

Hold Your Nose? It might have been better to say Close Your Eyes.

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