artist bio
some words


Fragile Absolutes

Chapter, Cardiff, Wales
11 Decmber 2009 - 17 January 2010




Red Star Death Star

Gallery 4
In this gallery there is a selection of individual works from the ‘Fragile Absolutes’ (the ones with the subtitles in brackets) but also several other works made over the past three years. What connects the pieces are shared references to science fiction and a negotiation with photography. Several of the works are three-dimensional renderings of objects that appear in photographs, like the Lady from Mars, or the chicken, goat and tunnel which all come from the same blurred image of a roadway in the south of Ireland. While it’s no great news that art is made from photos the works here traverse timeline that collapses past, present and future with a myriad of references that include the Shroud of Turin, Darth Maul, Umberto Boccioni, and Buckminster Fuller. Having studied photography, but more interested in making objects, Phelan harks back to his roots while trying his best not to make a photograph.

Phantom Blanket (there is no Christ outside of Saint Paul), 2008
orange blanket, push-pins

Lady from Mars (coitus a tergo), 2009
fibre-glass, spaghetti rock, spray paint, glue

Blurred Chicken

Blurred Chicken (you can, because you must!), 2009
paper, EVA glue, metal, paint, solar powered motor, battery, wood half pallet
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Daily Telegraph)


Cabbages 6
Cabbage (symbolic history ‘spectral’ fantasmatic history), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, polystyrene

Cabbages represent possibly the classic peasant food whether it’s the green pulp on a plate of corned beef and spuds or the anaemic sauerkraut staple of Eastern Europe. They are possibly the opposite of everything in the subtitle but that just serves to make them more interesting. In this instance the cabbages are made from newspaper selected by the artist, gallery assistants and participants in a short fabrication workshop held in early December. Phelan began with printing pages from now defunct Dublin papers that covered the Great Lock-Out of 1913, a formative general strike that cemented the position of Unions with the Irish labour movement. With so much talk of strikes this seemed not only topical but something work addressing as Phelan was engaging a lot of free labour to help make the piece. As a trade-off participants got to make a cabbage to keep for themselves after the workshop.





Eamon Often Spoke in Tongues, 2007
archival paper, EVA glue, aluminium, balsa wood, faux snake skin leather, plastic pipe
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Daily Telegraph)

This head is one of several that Phelan has made of Irish political figures. This work is a likeness of Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) who served as Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and President during his career which spanned the Easter Rising, the Civil War, formation of the Irish Free State and the political party Fianna Fáil. In many ways his is the grandfather of the Irish State but shifted his position from a militant republican to an arch social and cultural conservative, restricting social and cultural progress, locating an Irish ideal with essentialist and isolationist policies. His tongue is a fond from a Snake plant, sometimes mixed up with the Mother-in-Law’s Tongue plant, a common Victorian house plant, known for its ability to thrive in low light, endure irregular watering while helpfully removing toxins from the air.

Baby Seals

Clubbed Baby Seals (he is not aware how Jews really seem to him?
this is not how things really seem to you), 2009

archival paper, toner, EVA glue
15 x 107 x 95 cms
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Wall Street Journal)

This sculpture is based on news photo in which PETA protesters staged a mock seal slaughter by clubbing papier-mâché seals filled with red paint. The re-enactment took place outside Canada House in central London to protest the mass slaughter of baby harp seals on the ice floes of Newfoundland on 28 March 2007. The papier-mâché names many names involved in business over the past 6 months. This is the odd but useful index on page 2 of the newspaper, which lists many of the key players in the current world recession. During the annual seal massacre, hundreds of thousands of baby seals are shot or have their skulls crushed, to provide fur for the commercial purposes, mainly fashion.

The Other Hand of Victory, Hebei version (ontological madness), 2009
40 x 40 x 60 cms

After making a sculpture in 2007 called Pyrrhic Victory which was based on the Winged Victory of Samothrace (c. 220-190 BCE), Phelan finally visited the work at the Musée du Louvre in 2007 having made the previous work solely based on photographs. While there he saw the right hand of the sculpture housed in a vitrine. Phelan rendered the other hand of Victory in an iconoclastic manner. He purchased a wooden modelling hand from German mega-retailer, Lidl, and reconfigured an approximation of the Louvre hand. This model was then sent to Hebei in China where local craftsmen scaled it up in white marble.

World War 1 in Colour (the void itself), 2009
inkjet billboard sheets
each 92 x 133 cms

The photographs presented are stills captured from a DVD offered free by The Irish Daily Mirror in 2008 from the TV series World War I in Colour. The text on each still is the subtitles already present in the video frame narrated by Kenneth Brannagh. The familiar story of the beginnings of the Great War are now a world away from the great Void that is Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square on White Surface, but not really, as this was a painting named by Žižek in his convoluted discussion. Television offers us probably many more insights into how things happened, although it is more open to interpretation and far less passive that most would think.

Death Drive (interrupt the circular logic of re-establishing balance because he is the lowest outcast), 2009
plywood, metal, varnish, flock

When modified car enthusiasts get together they sometimes turn into boy racers. The showmanship of this pastime is pretty central to the owners of these glammed, pimped-up cars. It’s not just the bodywork that gets modified, however, but also sometimes the engine. Some meet late into the night for private races on public roads. These also include burnout sessions which leave behind circular patterns of rubber on the road surface. Freud’s ‘death drive’ postulates a drive leading potentially towards death, destruction and non-existence, although Lacan resolved this in a different way.

“Pardon me, Judy. I’m trying to articulate something here and your cuts aren’t helpful. Every drive is a death drive for Lacan because it’s excessive, repetitive – even destructive. It’s no accident that we’re playing with the sound-sense of the boy racers’ “driving” and the “drives” as over a century of psychoanalysis has it. These are important signifiers. And, it’s no accident that many people hate boy racers at a gut level. It’s almost primordial, that disgust, so we have to ask why. Something else is going on …” says Charlene Hume-Berkeley, from the essay ‘Speaking of drives… routes and meanderings’, by Medb Ruane.

Alan Phelan: Fragile Absolutes

11 December 2009 – 17 January 2010

“I know very well that the Other’s culture is worthy of the same respect as my own: nevertheless … [I despise them passionately].”
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute

‘Fragile Absolutes’ is a selection of new and recent works by Alan Phelan inspired by his ongoing engagement with political history, cultural theory, science fiction and photography. Within his practice he negotiates a number of sources and time periods: from found images, psychoanalysis and globalisation to current affairs, world war, popular fiction and boy racers. In doing so, he sets up a complex mix of literal and symbolic references, simultaneously providing background information on many of his subjects, yet leaving them open to conflicting modes of interpretation. In doing so he subtly undermines the certainty of our cultural assumptions and of the truth.

Often belying a keen understanding of a complex topic, Phelan’s sculptures are playful, sometimes superficially facile, and here combine an unlikely assortment of materials including papier mache, photographs, spaghetti rock and polyurethane foam all of which are handled adeptly and with intriguing results.

The titles, subtitles and structure of the exhibition are derived from a project Phelan completed during his time on IMMA’s Artists’ Residency Programme in 2008 where this project began. Taking the italicised words from the Slavoj Žižek book The Fragile Absolute – or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? and using them as random word associations towards 15 ideas for works, realised in a variety of materials and processes.
In these, and other pieces, we see the artist humorously undermining the content of his own work by setting up sometimes inappropriate, or even tasteless, relationships between his subjects. These works operate side by side in a form of parataxis, without hierarchy – feeding off, informing and contradicting each other – yet shaped from Phelan’s interests in narrative, trans-cultural potential, and provisional meaning. As he reconfigures diverse elements they are lent a new voice – their context providing a means towards interpretation. A number of common elements can be discerned within the Fragile Absolutes body of work. They have a raw, unfinished quality – almost a sense of incompleteness which points to the artist’s intention of presenting discursive or dialogical structures in the place of ‘finished’ artworks. Dušan I. Bjelic uses Heidegger’s term Zuhandenheit to frame the materiality of Phelan’s practice, pointing to a type of ‘infrastructural aesthetic’ which focuses on what is left in the background of a philosophy rather than on what it specifically brings to light.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated monograph produced by IMMA, Dublin, with essays by Seán Kissane, Curator, IMMA; Dušan Bjelic, Professor of Criminology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, USA; Medb Ruane, writer and journalist, and Tony White, novelist and Leverhulme Trust Writer in Residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London.

About the artist
Born in Dublin in 1968, Alan Phelan studied at Dublin City University and Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. He has exhibited widely including Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; SKUC, Ljubljana; Feinkost, Berlin, and SKC, Belgrade. In Ireland he has exhibited at Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin; MCAC, Portadown; Limerick City Gallery of Art, and Solstice Arts Centre, Navan. He was editor/curator for Printed Project, issue 5, launched at the 51st Venice Biennale, and has curated exhibitions at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin; Project Arts Centre, Dublin, and Rochester, New York. Phelan was shortlisted for the AIB Art Prize in 2007.

The exhibition is a collaborative project between Chapter; IMMA, Dublin who commissioned and exhibited several of Phelan’s works earlier this year, and Limerick City Gallery of Art. The exhibition has received financial support from Culture Ireland.