Folly & Diction (2020)

RHA, Ely Place, Dublin 2
14 Feb 2020 – 27 Mar 2020 [show stalled 12 March due to COVID19 closure of cultural institutions]
re-opened post lockdown 23-26 July and 30 July-2 August 2020
RHA Gallery II, RHA Gallery III
Curated by Ruth Carroll

This exhibition brings together a selection of Alan Phelan’s unique Joly Screen Process photographs and a new large scale music video work about the inventor of this forgotten colour photography process which was abandoned from use over 100 years ago.

Over the past three years Phelan has worked on reviving the process, invented in the 1890s in Dublin by John Joly, a physicist and geology professor from Trinity College, Dublin.

Phelan’s ambition is to create a visual history for the process that it never had. To do this he uses art and historical references spanning over 500 years. The work presents a “counterfactual temporality”, to create a longer potential history for photography.

The photographs comprise of two parts – the sheet film from a large format camera and a colour screen, printed onto clear sheet. The Joly process is not a chemical dye coupler or inkjet but instead filters light to create colour, on exposure and then on display. The screen is made up of red, green and blue stripes, giving the photographs a very distinct appearance. The small images have the intensity of painted miniatures, illuminated by LED panels, slowing down the viewing of a photograph as well as allowing for a unique colour shift that happens on display.

Phelan also engages different installation devices on walls, windows and lighting to reference the process as well as narratives from a wider art history of painting and sculpture. He frequently collaborates with others in making work and in this case has worked with members of the Dunboyne Flower & Garden Club in making the floral images for this exhibition. For Phelan this is an opportunity to expand his interest in participatory practices – art making that involves working with others to expand the notion of authorship into a shared activity one where meaning remains unfixed and creating agency as well as new knowledge in the process.

Similarly he has worked with a variety of talented artists and musicians for the video who include Elaine Hoey, James Kelly, Ian McInerney, The Late David Turpin, and Louis Haugh. The video brings the analogue stripes of the Joly Screen into the digital age with audio-responsive animations which overlay a troubled biographical narrative about John Joly and his collaborator Henry Dixon. Typical of Phelan the story presented is a fusion of references coming from texts by Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet and functioning outside of adaptation or appropriation to “re-narrativise” instead and create a new or different story history.

The photographs in Folly & Diction are arranged in sequences that mix floral, self-portraits and objects, with titles acknowledging source artists and related historical events. The show title embeds Joly & Dixon into this speculative history by homonym, while acknowledging the possible humour in these probable revised histories and queer re-reading of photography.


Joly Screen Photographs:
Toned gelatin silver sheet film (reverse processed), duraclear c-print screen, acrylic panels, LED panel, MDF support, electrics, archival paper tape, insulation tape, steel and rubber profiles

All images were hung in groups of three with the following titles:

Steve Meisel for Jonathan Anderson on Constance Spry 2015-1950, when Leo revealed all to Marianne, 2019

Lily Reynaud Dewar as Twister Morph 2015, when sitting was dancing, 2019, and when she didn’t know what a conceptual artist looked like

Kawase Toshiro after the Great East Japan earthquake 2011, well after fake pine clusters, 2019

Metal Beard the lego pirate perhaps 2013, when Hugo Chavez and Lou Reed were murdered, 2019

RGB Hogarth Curve close up 1700, and the RGB cherub, 2019

Ken Moody by Robert Mapplethorpe with stiletto 1985, when the Rainbow Warrior was sunk, 2019

Dead Ambrosius Bosschaert 1614, when logarithms were sadly discovered, 2019

Carol Sawyer as Natalie Brettschneider as Leaf as Me 1986, when Ray was really Miller, 2019

Tsuki Karakuchi Arizona ikebana 2015, when lotus is a rose not a hebdo, 2019

Jimmy de Sana cones with Robert Mapplethorpe Dianne B’ jumper 1982, when Michael Jackson released Thriller and they all died, 2019

Constance Spry 1938, when the War of the Worlds broadcast invented Superman, 2019

André Breton by Man Ray 1930, in green morph not available in Weimar Germany, 2019

Random Roman School on Candelabra 1704, with excess worthy of the Tale of a Tub (red), 2019

Vintage Fag with bra 1940, when really it’s a fag with a fag in a bra, (green), 2019

Lime Teshigahara with peppers 1950s, when again things got ugly at the time of the Schuman Declaration, (blue), 2019

Certainly not Tom Ford in yellow 2006, more Borat with an empty garland, 2019

Constance Spry 1935, when Brie Van der Kamp from Wisteria Lane remembered Laburnum Crescent but all she got was Drumcondra, 2019

Steve Meisel for Jonathan Anderson on Constance Spry 2015-1950, when we got the right to marry, 2019

Three primary forms 1919-1933, does this point more clearly to the fourth dimension, or just the end of the world? 2019 with red, green and blue paper appliqués (to the rear)

When Henri Fantin Latour’s basket of roses 1890, became power corruption and lies, 2019

Folly & Diction, 2020
video projection, duration 15 minutes

Folly & Diction, 2020 Written, directed and produced by Alan Phelan
Music by Kelly & McInerney
Vocals by Turpin & Jrdn
Acting by Hanly & Hanly
Action & Animation by Beckett & Hoey
Moustache & Lyrics by Sherlock & Genet
Film & Assist by Phelan, Donnellon & Edmonson
Life by Joly & Dixon

A music video about John Joly, inventor of the Joly screen colour photography process, narrativised via elements of a story by Samuel Beckett and a poem by Jean Genet; sung by The Late David Turpin and Jrdn (Xona) with music composed by James Kelly and Ian McInerney; performed by father and son Peter and Luke. The piece is structured like a music video, yet based on literary sources, with Joly singing a story of unrequited history, of a forgotten moment in the invention of colour photography, poetically recanting loss an abandonment as a way of telling this story.


The artist would like to thank the RHA for supporting the production of Folly & Diction and also acknowledge the support of Creative Ireland, Meath County Council Cultural Services, Solstice Arts Centre, members of Dunboyne Flower & Garden Club; NCAD, TBG+S, FSAS, The LAB, The Dock, The Arts Council; and exhibition partners Void, Derry/Londonderry and the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.

Many thanks also to Louis Haugh, James Kelly, Ian McInerney, The Late David Turpin, Jrdn, James Hanly, Luke Hanly, Elaine Hoey, Val Sherlock, Noel Donnellon, Sarah Edmonson, Noel Kelly and all who helped out in many ways. Members of the Dunboyne Flower & Garden Club, who participated in workshops: Mary Dalton, Jean Hamilton, Beatrice Hartog, Adrienne Hatch, Geraldine Johnson, Kay Kelly, Veronica Madden, Isabella Molloy, Ciara Murphy, Noreen Ní Chinnéide, Dolores O’Leary, Marie Orr, Harriet Phelan, Mary Ronayne, Margaret Rowan, Angela Sheehy


Public Events

Wednesday 4 March, 6.30pm: Love: first, second, third

In this live performance, two actors will read, critique and deconstruct two of the literary texts by Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet that are referenced in Phelan’s video work. The event explores fan fiction which switches genders and the sexuality of characters from original texts as Phelan has done in his film. With a live re reading of the source material the actors will interact with live video projection, offering an additional commentary, providing different insights into how all three texts can, and have been interpreted. Booking is essential for this event.

(COVID) cancelled : Saturday 21 March, 2pm: A Dance Response by Dublin Youth Dance Company

All welcome, booking not required. Over the course of Phelan’s exhibition, Dublin Youth Dance Company (DYDC) will be developing a dance performance in response to the work in the show. This response will be presented to the public in the gallery on Saturday 21 March at 2pm.





??? ????????? ??? ?????? ??? ???? ? ???? ??? ?? ??? ????????. The night’s city lights find their way through the glass ceiling of the art institution, to fall down down down into the atrium, where a moth flits here & there & up up up like a fist of fossilised news sheets. A light flickers in one of the first-floor galleries & the moth punches to the right to alight on a wall & unclinch.

Flicker, flicker, flicker, the light goes on & goes off, illuminating one husk of an object among a graveyard of others set at eye-level on the gallery walls as far as the moth’s eye can see in the flickering darkness. The moth lays there in constant low-level anxiety, heaving under the winking light’s attraction but unwilling to get lost in the drift of darkness.

Under the beating light a synaptic fire flickers in the moth, bright in association & dark in sentiment, as the parts of the image that comprise the photographic plate that comprises most of the husk behind which the flickering light transmits, collapse into a red-green-blue tartan jumble of an insect-man poised on pearlescent cones straddled painfully on a floor wearing a jumper – an asymmetrically patterned orange & cream & black & square jumper – against a lime-green rubbery stage like skinned waders.

And then there was Light & the Word & names of artists & lives lived: Robert Mapplethorpe (42, 1989), Peter Hujar (53, 1987), Félix González-Torres (38, 1996), David Wojnarowicz (37, 1992), Craig Owens (39, 1990), Jimmy DeSana (40, 1990).

The moth likes the DeSana cones, the Brillcream’d mass of Mapplethorpe’s head of hair that is hard to imagine a face behind, but it’s not too gone on the Dianne B jumper even though it helps plant an orange rectangle centrestage so the rest of Mapplethorpe’s body can contort on the floor in the dark, in the light, in innuendo.

The image also frightens the moth, noticing the meta in the metamorphosis of both portraits, insect-turned-man-turned insect & one story about a salesman that starts with the sentence: “One morning Gregor Samsa woke in his bed from uneasy dreams and found he had turned into a large verminous insect.”

[In response to Alan Phelan’s Fiction & Folly at the Royal Hibernian Academy, 2020]

MARCH 25, 2020 (ORIGINALLY POSTED ON INSTAGRAM @a_flash_in_the_small_night




Alan Phelan Who the Hell ** **? by A**** D****, I**** T****, unwritten, unpublished.

Alan Phelan’s work is a little hard to pin down. I never can really cope with his ever shifting use of mediums and techniques or the multitude of references that the works are crammed with but moreover that is not rooted in a paint based medium.

Given his use of everything from stainless steel to projected video over the past 25 years since his first solo show in the Gallery of Photography in 1993 there is maybe is a pattern to be discerned or found somewhere. Photography has always been a key factor alongside history like with that first show which provided a kind documentary evidence of Egon Schiele’s visits to Ireland in search of Sheela-na-gigs (misinterpreting their sexual gestural forms as masturbatory). Clearly this never happened and the pseudo museum documentary display was never there to fully fool anyone. The show formed a project satirising the genius Modernist painter, presenting Ireland as a source of primitivism as so brilliantly aped by man painters from the School of Paris. While a film essay would have maybe made this clearer and more legible, Phelan chose to present this complex historical crisis as a fragments museum display, adopting the authority of the museum but giving us none of the actual art. Interpretative evidence, falsified and doctored was instead presented to tell a fictional art history that somehow claimed post-colonial discourse as enough of a concept to suffice.

Shuffle forward a few decades and this is again manifested in his 2016 Roger Casement film which created a counterfactual (read fictional) history of Casement, alive in 1941, exiled in Norway with an adulterous Nazi boyfriend and withering Alice Stopford Green who re-enact betrayal not actual historical fact. This slow ponderous work captured a kind of boredom with history which mass commemorations always get wrong in their energetic attempt to find the past relevant or uncomplicated.

What really confuses me also is when artists decide to be writers and curators. Like others from his generation, (he is now in his early 50s), they have adopted a post-conceptual approach where form fits ideas not function and art history is a field to be harvested not left fallow where manure gets spread every other year. You can really only do one thing well so why try to be everything to everyone when audiences only have limited capacities and intelligence. An art critics judgement and gate keeping responsibilities are onerous and not to be taken lightly.

Engagement as it’s now championed has to come from the top down and the author is primary. Once the prevail of relational aesthetics, when art briefly opened by a wider discussion about itself, engagement is better left to the education officer.  The legacy of Walter Benjamin or key artists from the 90s like Felix Gonzalez Torres who position the audience as central to completing the artwork are poor role models and are best left out or forgotten. This never worked and yet some artists continue to push ideas which are contradictory, saying one thing and meaning another, as if this was some way not a reflection on how the world actually works or any political dynamic functions.

Art history fiction spun on a homonym is something Phelan continues to do. It harks back to a need or insecurity to explain which comes up from a practice or career that fluidly mixes curating exhibitions with art criticism, art writing with the making. One thing he has not done is run an art space and this is probably because is has worked part-time as an archivist in parallel to being an artist. Having not gone to art school proper surely gives an insecurity or need to explain anyway, and perform knowledge, as one could say, perhaps but also ties to a generation of artists who have decided to do it all, or as much as they can rather than expect the scene, academy or crowd to catch up and notice.

The current RHA show is a bizarre soup of references, somehow attempting to traverse several hundred years of image making to create yet another false history. Choosing an obscure photography process is rendered nostalgia free when the conceptual background is so complex that you end up thinking about a wide range of ideas instead of just looking at something on a wall and wondering how it was made. The accompanying video savages some literary references from Beckett and Genet, never connecting or revealing a coherent narrative but slavishly mimicking the tropes of the music video genre to sell what exactly? This work Folly & Diction covers up a gay romance and working relationship to revel in music and animated stripes. The Joly process is not explained but exploded in to a contemporary context, anchored in historical mistruths or half-truths, something maybe best left forgotten.