Fragile Absolutes: Part One, 2009

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
Lower East Wing Galleries
22 July – 1 November 2009

An exhibition of new and recent work, Fragile Absolutes, by Irish artist Alan Phelan opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) on Wednesday 22 July 2009. Alan Phelan: Fragile Absolutes presents new and recent works showing the artist’s ongoing engagement with political history, cultural theory, popular culture, masculinity and modified cars. A new IMMA commissioned sculpture coincides with the exhibition located in IMMA’s Formal Gardens. This exhibition continues a strand of programming at the Museum showcasing emerging Irish and international artists, which has already included Shahzia Sikander, Ulla von Brandenburg, Orla Barry and Paul Morrison.

The new commission, Goran’s Stealth Yugo, 2009, began during a residency in Belgrade, Serbia in 2006 where Phelan collaborated with Goran Krstić, a car designer from the Zastava/Yugo car factory in city of Kragujevac. The work resembles a stage in the design process, where 3d modelling is used to approximate a structural framework for a new car design. This phase has been rendered in chrome-plated steel, supported by extended twin exhaust pipes, attached to an underwater stabilising base. The effect is both dynamic, as the car turns and points into the sky; as well as disguised, with the framework covered in Phelan’s signature fake pine twigs, drawn from the ‘blend-in’ techniques used in the telecommunications industry to hide mobile phone masts (generally as fake trees). As Dušan I. Bjelić writes in an essay published in the accompanying monograph on Phelan’s work, the sculpture represents the “complex totality of geopolitics, history, industrial production, and aesthetics using the car as a central metaphor”.

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. 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, now realised in a variety of materials and processes, from hand-carved marble, through to video and papier-mâché sculptures.

The works in the exhibition traverse numerous sources and time periods, from current affairs, popular fiction, boy racers, nationalist heroes, world war, economics, psychoanalysis and globalisation. Phelan sets up a complex mix of the literal and metaphorical references, simultaneously providing background information on many of his subjects, yet leaving them open to conflicting modes of interpretation. Heroes are vilified and despots are celebrated. Good and evil mix freely, undermining the certainty of truth. The decapitated head of Douglas Coupland, the Canadian writer famous for creating the term Generation X, is displayed on a basketball hoop stand; while laudatory death notices for former Serbian President Slobodan Miloševiæ are framed on the wall. Irish nationalist hero Arthur Griffith is rendered as an irritating mosquito, while fictional Irish Times columnist Ross O’Carroll Kelly is celebrated for his legendary sexual prowess. A woman who stole from a farmer is represented by her court-exit outfit and cute baby seals made from papier-mâché are clubbed to death. Classical Greek statuary is reduced to a store-bought modelling hand, resized and carved in marble in China, while the beginnings of World War I are displayed as a mock-billboard television bank.

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. Bjeliæ 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.

Born in Dublin in 1968, Alan Phelan studied at Dublin City University and Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. He has exhibited widely internationally including Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; SKUC, Ljubljana; Feinkost, Berlin; 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 short-listed for the AIB Art Prize in 2007 for his work on the new commission, Goran’s Stealth Yugo, 2009.

The exhibition is curated by Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions at IMMA.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated monograph 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 journalist [links on names connect to essay texts].

The exhibition is a collaborative project between three venues with new works and configurations appearing at each. The other venues are Limerick City Gallery of Art in November 2009 (delayed until 2012), and Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales, in December 2009.

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 10.00am – 5.30pm
except Wednesday 10.30am – 5.30pm
Sundays and Bank Holidays 12noon – 5.30pm
Culture Night: Friday 25 September open until 11.00pm
Mondays Closed

For further information and images please contact Monica Cullinane or Patrice Molloy at Tel: +353 1 612 9900, Email:

15 fragile absolutes in the project space at the end of the residency at IMMA which was the start of this project


Alan Phelan Fragile Absolutes h x w x d

Phantom Blanket (there is no Christ outside of Saint Paul), 2008
orange blanket, push-pins
180 x 120x 40 cm

video work as yet unmade
“include me out of the partisans manifesto”

World War 1 in Colour (the void itself), 2009
inkjet billboard sheets
each 92 x 133 cms, 34 in total

Scent of Orange Rim Cleaner (object petit object), 2009
bespoke room scent

Goran’s Stealth Yugo, 2009
chrome duped steel, rubber, plastic
450 x 550 x 550 cm

Cabbage (symbolic history ‘spectral’ fantasmatic history), 2009-10
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, polystyrene, hot glue
each approx 11 x 24 x 24 cm

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

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)

Hungarian Italian Abstraction (vertigo blue temporal event), 2009
acrylic paint and vinyl adhesive on plasterboard
painting: 55 x 70 cm
plasterboard: 96 x 101 cm

Lady from Mars (coitus a tergo), 2009
fibre-glass, spaghetti rock
74 x 63 x 45 cm

Douglas (lacked the dimension of radical Evil), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, cocktail sticks, stainless steel, plywood, varnish
head: 34 x 21 x 28 cms,
steel stand: approx 200 x 200 x 100 cm
(papier-mâché made from pages in jPod 2006 novel where the character Douglas Coupland appears in the story)

Bad Glue, 2006
newsprint, PVA, card
41.5 x 30 cm

Death Drive (interrupt the circular logic of re-establishing balance because he is the lowest outcast), 2009
plywood, metal, varnish, flock
dimensions variable to fill room size 450 cm square


Blurred Chicken (you can, because you must!), 2009
paper, EVA glue, metal, paint, solar powered motor, wood half pallet
chicken 54 x 40 x 29 cms
with pallet 66 x 54 x 45 cm

Woman who stole from farmer (it is only truth that matters), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue
77 x 79 x 59 cm

Bent (striking at himself), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, metal exhaust, balsa wood, cocktail sticks, varnish
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column in the weekend Irish Times)  65 x 95 x 140 cm


Extended Captions: Fragile Absolutes,  Part 1 IMMA

12 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.


15 Bent (striking at himself), 2009
archival paper, EVA glue, metal exhaust, balsa wood, cocktail sticks
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column in the weekend Irish Times)
65 x 95 x 140 cm

These athletic muscular legs are supported or rather impaled by an exhaust pipe with a wood version of how the Goran’s Stealth Yugo in the Formal Gardens is disguised by rubber pine clusters. If this is work is representative of a possible supreme manhood, the content of the paper legs says otherwise. The legs are made from copies the column fictional Irish rugby jock Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, written by his creator, journalist Paul Howard. Ross represents the worst excesses of Ireland’s recent Celtic Tiger with his dim-witted, self-obsessed antics that continuously back-fire yet forever leaving him the perfect antihero for our times.


4 Scent of Orange Rim Cleaner (object petit object), 2009
scent, delivery system

developed by Demeter Fragrance Library

The Lacanian term petit objet a, sometimes known as the O-object stands for the unattainable object of desire. As Žižek says, it “condenses the impossible deadly Thing, serving as its stand-in and thus enabling us to entertain a livable relationship with it, without being swallowed up by it”. This specially commissioned fragrance is reminiscent of a strong orange scented degreaser used by some modified car enthusiasts to clean their wheels in preparation for a Show & Shine event organised by Phelan in Portadown in 2006 at MCAC. As Arthur Griffith says in Medb Ruane’s essay: “That they are always partial and unsatisfiable. You lose your o-objects, don’t you dear?  Losing them mobilises your desire so they’re causal from the moment they’re lost. O-objects are primordial provocatives!”


(5) Fino’s manifold blended-in as a branch, 2007
metal exhaust, balsa wood, cocktail sticks, varnish, paint, polish
25 x 64 x 44 cm

Fino is the on-line nickname of a modified car enthusiast who donated a disused high performance exhaust system for this piece as well as Bent, 2009 in the previous room. He responded to a request for exhaust parts posted by the artist on the website The website is a communication forum for car enthusiasts, many of whom dislike the term ‘boy racer’ as it is mainly used by alarmist tabloid media who see them as perfect examples of anti-social and generally reckless behaviour. Much of their activities involve the modification and display of cars and not covert road racing as many assume, although this does indeed occur.


8 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 cm
(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.


(6) Mosquito Man Arthur, 2007
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, balsa wood, cocktail sticks, aluminium, plaster, metal pipe, plastic
82 x 80 x 80 cm
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Daily Telegraph)

This work is based on Arthur Griffith, the propaganda officer in the early IRA. The British called the underground press he produced during early 20th century the mosquito press. This was major irritant to the British as guerrilla printing presses moved locations constantly. Griffith, like many nationalist heroes, has had a disputed position within popular memory as after the Civil War he was essentially airbrushed from Irish history, despite being President of Dáil Éireann from January to August 1922, and heading of the Irish delegation at the negotiations in London that produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.


11 Douglas (lacked the dimension of radical Evil), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, cocktail sticks
34 x 21 x 28 cm
(papier-mâché made from pages in jPod 2006 novel where the character Douglas Coupland appears in the story)

Douglas Coupland (born 1961) is a Canadian novelist probably best-known for his 1991 novel Generation X. He has written many novels which pretty accurately describe the work antics and social networking of young people and their search for meaning in an overly commodified world. His novels are generally quite sharp and witty, representing an ennui that is bleak yet very entertaining. In jPod, computer game workers encounter the character Douglas Coupland, appearing as himself, only really mean, shifting the course of the novel and quite narcissistically or self-reflexively causing mayhem and then saving the day.


11 Bad Glue, 2006
newsprint, PVA, card
41.5 x 30 cm

While on an artist’s residency in Serbia in 2006, Phelan attended the public funeral Slobodan Milošević which was a lot like the stadium Farewell to Michael Jackson in LA recently, only smaller and less glamorous. The newspaper clipping is a full page from the Belgrade newspaper Novosti (News) with the memoriam page from 16 March 2006. There is a tradition in Serbia to take out many memorial notices in papers for individuals which are also posted publicly, on for example lamp-posts and doorways. These notices are from mourning Milošević supporters and include twisted sentiments such as “Your ideas, your genius mind, energy in fighting for the truth, justice and comfort for your people, have been and will always be a source of utter inspiration for us”. The newsprint is deteriorating rapidly as it was exposed to too much direct light and adhered with the wrong kind of glue.


(6) Roger should have stayed in the jungle, 2006
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, balsa wood, rubber car tyre, terracotta pot
34 x 27 x 27 cm, with pot 54 x 67 x 58 cm
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Daily Telegraph)

Roger Casement is a troubled Irish patriot, poet, revolutionary and nationalist hero, being of a Protestant background, knighted for humanitarian work in Peru and the Congo, but executed for treason after a failed gun running attempt in a German submarine. His treason court case was made more controversial by the revelation of disputed forged diaries containing frank accounts of homosexual activities.


14 Woman who stole from farmer (it is only truth that matters), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue
77 x 79 x 59 cm

In February 2009, a story appeared in the Irish national media concerning a Woman who stole from a farmer. This work is based on an image from the Irish Times showing the Woman covering her head and face with a striped hooded shawl while exiting the court. Kathleen Lewis (55), a mother of 10, was found guilty of stealing or rather bribing through intimidation, up to €70,000 from retired farmer George Berry (88), after an incident in the car park at a Centra store in Killeagh, Co Cork, in March 2006. A car driven by Berry was reputed to have damaged Lewis’s car, in which two of her grandchildren were alleged to have been thrown by the impact and injured. In sentencing, the Judge said “This is a particularly nasty and unpleasant crime”.


9 Hungarian Italian Abstraction (vertigo blue temporal event), 2009
acrylic paint and vinyl adhesive on plasterboard
painting: 55 x 70 cm
plasterboard: 96 x 101 cms

While on vacation in Northern Italy, Phelan stayed in a hostel run by some Hungarian nationals. The canteen was decorated with some generic abstract paintings, one of which forms the basis for this work. This region of Italy while being quite a distance from Hungary was previously was part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, while it still existed prior to World War I. There is something timeless about these type of modern abstract configurations, which have long lost their original context or possible meanings.


(12)  The National Derby, 2006
DVD video
duration: 2:54 mins

Different types of bravado clash here, where youth culture meets the literary. A pirated video of a Yugoslavian youth cult movie is subtitled by a piece of Joyce journalism where he fabricated an interview with one of the aristocratic competitors in a 1903 road race. Floyd is the bad boy of the film, attempting to acquire a urine sample from a sick friend in this short scene through a flamboyant gay man, in order to dodge the draft. The competition in the Joyce text was the Gordon Bennett Cup Race and was the starting reference point for Phelan’s work with car culture over the past few years.


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

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.


3 World War 1 in Colour (the void itself), 2009

inkjet billboard sheets

each 92 x 133 cm

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.

Reviews / Alan Phelan
Maria Fusco
1 Jan 2010
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland

Alan Phelan’s work proceeds, as Descartes might have, with an attitude of larvatus prodeo: advancing whilst pointing to its own mask. The Irish artist’s solo exhibition of 16 new and recent works at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which drew its title ‘Fragile Absolutes’ from Slavoj Žižek’s 2001 eponymous book, sought to build a delicate agitprop vocabulary of toothpicks, papier-mâché and exhaust pipes.

Clubbed Baby Seals (he is not aware how Jews really seem to him? this is not how things really seem to you) (2009) looks like it was a lot of fun to make. Taking its title in part from a sentence in Žižek’s book Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (2004) and reflecting on what he refers to as ‘the ontological scandal of the notion of fantasy’, the work is a forceful manifestation of how concept can cluster into object to use imperfection as a formalistic vocabulary. Two mashed papier-mâché seal corpses, with cute black-button eyes, loll on white plinths to expose their red-painted entrails. The work refers to a 2007 action by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in which activists ‘clubbed’ papier-mâché seals with baseball bats. This action demonstrates, somewhat idealistically, Žižek’s understanding of fantasy as an ‘ontological scandal’, albeit a horrific fantasy, but no less complete in its scope. Phelan’s action of displacing the quasi-seals through shifting them from demonstration to fetishism rounds off Žižek’s notions with a deft subversion of the subjective (protest) to the objective (art): or is that the other way round?

Mosquito Man Arthur (2007) is a grotesque chimera tied to a political history of printed subversion. Phelan grafts the head of Arthur Griffith onto to the hollow body of a mosquito, complete with useless balsa wood wings. (Griffith was the founder of Irish political party Sinn Féin and propaganda officer for the IRA in the early 20th century; a typesetter by trade, he produced a plethora of underground nationalist publications, nicknamed ‘the mosquito press’ by British authorities due to their annoying yet highly transportable printing and dissemination techniques.) As with a number of the works in this show, Mosquito Man Arthur slows down the viewer’s relationship to the work by using layers of dense text. We are visually instructed to read the surface of the work in an extremely direct manner, and that can take time.

This slow method of observation encourages an inscriptive relationship with Phelan’s sculpture, which, at times, can extend to the over-use of interpretive materials on the gallery walls, often heavily layered with socio-political history. In spite of this, Mosquito Man Arthur demonstrates just how mutable ‘mythological’ constructs can be: the work can be understood as an abstract re-presentation (or perhaps re-telling) of the paradigm of the Irish nationalist guerrilla – Ireland is a very small country, but for the resourceful, there is always somewhere (or something) to hide. It is this obfuscation that bolsters Phelan’s formal vernacular, drawing together a wide range of cultural subject matters and permitting them to coalesce into process.

First published in Issue 128
Jan – Feb 2010


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