Fragile Absolutes: Part Three, 2012

Limerick City Gallery of Art
11 October 2012 – 23 November 2012


Limerick City Gallery of Art presents “Fragile Absolutes Part 3” by Alan Phelan
curated by Helen Carey

Previewing Thursday, 11th October, the exhibition will run in Limerick City Art Gallery until 25th November, 2012. The exhibition will include the premier of two new films Include Me Out of the partisans manifesto and Speaking of Drives, Dialogue 3 as well as several other new works.

The exhibition will be opened by Seán Kissane, Curator at IMMA.

Phelan has created a trilogy of exhibitions that contain elements of his broad-ranging reactions to Slavoj Žižek’s turn of the millennium book “The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?” Phelan’s artworks within each exhibition have unfolded as alternative chapters to Žižek’s thoughts. The compelling narratives that run through the exhibitions present humanity’s desperation and insecurity through the twists and turns of a society seeking to redress the loss of some assumed equilibrium. In each, Phelan clearly indicates through a myriad of narratives that intersect with popular culture, revolutionary history, and the contradictions of contemporary revisionism.

Society’s nervousness about what is reality pervades the exhibitions, and in Part Three Phelan makes his most personal manifesto. He shows a bleak belief in history, perhaps best displayed in the text drawing “Provisional People”, a tracing of words from the 1916 Irish Proclamation of Independence. As such the exhibition opens with a discomforting mix of players and icons. The hoodied figure of a criminal hiding their identity on exiting court is rendered only as a garment, solidified in paper and glue. The work is sternly partnered with a bust of Roger Casement re-worked as a house plant. Both exalt and disrespect in equal measure.

This is not just a political statement, it is also the personal history of the degraded life that each individual sought out. Hope is not something that Phelan provides lightly. With Include Me Out of the partisans manifesto, we find a suburban couple battling through the apparent obliteration of their shared experience. As their DVD collection is painstakingly broken up and recycled, the male character works through inner torment interspersed with his dreams of what could have been. The film adopts several cinematic tropes to address the cyclical nature of ideas and how process implicates content.

The expectation brought by the psychic animals in The Seven Oracles, a new marble installation, objectifies moments of humanity seeking out a confirmation of what the future will bring, albeit through predicting the results of football matches. Times may pass, but the games continue and so does the insecure human need to know. In Speaking of Drives, Dialogue 3 an improbable encounter of Arthur Griffith, an ex-nun mechanic and a footballer’s wife in a nuclear fall-out shelter and underground car park, results in a conversation about the very nature of desire. The discussion centres around the ‘o-object’ from conflicting psychological perspectives – old, new and intuitive – resolving little and soon parting ways.

Phelan renders this ‘o-object’ differently in the form of a scent, available as a cologne and also diffused through the gallery as a room fragrance developed with Demeter Fragrance Library – a company specializing in smells as memory triggers. Orange Rim Cleaner is the sweet chemical odour of a wheel degreaser used by modified car enthusiasts at a Show and Shine event organised by Phelan in 2006. The work grapples with the o-object, as an ultimate dematerialized artwork, the unobtainable object of desire, yet now re-packaged in a 30 ml bottle.

The dominant theme of car culture in Phelan’s recent work is represented with the first showing in Ireland of the original blue print design for the car sculpture Goran’s Stealth Yugo. Made in Serbia in 2006, the piece was an important starting point for this project which now draws to a tentative close.

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; Chapter, Cardiff, SKUC, Ljubljana; Feinkost, Berlin; SKC, Belgrade. OK11 Helsinki, IMMA, Dublin, mother’s tankstation, Dublin; MCAC, Portadown; Limerick City Gallery of Art, and Solstice, Navan and The Black Mariah, Cork.

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 Art Centre, Dublin, and Rochester, New York. Work on this exhibition was short listed for the AIB Art Prize, 2007.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue 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.

LCGA would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Demeter Fragrance Library, IMMA, and lenders to the exhibition.


Fragile Absolutes Part 3 – LCGA – Alan Phelan

Include Me Out of the partisans manifesto, 2012
single channel video projection

This a short film about a couple having an argument over the destruction and recycling of their DVD collection. The script was developed from a catalogue essay on Phelan’s work by Tony White who used notes given by the artist to constructed a parallel narrative about Phelan’s practice. The film’s seemingly ordinary narrative is complicated by an intense internal monologue which shifts the tension to address the cyclical nature of ideas and how process implicates content. While the characters could represent Phelan, the story is not so literal and it is more the process they engage in that makes the connection.

The dialogue and voice-over is not so straight forward however as the narrative described above as the writer, Tony White, has a unique approach to writing fiction. He uses chunks of appropriated text derived from non-fictional sources, as he describes it “cutting-up, remixing and renarrativising fragments”. These included the Žižek notes plus chunks from a recycling website, an Indian site explaining papier-mâché, a text about motoring in the Balkans, and partial transcripts from the Slobodan Milosevic war crimes tribunal.

The design of the film also adds a further narrative layer. The styling, costumes and music soundtrack are based on Gattaca, the 1997 science fiction film yet share none of the genetic –determinist content that the film grapples with. There is however an interesting connection to the debate the film stirred through its flawed science and heroic tragedy not unlike some of the key arguments made by Žižek. Overall the piece takes on the diegesis of the cinematic narrative, only to fall short and end with full closure.


Scent of Orange Rim Cleaner (object petit object), 2009-2012
limited edition cologne, scent, delivery system
developed by Demeter Fragrance Library

In 2009 Irish artist Alan Phelan contacted Demeter about mixing up a fragrance for an upcoming museum show. He wanted to re-create the smell of an orange scented wheel de-greaser that was used by modified car enthusiasts at an event he had organised a few years prior. The smell of this cleaner was his strongest memory of the day, where modified car owners cleaned their parked cars all day prior to judging in a “Show and Shine” competition.

Rather than show photographs or make some kind of ‘boy racer’ artwork, the memory trigger through fragrance was how Phelan wanted to represent the idea. As an art piece the scent grapples with the o-object, as ultimate dematerialized artwork, an unobtainable object of desire, a smell.

The project is connected to a multiple venue exhibition called “Fragile Absolutes” which worked through a range of different themes and productions methods. The limited edition cologne is being issued in for the 2012 show at Limerick City Gallery of Art, with 100 signed bottles.

Text from the 2009 museum wall label:

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 Dame Judy 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!”


Death Drive, 2006
commercial screenprint
6, 60 x 60 cm
IMMA edition of 40

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.


Goran’s Stealth Yugo, 2006
diazo print
200 x 450 cms

This car design is a drawing of the most popular model of car made by Yugo (Zastava Automobili) and the only one in production from this former giant of Serbian industry when Phelan visited the factory in 2006. It was made in collaboration with car designer Goran Krstic from the factory in Kragujevac. The car is based around a defunct or out of production Fiat model and was the most common car on the roads (and also the cheapest). Zastava had strong market links with the ‘non-aligned’ nations which the former Yugoslavia was a leading political player. The factory has since been bought by FIAT and is currently being re-purposed into a spare parts facility.

This design however was eventually realised as a 3d work in 2009 and installed in the Formal Gardens of IMMA for 6 months. The sculpture was fabricated by Goran Krstic in Kragujevac utilizing many of the car manufacturing skill sets of the local population.


Provisional People, 2007
ink on paper
57.5 x 76.5  cms

Hopital Irlandaise, 2007
ink on paper
57.5 x 76.5  cms

These two drawings are traced from text in other images. Provisional People are two words plucked from the 1916 Declaration of Independence issued from the GPO. Hopital Irlandaise is taken from an photo of the hospital that Samuel Beckett volunteered in during the Second World War.


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

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.


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

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”.


The Seven Oracles, 2012
marble, adhesive sticker, plywood, polish, varnish
350 x 250 x 30 cm

This installation of seven carved marble animals derived from the fad of psychic animals predicting scores of football matches – Paul the Octopus from the 2010 FIFA World Cup being the most famous and accurate. Soft toys manufactured in China were sent back to their country of origin to be carved in black marble. Brought together now on a geometric floor arena these psychic friends now command a selection of cross-references where orifices become oracles, zodiacs are re-inscribed as Pythagorean, abject turns to marble. It’s a faux transformation, fixated on the mis-understanding of fact, the deliberate distancing from truth.

FYI the animals are Paul the Octopus, Leon the porcupine, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus, Jimmy the Peruvian guinea-pig, Mani the Parakeet, Pino the Chimpanzee and Apelsin the Red River Hog.


Douglas (lacked the dimension of radical Evil), 2009
archival paper, toner, EVA glue, cocktail sticks, plywood, varnish, stainless steel basketball stand
(papier-mâché made from pages in jPod 2006 novel where the character Douglas Coupland appears in the story)
head: 34 x 21 x 28 cms
stand: 100 x 250 x 250 cms

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.


Mine Past, 2012
Ink-jet print
111 (w) x 153 cm

This image of a wrecked stadium floodlight is from Tašmajdan Stadium which was built in the 1950s in Belgrade city centre. When Phelan photographed it in 2006 it seemed hugely symbolic of the mess that Serbia found itself in that post war time. It was one of many devastated buildings but this one had not been bombed by NATO like several government buildings in the city. Like Yugo it was a victim of several regime changes. The stadium is built into a large cliff, with the name derived from the Ottoman word for stone mine. Renovations on the structure are due to be completed in late 2012.


Speaking of Drives, 2011-12
Multi-channel video installation, painted graphic, monitors and cables
duration 5 minutes

This is a multi-channel video where three improbable characters meet in an underground car park to uncover the meaning behind the elusive o-object from differing psychological standpoints. Imaginary place, imaginary time – footballer’s girlfriend Charlene Hume-Berkeley encounters former Carmelite nun, Dame Judy Tutler, and Irish Nationalist Arthur Griffith in Erottaja underground car park and tunnels, Helsinki. The script was developed from text written by Medb Ruane with the film covering the third section of the text.


Zastava Factory, Kragujevac, Serbia, 2006-2009
inkjet billboard sheets
various sizes 

These images are of the most popular car model made by Zastave (Yugo) being made in their factory and on the streets of the town where the factory is located.



Quotes from reviews and media coverage about the project:

Anyone looking for neat solutions to Phelan’s enigmatic riddles will be disappointed. These are not crossword puzzles to be deciphered but jumping off points for sometimes complex, sometimes subtle, connections. What’s really refreshing about Phelan’s diverse work is his refusal to get bogged down in any artistic tradition. Like many artists today he’s almost self-consciously working to avoid classification, working across a broad range of styles and materials. The result is some genuinely engaging and original work.
Darryl Corner, The View, 8 Jan 2010, Western Mail, Cardiff

The work is a forceful manifestation of how concept can cluster into object to use imperfection as a formalistic vocabulary…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.
Maria Fusco, 9 December 2009, Frieze Art Magazine, London

Phelan’s play-acting lies between the subversive deconstructions of a theoretical academic and the mischievous questionings of a precocious kid.
The Guardian, Saturday 22 August 2009

Expect to be led along more labyrinthine referential paths by an artist who loves the byways of semiotics.
Aidan Dunne, The Ticket, 17 July, 2009, Irish Times, Dublin


Related quotes behind the work:

Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility … Equally, it is hard to read this and many similar passages in Žižek without suspecting he is engaged – wittingly or otherwise – in a kind of auto-parody.
The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek by John Gray’s review of Living in the End Times by Slavoj Žižek, Verso, 2012 in The New York review of Books, July 12, 2012.

they forgot the way it felt when time and emotions and culture were particular to one spot in time.
From Player One, Douglas Coupland, Cornerstone Digital, 2010

Douglas Coupland – icon of a generation of disgruntled, pissy, bewildered people. Ah, how the joys of never knowing you outweigh the privilege of having met you. Sorry, dude.
Dear Mr Coupland, Karolyn Close, Vodnik Publishing, 2012



Orange Rim Cleaner (flyer text)

Have you found your unattainable object of desire?

The elusive O object, a thing that remains in our heart and mind, a desire, a smell, has manifested itself in a new limited edition cologne designed by American fragrance house Demeter with Irish Visual Artist Alan Phelan.

Phelan seeks to represent the idea of triggering memory through fragrance. An amazing partnership with Demeter was forged as the opportunity to merge the perfumer’s art into the visual and spatial art of Alan Phelan became irresistible; Demeter being uniquely suited for this project because no other fragrance house works the relationship between scent and memory so intimately.

The project is connected to a multiple venue exhibition called “Fragile Absolutes” which worked through a range of different themes and productions methods. Originally designed for Phelan’s recent solo exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), where its unique scent filled the air of one gallery, the limited edition version of the cologne is being issued for the 2012 show at Limerick City Gallery of Art, with 100 signed bottles, available only at the show itself, or for $30 or €25.



Limerick City Gallery of Art Series 1 Exhibition text 002 (gallery commissioned text response)

Michaële Cutaya 2012

Brian Duggan/Alan Phelan/Landscape II October 12 – November 23 2012

This exhibition, like the precedent, is in three parts, with contemporary paintings from the Limerick City Gallery of Art permanent collection and two solo shows by Alan Phelan and Brian Duggan. When the previous exhibition spanned across time, presenting works from 18th century masters to fresh graduates, it is the multiple forms of contemporary artist’s practices that captivate here. Landscape 2 is the second ensemble of landscape painting from the collection to be exhibited around Sean Cotter Forest. The first highlighted the painting’s connection with historical representations, the second, composed of contemporary artworks places the emphasis on the diversity of artists’ approaches on what is a landscape. The horizon line no longer dominates as other viewpoints are explored. The bird’s-eye view offers a close fit to the canvas dimensions but can also be the occasion for unexpected drama such as the striking Estuary by John Shinnors: the foaming white waters starkly held off by black geometrical water-gates. A closer attention to the landscape materiality and structure is reflected in the variety of mediums and supports, along with oil, painters have used acrylic, wax, collage, sand or glue on board, stretched and un-stretched canvas and paper: in Helen Comerford’s Untitled landscape is constructed out of bits of paper which are given all the solemnity of limestone. In these paintings the notion of landscape and place is explored as an objective material as well as an abstraction.

The addition of interpretive text panels next to artworks in the exhibition space is a debated issue amongst curators and artists. Text panels provide information useful to the visitor but they can be a distraction and become substitutes rather than supports for the artwork. Beside they tend to frame the viewer’s perception. LCGA is adopting a midway alternative in proposing interpretive texts as separate hand-outs thus leaving the space to the artworks. In Alan Phelan’s case, this raises interesting questions as text panels can be understood as part of the work itself. Phelan’s objects often present deceptively simple forms flirting with autonomy: impeccably finished like The Seven Oracles or delicately crafted like Woman Who Stole From Farmer (It Is Only Truth That Matter). In Phelan’s work, however, and as the later title suggests, there is a ot more going on than what meet the eye: the final form is the arbitrary result of interwoven narratives and processes or “works are constantly de-contextualised or re-contextualised through interdependencies” as wrote Sean Kissane in Alan Phelan’s IMMA catalogue. The Seven Oracles, for instance, are carved black marble sculptures made in China on the model of soft toys which were mass-produced – also in China – in the image of psychic animals that were supposed to predict the score of football matches: Paul the Octopus (World Cup 2010), Leon the porcupine etc… the unravelling of the implied threads from superstition to delocalisation is head spinning and place the marble soft toys oracle animals in a web of connections as complex as the geometrical diagram on which they are sited. Yet, to isolate them from their constitutive narratives might give space for the viewers to take in their incongruous shape and make their own connections.

Brian Duggan also works with contexts but through the transposition of physical environments into the gallery space – as in the on-scale reconstruction for Visual in

Carlow, of the wooden barn used for the roller skating scene in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate for Everything can be done, in principle. The human body in its exertions and limitations is the measure of Duggan’s work: The dancing bodies of boxers in a ring; the action of climbing onto a train roof and the space it needs to remain there; its ultimate frailty exposed in the x-rays of broken bones. Duggan invites the visitor to be an actor rather than a viewer, to put on roller skates, get lost in a maze or, here, to risk their bodies on one of the 23 crooked swings hung into the Carnegie Gallery for 23 Hour party people. This strategy also extends to his video installations.

In the latest attack on video art, the National Gallery of London director, Nicholas Penny, declared in an interview for The Art Newspaper:

The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry.[1]

Video art has been an easy target for such sweeping statements as most gallery goers have suffered long hours of boredom in front of so-so video art, unlike painting that can be rejected at a glance – rightly or wrongly – video art requires more time. But to dismiss an entire art form? As both Phelan and Duggan are showing video works at LCGA which are very different in their aim and means it was a good occasion to be reminded of what video art as an art form can be that is definitely not a sub species of film.

There are two video installations in Duggan’s exhibition both showing videos reporting an event in a semi-documentary style. The first Your Loneliest Loneliness is a multi channel video of Thai Boxing matches on four monitors disposed ring-like around the Atrium gallery. Each proposes a different moment and viewpoint on the match. The videos taken with a hidden camera have been slowed or reversed emphasising the ritualistic aspects of Muay Thai: the dance-like move of the warming up, the massaging of the legs and even the fight itself come across as a repetition of immutable gestures and movements. The title refers to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Return thus giving the disposition of the monitors another twist: the visitors have to physically circle the narrow gallery to view the four monitors, enacting the idea of repetition.

The second video installation We like it up there, it’s windy, really nice stages the projection of a film reporting the latest attempt by the Indonesian railway company to stop passengers from riding the roofs of the train. The new tactic consists in installing at outside stations an arc supporting a row of concrete balls suspended a few centimetres higher than the carriages. The film showing crowded train roofs, workers setting up arcs, trials to text the efficiency of the device with dummies, is projected from very close to the ground onto the corner of the Herbert Gallery in front of which variously sized blocks have been disposed and a replica of the concrete balls arc erected. This arrangement produces an occasional mirror effect between the film’s content and the replica, while the blocks, catching the light of the projection fragment the unity of the image: very much in the way that the dummies’ bodies explode on impact with the balls. A digital display of the titular sentence also run along the wall contrasting the gentleness of the wind touch with the violence of the bodies smashed by the balls. Duggan uses the possibility of an installation in the gallery space to externalise the impact of the film.

In a very different strategy, Phelan makes no less use of what the gallery space offers to present two video works. In the Link Gallery a multi channel video Speaking of Drives

played on wall-mounted monitors shows four different takes of the same scene simultaneously: three people meet in an underground car park in Helsinski (which doubles as nuclear shelter) to speak of ‘drives’. This is a fictional and carefully set up and edited film. After a succession of shots bringing us down via a mechanical stair to the car park the characters start a discussion going from car races to psychoanalytical interpretations of desire and death drives: each with a different perspective. As our eye navigates between the screens showing either the speaker, the listener or elements of the surrounding, cars or bolted doors, we are forced to split our attention between these different viewpoints and experience visually the analytical language we are hearing. The script is taken from a text by Medb Ruane ‘Speaking of Drives…routes and meanderings’ which was written for Alan Phelan’s catalogue in response to Phelan’s previous work on boy racers.

The original text by Tony white for Include me out of the partisan manifesto was also commissioned by the artist for the catalogue – transforming the later in a live element of the whole exhibition. This the most recent work presented by Phelan finished in time for this show. On the face of it is the most conventional looking film presented: it has a ‘professional’ look and is a film with actors on a set with careful photography. It is meant to look like a general release film. As with other Phelan’s work its ‘finished’ look is deceptive as all aspect of the film are the result of complex processes, mixing deliberate accident with random precision and leaving little to subjectivity and self-expression – however one defines it. Choosing Slavoj Zizek’s book The Fragile Absolute to follow the accidental narrative composed by the italicised words in the book as the ‘script’ for a series of exhibition with essays commissioned for a catalogue including the White’s text composed – prompted by the Zizek script – of re-arranged fragments of other texts which was then used as screenplay for Include me out the film. The photography, lighting, costumes, props of the film all follow the same scripted process. Naturalistic it isn’t. But it is a proposition that invite us to reflect on the processes of creativity and what originality might means in relation to a work of art. A quite literal demonstration of Roland Barthes idea of the inter-textual nature of all works as “resulting from the thousand sources of culture”[2]

Michaële Cutaya 2012

Published by the Limerick City Gallery of Art

[1] penny-video-art?fb=optOut
[2] Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’, 1967