Chapter, Cardiff, Wales
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-mâché, 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.
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.
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 (from the essay in the Fragile Absolutes catalogue).
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!”
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, cocktail sticks, buttons
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Wall Street Journal)
This sculpture is based on a 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 in March 2007. The papier-mâché is made up from the odd but useful index inside the cover page of the Wall Street Journal, which lists many of the key players in the world recession. The papers used were from the first six months of 2009 when recession hyperbole was best or worse depending on where you stood. The Žižek words really help to complicate the whole matter but things are never what they seem. Are they?
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 the following year, having made the previous work solely based on web photographs. While there he saw the remains of her right hand housed in a vitrine. Back in Ireland, he purchased a wooden modelling hand from German mega-retailer, Lidl, and reconfigured it into an approximation of the Louvre hand with its missing fingers. This model was then sent to Hebei in China where local craftsmen who usually carve Greco-Roman garden statuary, scaled up the small hand in white marble. This cycle of global production mirrored another project he had been working on in Serbia but really reflected how ordinary things get made these days.
World War 1 in Colour (the void itself), 2009
inkjet billboard sheets
each 92 x 133 cms
These billboard sheets are stills captured from a DVD offered free by The Irish Daily Mirror in 2008 from the TV series World War I in Colour (currently on permanent repeat over several cable channels). The text on each still is the subtitle already present in the video frame narrated by the lovely Kenneth Brannagh. The other Žižek italics that accompany the work point to the futility of war as an ‘almost-nothing’ ‘horror vacui’ and his discussion of the great Void that is Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square on White Surface is amusing as he gets the reference all wrong. 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.
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.
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.
Clockwise from door:
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)
Ralph’s Crawl Space, 2007
polyurethane foam, fibreglass, latex, ink
Red Star Death Star, 2007
balsa wood, card, paper tape, cocktail sticks, glue, coloured polyester thermal film, light fixture, cable
Lady from Mars (coitus a tergo), 2009
fibre-glass, spaghetti rock, spray paint, glue
Phantom Blanket (there is no Christ outside of Saint Paul), 2008
orange blanket, push-pins
Lumpy half-Goat, 2008
archival paper, EVA glue, metal, paint
(papier-mâché made from articles from the Daily Telegraph)
The man who ruins my break, 2007
c-type print, metal frame
All works courtesy of the artist and mother’s tankstation. Dublin
Mars Piece, 2008
Last January someone noticed an apparent humanoid alien in one of photographs that NASA’s Mars Rover sent back from its red planet mission. These photos are made freely available on the web by NASA and it actually took over five years for this to be spotted. The blogosphere was afire with comments and ramblings about this female figure spotted in corner of a large panorama. This mural is a slice through the image, with the figure in the far left, which is actually only a few inches in size. This phenomenon, called pareidolia, where people see shapes in clouds or in blobs of ink, and it is the cause of many supposedly mysterious and miraculous events like sightings of religious figures in toast, bed stains or tree stumps. Inside the gallery Phelan has modelled up the figure using Turkish spaghetti rock which is a form of coral embedded with red sand and took a fibre glass model of a previous mock-up to define the Martian lady’s form which is really just a bunch of blurred pixels. One of the funniest blogs claimed that the image proved that the Danes were in fact an alien race given the figure similarity to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue. Strange how we want aliens to look like humans when this is highly unlikely.
Alan Phelan : Fragile Absolutes
Cabbage Workshop @Chapter
As part of Alan Phelan’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Fragile Absolutes’, the artist is seeking participants for a short fabrication workshop to help realise an installation for the show.
The workshop will involve working with the artist in making up to 150 paper cabbages. Each cabbage has 16 leaves cut from A4 archival paper which has been photocopied with selected articles from various newspapers, each approx. 24 x 11 x 24 cm in size. A prototype is shown here. Participants will select their own combination of newspaper articles to make up cabbages from pre-selected publications dating from 1913-2009.
To explain more about the workshop and installation:
The full title for the work is Cabbage (symbolic history ‘spectral’ fantasmatic history), 2009. The workshop builds on previous participatory structure Phelan has explored as an artist which have involved various groups at several stages of the creative process.
In this instance Phelan is seeking assistance in selecting what newsprint articles are combined to make up individual cabbages as well as their actual fabrication. The articles to choose from begin with the labour movement history in Ireland with the 1913 Great Lock-Out which took place in Dublin. This was a six month strike across many industries which formalised the labour movement in Ireland. The newspapers already selected offer conflicting perspectives on the strike with various sensational headlines. Further instances of labour movement history will hopefully be provided by participants and gallery which can run up to the recent/current UK Post Office strike, Miner Strikes, early history or specific stories. The mix of new and old newspapers will point to many consistencies and contradictions in the labour movement, reflecting also the very nature of this fabrication workshop.
Each cabbage has 16 leaves cut from A4 archival paper which has been photocopied with selected articles from various newspapers, each approx. 24 x 11 x 24 cms in size. A prototype is shown above. Participants will select their own combination of newspaper articles to make up cabbages from pre-selected publications dating from 1913-2009.
The arrangement of the assembled cabbages will reference the baroque papier-mâché ceiling in the Chapel at IMMA, Dublin, a former 17th century British military hospital.
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.
Alan Phelan Cabbage Workshop @ Chapter 4th and 5th December 2009
Materials needed per person:
Plastic sheeting to cover work table
Photocopied A4 sheets or/and access to photocopier to make copies from newspapers
Bowl/Plate for mixing glue
Med sized paintbrush
Hot glue gun with glue stick
Mylar plastic sheets with leave template/shape
How to Make Cabbages:
- Select photocopied sheets in pairs – 16 sheets needed per cabbage although extra sheets can be used for additional large leaves
- Cover table with plastic sheeting
- Mix glue equal part water and glue in a bowl or jar – about 2 tablespoons glue
- With a med sized paint brush, paint on the glue on the reverse of one A4 sheet
- Place a dry A4 sheet over glued surface making sure the type is in the same direction on both sides – rub down with palm of hand to form a tight bond – excess glue will spill out but rub it into the paper (the glue is non-toxic)
- Leave to dry separated and flat for 1 hour near a radiator or warm room – if the glue is used sparingly the sheets can be used while still damp.
- Using the plastic templates cut out the leaf shapes from paper – there are 4 templates
- Small size – cut 6 leaves from 1 A4 sheet
- Med size – cut 6 leaves from 3 A4 sheets
- Large size – cut 4 leaves from 2 A4 sheets
- Large size with extended flap – cut 4 leaves from 2 A4 sheet
- Snip top off top of cone
- Take a small scrap of leftover paper and wrap the top. Glue in place with glue gun.
- Starting with two small leaves begin attaching leaves to the cone – hot gluing paper to paper as much as possible. Each leave position is half way through the one beneath – also the tip of each leaf should be pulled back and crinkled (without tearing) before gluing.
- As larger leaves are glued increase the size of the fold that the top of each leaf to ensure a wide crown. Also do not glue too tightly together – keep loose.
- Use the large size with extended flap to cover the exposed cone and fold over onto base.
- Take a small scrape of paper to cover the base
The View: Darryl Corner
Jan 8 2010 by Our Correspondent, Western Mail
Alan Phelan @ Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, until January 17
WITH much of Alan Phelan’s new work, trying too hard to identify a logical narrative between the pieces on show – or indeed within each piece individually – is going to prove fruitless.
He’s often deliberately contradictory. A lot of the work shown as part of Fragile Absolutes has multiple cultural references and meanings, almost to the point of defying description.
While this can be frustrating for some, for others it’s the vagueness and spread of these connections that is going to prove engaging.
Equally diverse are the topics covered; modern obsessions like boy racers, and global economics rub shoulders with recent history, particularly that of Phelan’s native Ireland.
For instance, a pair of clubbed seals are created from papier-mâché. Phelan often uses photographs as starting points for three dimensional work and in this case it’s a reference to a press picture of the famous Canada House protests against the seal culls of Newfoundland. But the paper these tragic – and childlike – seals have been made from is taken from the Wall Street Journal and contains the names of many of the now defunct companies who came to public attention as “victims” of the recent recession.
More papier-mâché is used in the creation of a bust of Irish revolutionary Éamon de Valera. A one time co-owner of the Irish Press, de Valera – again rendered in newspaper – became notorious for his support for religious and social conservatism. Phelan’s sculpture depicts him with a curious, long snake-like tongue.
In one room, neat rows of cabbages are arranged in a curious pathway. Cabbages are a humble vegetable and a staple in many parts of Eastern Europe but Phelan’s cabbages are made – once again – from newspapers, created during a workshop held here at Chapter. But, of course, these aren’t random newspapers but reprints of pages from Dublin papers dating from the early days of the Irish uprising.
Once again, the references – often driven by convoluted titles – are multi-layered but the harder you try to pin down the logic the further it twists away, just out of reach.
Another room is filled with large images grabbed from the TV series World War 1 in Colour. Each has a subtitle taken from the original programme. These images detail the events that led to the outbreak of the war. We’re so used to seeing this period in history in emotionally-distancing black and white that its presentation in colour, and arranged like banks of television monitors in a newsroom, suddenly brings it forward in time and prompts parallels with contemporary conflicts.
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.