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"Alan Phelan: Fragile Absolutes"
2009-07-22 until 2009-11-01
Irish Museum of Modern Art
Dublin, , IE

An exhibition of new and recent work 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 16 works inspired by the artist’s ongoing engagement with political history, cultural theory, popular culture, masculinity and modified cars. A new IMMA-commissioned sculpture, created to coincide with the exhibition, is located in the Museum’s Formal Gardens. The 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 in 2006 during a residency in Belgrade, Serbia, where Phelan collaborated with Goran Krstić, a car designer from the Zastava/Yugo car factory in the 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 Milošević 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. Bjelić 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. 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, and Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales, in December 2009.


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