Mirroring the darkened environment of Newgrange, Heather Law takes a look at the work of artist Garrett Phelan in his exploration of our culture and tradition, and the lasting impression they have left on contemporary life
Project Arts Centre, based in Temple Bar, has long been a base for Irish contemporary art and its practitioners. Most recently the centre has been host to a newly commissioned exhibition from Dublin-born artist Garrett Phelan. Highly accomplished, Phelan has exhibited his work in many countries around the world as well as at home in Ireland and has had experience using a wide variety of media, including sculpture, film, photography, and animation. This new exhibition, entitled ‘A Voodoo Free Phenomenon’, features work in sculpture and film, including both digital and traditional hand-drawn animation.
The exhibition is not particularly large, consisting of only three sculptures and two videos; installed in just one room. The appearance of the room itself is striking, as it is lit only by the faint light from the videos and from the spotlights highlighting the sculptural pieces. The sculptures themselves have been assembled by combining modern microphones and wires with rough pieces of carved gold. This dichotomy between technological advancement and cultural aesthetic is a theme that continues throughout the exhibition.
The centrepiece of the collection is a film in which Phelan tells the story of a trip he took to Newgrange as a young man, as one of a select few given the rare opportunity to visit during the winter solstice. His narration here is in-depth and personal, evoking for the viewer as clearly as is possible what the experience meant to him. However he makes a valiant effort to convey the monumentality of that moment.
What really makes this video interesting are the descriptions leading up to that moment. Phelan doesn’t skip over what could be construed as minor details, he relishes in every moment of his tale. The icy weather, the anxiety he felt in the car on his way to the site, the feeling of the rough carvings under his fingers as he finally made his way into the chamber. These detailed recollections are what really manage to bring life into his story.
While watching the video, many parallels become clear between Phelan’s detailed narration and the exhibition he has placed it within. The dark room with its few spotlights are greatly reminiscent of the chamber at Newgrange, the dark passage with its one clear beam of sunlight, and the gold sculptures are carved and patterned in ways that resemble the tomb’s ancient artistry. These parallels draw the viewer closer to Phelan’s story and his exhibition.
The combination of narration and exhibition isn’t entirely seamless and some details leave much to be desired. For example Phelan’s descriptions of the rough stone carvings and the cold passage of the tomb stand at odds with the smooth and bright gold sculptures that he has placed on display.
Though this exhibition is somewhat small it is enough, however, to raise important questions about the influence that culture and tradition has on contemporary thought. Phelan manages to showcase his own thoughts on the matter while also leaving enough space for audience interpretation. There is no denying the importance of our cultural history, but there is also the question of the dangers of being tied down to redundant ideas and beliefs. Phelan’s work manages to effectively balance a respect and admiration for his artistic forefathers while also maintaining a necessary skepticism, keeping himself firmly grounded in the present. with a loop, a beat or a bassline. There was no sort of ‘fixed’ way of writing the song. It’s just about whatever speaks to you at the time.”