With the rapid growth of photography festivals in recent years it seems like each individual event has to put considerable effort into establishing its own identity, which must then be played off against the need for reinvention year upon year to offer something fresh in the ever more crowded festival line-up and to keep current with changes in our thinking about the medium. PhotoIreland is now in its seventh year and has become something of a landmark in the Irish photography calendar, but if the main events this year are anything to go by it seems like the festival is unfortunately facing a crisis of identity that leaves the participating artists and the viewers (or this one, at least) to grapple with the results of a decidedly uneven curatorial agenda. What follows is a summary of the issues that I feel are relevant, it is by no means an exhaustive review of all the exhibitions.
Among the main events in the festival this year are the New Irish Works 2016 exhibition programme taking place in The Library Project, home of PhotoIreland, and Ideals on display in the City Assembly House, a venue that the festival has made good use of in years gone by. The New Irish Works exhibition features Mandy O’Neill and Daragh Soden, the first pairing of 20 artists selected by the festival jury who will have their work shown in The Library Project over the coming year. The work on display by O’Neill and Soden is of a high standard, especially Soden’s Young Dubliners, which has a convincing intimacy to the pictures and very authentic feel. However, in the both cases the presentation of the work is somewhat cramped, with Soden’s in particular suffering from a ‘salon’ style installation at a height that makes many of the images frustratingly difficult to see.
Given more space these works would have made a nice centrepiece to the festival and a great start to the upcoming programme of exhibitions, but as it stands the quality of the work is hampered by its rather indifferent presentation. These projects are also accompanied by two booklets, which do show the work to better effect, though the inclusion in Soden’s of quotations presumably from his young subjects feels disconnected and even a tad voyeuristic, because they arrive without any real attribution or context. Nonetheless, it is a very solid effort for a photographer at the beginning of his career. Mandy O’Neill is also known for her sensitive portraiture and her work here is a good example of that, as well as being a timely consideration of Ireland’s flagging educational system, though again it is the published work rather than the exhibition carries this theme most clearly.
Turning then to the Ideals exhibition in the City Assembly House, one of the other main events of the festival, featuring fifteen artists that, according to the website, “as dynamic flâneurs, explore the world and seek to improve it by highlighting socio-political issues we tend to ignore in our everyday lives. Whether part of an artistic or a journalistic practice, there is no limit or guidelines to what can be achieved, as long as it is born out of a personal desire to fulfil a personal ideal.” The selection of work, in so far as it can be seen, does indeed appear to meet these criteria and to do so fairly well at that. Coming up the stairs of the Assembly House and into the exhibition space the viewer is confronted – not too strong a word – with an installation that is a sort of barricade made from debris, including several wooden pallets, surmounted with a ladder and a green flag. The floor is scattered with pieces of broken roofing slate.
Behind this barrier is a bank of three monitors with slideshows of the featured work. As a background, or perhaps to set the mood, a record plays quite loudly and at the wrong speed, garbling the sound (it turned out to be an instrumental version of There’s No Business Like Show Business – and therein perhaps lies a cautionary tale). If the purpose is to disorient then in that at least the whole installation succeeds admirably. Again, to quote the festival site, the exhibition wants to “challenge standards in exhibition making as far as Photography is concerned.” But the ultimate effect is so needlessly hostile to the viewer and the curatorial intervention so overwhelms the work, which can scarcely be seen, that it’s hard to know what to make of it. The difficulty of trying to watch simultaneous slideshows on three adjacent screens should, I think, be obvious.
Attempting to sort out which work belonged to which artists proved to be nearly impossible with any certainty and the pictures zoomed by at such a clip that contemplating them in detail was barred. That being said, I do want to single out the contributions of Robert McCormack, Enda Bowe and Florian van Roekel as being especially noteworthy in the mix. On the whole though, this resort to spectacle demonstrates a fundamental unwillingness to let the work speak for itself and a lack of trust in the audience’s capacity to make the appropriate connections that, rather ironically, precludes the authentic relevance the work would perhaps have shown if not for the manner of its display. With the green flag and overall look of an improvised barricade, the reference to the 1916 centenary is as inescapable as it is opportunistic.
While it is no doubt better to fail at something ambitious than it is to plow repeatedly over the same ground with diminishing returns, the Ideals exhibition seems to possess neither the kind of ambition that would make its patent difficulties worthwhile nor the good sense that has marked previous iterations of the festival. The relentless pressure to come up with new cultural ‘product’ and ways of packaging it for a supposedly jaded public seems to have gotten the better of what might have been a genuinely thoughtful and provocative group exhibition, because, as I have been at pains to emphasise, the selection here is otherwise hard to fault. It is the apparent refusal to let this work be meaningful on its own terms that fatally undermines the exhibition, whatever else might be said about curatorial tastes.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there is still a wider series of events with plenty to offer. That these are largely ‘associated’ exhibitions outside the main programme is perhaps telling, but that needn’t stop us from appreciating them either, so I want to mention a few here. Dragana Jurisic’s My Own Unknown at the Oliver Sears Gallery, running alongside Paul Gaffney’s exhibition Stray, is a complex investigation of female identity, framed against the search for more information about the life of her glamorous and mysterious aunt. Jurisic makes effective use of several different formats, including an installation of books and several light-boxes, where she seems to be metaphorically replaying her aunt’s journey away from her repressive homeland using self-portraiture in a way that evokes the slipperiness of those identities. This multi-part project is a nice development for Jurisic and grows more gratifyingly elaborate with each showing.
Another important aspect of the festival is the opportunity for recent photography graduates to show their work to a bigger audience. This year students are well represented by the University of Ulster’s Photography MFA, the consistently strong output of which helps compensate for the fact that it is, so far at least, the sole graduate programme for photography in Ireland. The exhibition continues in Artbox until July 21. Of particular note is work by Richard Gosnold, Dianne Whyte and Katrina Taggart. Having already seen the final exhibition by the Institute of Art, Design and Technology’s BA Photography students I can anticipate that their group show in Steambox, which opens July 22, will also be worth a visit. Look out for work by Kieran Murray, Julia Ptak and David J. Moore. It’s a welcome return to form for the course after a few relatively lacklustre years.
To me, the contender for best exhibition in the festival is Youngdon Jung’s Blank Verse, held somewhat off the beaten path in The Copper House Gallery. Jung was selected from among the portfolio review participants at last year’s festival and the exhibition comes about as a result of that. He is presenting two subtle and formally diverse bodies of work, Wondering Wandering and Ants. Both examine the urban experience in different ways, with the first making use of strong colour to locate moments of strangeness in the everyday and the latter combining monochrome digital noise with a high vantage point to produce a disorientating effect, perhaps intended to describe the alienation of contemporary life. The pictures are allusive and yet rigorous, without being stilted or self-consciously ‘theoretical’ in their effect. This work is a welcome example of what the medium can be and do in the hands of an artist willing to take risks.
Events like PhotoIreland have an important role to play in our appreciation of the medium, especially significant in the sometimes insular context of Irish photography. It’s precisely the question of how this role is preformed that appears to be at stake here – what does the festival have to tell us about the state of photography in 2016? Many of the main events this year demonstrate a reluctance to trust the work that has been selected for inclusion or the audience that will seek it out, choosing instead to intervene in ways that actually frustrate the very aims that the festival has set for itself, with the Ideals exhibition in particular succumbing to what are for the most part curatorial gimmicks that don’t substantially advance our understanding of the work being shown or the issues that the photographers want to address.
The desire to challenge conventional thinking is welcome, as indeed is the ambition to conceive of a festival on such a large scale, but at the same time, to sacrifice coherence for the sake of impact and at the cost of not showing the featured work to its best advantage is, at best, a devil’s bargain. Youngdon Jung’s exhibition and several of the other associated events, along with the high overall standard of selected work, attest to the potential that existed for a strong instalment of the festival, so it is somewhat frustrating to see how this has resulted in a scattered programme that lacks focus or a clear identity. These issues are not, of course, insurmountable, but they are still fundamental, so that the prospect of a creatively vital future for the festival would seem to depend on finding workable solutions for them in the years ahead.
PhotoIreland 2016 continues at a number of venues around Dublin until July 31. Full listing available here.