Questions on curating: Cliodhna Shaffrey

QUESTIONS ON CURATION: Cliodhna Shaffrey


Regina Gleeson has been in e-mail conversation with Cliodhna Shaffrey, an independent curator currently working on a curatorial residency with Visual Leitrim . This edited interview is an accompaniment to an article in issue 109 of CIRCA Art Magazine. The interview took place between June and July, 2004.






Helen O'Leary and Paul Chidester: Silage - Leitrim bales and townlands , artists book, Mermaid Turbulence, 2003; courtesy Cliodhna Shaffrey; O'Leary and Chidester are collaborating with Shaffrey as part of Visual Leitrim

From your experience, what importance does location play in the success or failure of an exhibition?


I suppose the simple answer is sometimes location is central to an exhibition's success or failure, other times the location plays a background role. Take for example the growing number of biennials and major international art shows based on themed subjects such as 'nomadism', 'cities on the move', 'migration', 'virtual space', 'non-space' . The particular host city doesn't hold a monopoly on the theme, but it can offer certain readings, be a centre of discourse and draw large audiences. Experiencing the work in this context differs from experiencing it in a local setting where there may be less critical enquiry, but a more intimate reading.


Today contemporary arts practice sees a proliferation of approaches: - the artist's engagement with the real world; the processes of making bound up with production / exhibition; and the collapse of art into life: a revival in painting and the continual exploration of new media. Location begins to takes on different meanings and new possibilities. We no longer have to think of location as a fixed physical site, a geographical location or 'architectural setting'; location can also include virtual space, social space, lived space (Lebfevre), and it can be a means of social exchange, interaction and cultural debate.


"The artists-subject, liberated from the enduring ties of local circumstances" (Miwon Kwon, The wrong place , Art Journal , Spring 2000), bound neither by object or site, presents new locations for aesthetic experience and exhibition.


You are working on the curation of a very exciting exhibition that is built around the physical, social, functional, emotional and conceptual aspect of Dún Laoghaire harbour, but some of the artists you have elected to work with are from half way around the globe. Networks of human psychological connections grow irrespective of geographical location but, specific to cultural expression, would this be possible if we were not well versed in global issues and the language of globalisation?


Being versed in global issues and language does open up possibilities for connection to the wider world and we probably think we understand each other better. We have the means for easy and instant communication via e-mail and internet. Globalisation impacts on visual culture - which is well versed in its systems, embraces its technology and both reflects and resists its message. Our present times, what Marc Angé terms 'super modern' as opposed to 'post modern', can be categorized by an excess of time, of space and of individuality. The planet is shrinking and a saturation of images has meant that even if we have never been in certain parts of the world, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we might know these places. My friend from the North told me that when he went away on holidays and told people where he was from, they would respond with two words, 'boom boom'. Of course Northern Ireland for him was a totally different place and he didn't share their 'experience' of it. The gap between the mediated image and lived experience remains, but that doesn't mean that we cannot relate to nor have empathy with the other's situation. After all we share 'being' in common.






Peter Lasch: 666666 36 signs and a panorrama (work in progress) , 2004; towards an exhibition of new work by seven artists, Carlisle Pier, Dún Laoghaire, 2005

The Dún Laoghaire project involves seven artists making new work for the old ferry terminal on the Carlisle Pier. Three are from Ireland (Patricia McKenna, Gary Coyle and Garreth Phelan) and four from elsewhere - Mexico (Peter Lasch); Croatia (Goran Petercol) and Israel (Isaac Layish and Irit Garty). The fact that artists come from countries where the border has been or is a site of conflict and contestation is interesting, given the fact that the terminal might be considered a threshold or border site. The Ferry Terminal was once the main entrance and exit point into and out of Ireland and, given our history of economic migration to England, the ferry terminal might be considered as site of melancholia but also of possibility and freedom. In addition, the harbour and its vicinity have connections with Joyce, Beckett and Marconi, which makes it a rich context. I wanted it to be open to a range of artistic interpretations and not be bound to the specifics of this place. Artists from elsewhere could relate to the broader issues a site like this carries.






Christine Mackey: Work in progress (provisional) , graphite and scotch tape on board, 2003; courtesy Cliodhna Shaffrey; Mackey is collaborating with Shaffrey as part of Visual Leitrim

What value or hindrance do you see in cultural categorisation by nationality?


I would say that culturally, classification by nationality or for that matter race or gender is reductive and limiting. We might be born in Ireland, be white and be Irish but feel black - like the fellow in The Commitments - Jimmy Rabbit. We might be born elsewhere and be living in Ireland for a long time and feel neither Irish nor of the country of our birth. Any attempt to define 'pureness' or essentialist qualities of nationality can be dangerous. But condemning national values can be a complex matter, depending on the place one might be in.


How do you feel about the curatorial move away from the sterile black cube / white cube model, away from objects in vitrines and away from cordoning off the outside?


I am excited by trends in contemporary art practices and the kind of opportunities that artist are making for themselves - operating within the rifts, vaults, fissures of the 'real' world. My image of the contemporary artist is that of a wart - he / she / they who can attach themselves to all sorts of possibilities within the quotidian. The Duchampian effect, the impact of the neo-avant-garde movements and collapse of art into life presents infinite ways of making and showing art. But I expect the white cube or black cube will continue to play its role and will adapt to the changing artistic practice. Artists will always need galleries and galleries are important to artists. I for one enjoy going to the galleries. What's positive about now is the plurality of approaches that can feed the imagination. Everything seems possible, the universe is ripe with suggestion and the gallery is only one destination for art.


We are aware of the vices of materialistic commodification, first- and third-world economic imbalances, the money-driven art market's lack of love for art, environmental devastation, ethnic cleansing, the dangers of genetic modification, the potential disasters of human cloning - the list goes on. Do you feel a responsibility to represent any particular truth of our time in teasing out solutions in visual expression?


I am only starting out in my 'career' as a freelance curator, so I'm not comfortable about calling myself a curator. Before this I was an arts officer and I did a stint with the Arts Council where my brief was with local authorities. So I don't think I'll be starting off by tackling the larger issues head on. I might find it difficult to tease out in a visual way what you call 'the particular truths of our time' and not avoid a moralistic or didactic tone. Ethnic cleansing is always wrong, but GM foods, or the money-driven art market's lack of love for art presents more complex subject matter. I'm interested in the 'smaller things' that filter into and are apart of 'our being in the world', certain patterns of living, everyday habits, sense of humour. I'd hope in some way, by coming in the back door, that the work I might be involved in as a curator and in collaboration with artists is made with the view that the world matters.


Can you talk a little bit about the manner in which you, as a curator, approach the balance and imbalance between art with a social conscience and art about aesthetics?


I don't think that it is helpful to distinguish between art with a social conscience and art about aesthetics. They are not different sides of a coin. Many of today's artists are interested in making art as if the world matters, be that in the form of provocation, performance or material aesthetic. For many artists who are engaged in practice that is based on social conscience the aesthetic aspect remains central to their expression, for others the aesthetic aspect diminishes.


As a curator and from my experience with local authorities I have mostly been engaged in a practice outside of conventional gallery or museum space; as such a lot of the work I've been involved in could broadly be defined as having a social conscience as oppose to 'art-for-art's sake', but I think that most artists today would say their art has a conscience - even if we disagree with that conscience. As a curator, I wouldn't worry about getting the balance right because I don't see art about aesthetics and art with a social conscience as being polar opposites.


Anyone who has seen even ten minutes of American psycho-babble TV will know that in order to 'find' ourselves we have to 'lose' ourselves. Applying this theory to art, do you think we are a little lost in the cultural expression of this place and time, i.e. Ireland in 2004?


Ireland's changed dramatically over the last number of years. I think it was Fintan O'Toole who wrote that "Ireland was never a modern country; the Celtic Tiger kicked it right from a traditional one into a post-modern one." Now in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger , when the dust has settled and we've gotten used to the cappuccinos, it's possible to see what's been lost in all our gain - levels of trust, patience, neighbourliness - those precious qualities, beyond commodification. Ireland in 2004 is a bit lost, but losing oneself is a necessary part of finding oneself.






John Byrne: Dublin's Last Supper , 2004, photograph screen-printed onto vitreous enamel, 220 x 930 cm; courtesy Cliodhna Shaffrey; more information on the artwork here ; project curated by Cliodhna Shaffrey

Applying this theory to art, you could say that art often reaches a crisis point before it finds itself again - 'death of painting' and 'the end of art' are two slogans that come to mind, but painting doesn't die, art doesn't end, this is the cyclical story of art. As far Ireland goes, there are lots of small great things happening in visual arts all over the country - the annual Claremorris Exhibition; Carlow's Visual Arts programme; Sarah Pierce's Metropolitan Complex - a newssheet and forum for discussion; Ballymun's Breaking Ground ; Garreth Phelan's taking over of a flat in Dublin to produce his work based on collective belief systems ( Now Here ); Cork Arts Collective's on-going presence on the periphery of Cork city; the long established ev+a in Limerick, and Leitrim has a resident curator (me) and there is ample room for more. I don't think we are lost here, maybe we are finding our way. But, high capitalism, an emphasis on material possessions and the promotion of the individual over community has implications for the arts and cultural sector; people's lifestyles change - they are working harder, shop more, are tired and have less time to give, and then, there is more choice. While the breaking down of barriers between 'high' art and 'low' art and the influence of multi-ethnic communities support other expressions and add flavour, one worries if, outside of the hyped events, people's active engagement and involvement in the arts is waning.


What about this function of being a keeper or guardian in charge of something...are you a keeper or guardian? What material and, more interestingly, immaterial thing do you want to guard (if at all) and for whom?


I don't see myself as a guardian of anything material. I hope that I can take care and give support to the artists I work with; that's the only kind of guardianship I'd like to do. But this is a two-lane system; the artists guard me too.





Anna MacLeod with glass sculpture Britannia rules the waves , 1999; courtesy Cliodhna Shaffrey; MacLeod is collaborating with Shaffrey as part of Visual Leitrim

Interdisciplinary arts practices have led to multifaceted collaborations in fine art and research as art practice itself is commonplace in fine art. Today's art practice is flexible and sometimes sees the artists functioning as everything and anything but an artist. Do you think the artist of the future could be a curator?


Certainly, artists make great curators. It was Damien Hirst (curating Freeze ) who got Saatchi to the Warehouse and started the ball rolling for the YBAs. Artists who operate as collectives such as PLATFORM (UK) or Ant Farm (USA) are often involved in curating themselves, and artists are increasingly interested in finding a space to present their work alongside fellow artists in a meaningful way. As art is no longer object-bound there is no end to the role / position the artist can play. What makes art art is that it "is produced with the intention that it be art" (Arthur Danto), be that a candy bar ( We Got It , for Culture in Action, Chicago.) or a handshake (Merle Ukeles - Touch sanitation , New York City). So the artist can easily turn curator (or anything else for that matter); the roles are interchangeable.


Cliodhna Shaffrey is an independent curator currently working as curator in residence with Visual Leitrim and preparing an international exhibition for Dun Laoghaire's Carlisle Pier to be held next year.


Regina Gleeson is a writer on art and technology. She has written a series of articles, collectively titled Dislocate, renegotiate and flow , for CIRCA issues 107, 108 and 109. You can read the texts of the 107 and 108 articles here and here respectively.


See also Regina Gleeson's
interview with Valerie Connor
interview with Grant Watson