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‘The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now’ at IMMA

The Irish Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibit tackles important issues such as feminism, migration, racism, and much more.

Intro 

Modern and contemporary art can be confusing and hard to understand. We’ve all seen images online of some scribbly drawing that looks like a two-year old’s art project, only to then read that it sold for thousands of dollars.  

There will always be bad pieces of art in every genre, but modern and contemporary art seem to have a uniquely terrible reputation.  

But do the genres deserve their reputation? Are we right to judge the art of today the way we do? After all, many of the most famous artists we know today were hated during their time. Will future generations look back on the art of our time and see geniuses where we saw insanity? Who knows. Perhaps there is more to modern and contemporary art than meets the eye. 

The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now 

This year, to celebrate the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s (IMMA) 30th birthday, the entire museum has been dedicated to a brand-new exhibition of modern and contemporary art. The exhibition, which has been fully open since November 19th, is called “The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now”.  

The show is all art from the museum’s permanent collection. Over 200 pieces are displayed, including not only paintings, but also videos, audio files, photography and sculptures made of a wide variety of materials. One particularly fascinating piece of work features uprooted birch trees suspended from the ceiling by wire ropes. 

Anita Groener, The Past is a Foreign Country, 2018, 24 birch trees, twine, paper, paint, 400 x 300 x 300 cm, On loan, image courtesy of the IMMA, photo by Ros Kavanagh. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter One: Queer Embodiment, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

Chapter 1 

Chapter 1, “The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now: Queer Embodiment”, is found in the east wing of the main gallery. This chapter sets the tone for the entire exhibition. After walking through the glass doors and rounding the corner, you are greeted by a dark, quiet room. Directly in front of you, a video plays. Projected onto the dark wall is the image of a naked woman, laid out across what may be a canvas. Her body faces the audience, but her head is turned down to the ground, leaving you only her body to examine. The title card gives you the name of the piece, “Melancholia”, and names the artist, Cecily Brennan, but offers no further explanation as to the meaning of the video. 

Cecily Brennan, Melancholia, 2005, Video, Duration: 10min.36 sec. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, 2006, image courtesy of the IMMA, photo by Ros Kavanagh. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter One: Queer Embodiment, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

Continuing on, the walls turn from black to red. Observing the art pieces in the following rooms, a clear theme of pain and suffering during the AIDS/HIV crisis becomes obvious.  

The next rooms, painted a bright white, now depict themes of domestic violence. A video, titled “Open Season” by Joe Lee, is projected onto a cotton sheet. Through the speaker, the voices of multiple women discuss how their husbands viciously beat them in their own homes, in front of their children, whenever they felt like it. The video shows women speaking on the sides of a busy road. In the corner, a pair of blinking eyes watch on.  

Women from the Family Resource Centre (Dublin) & Joe Lee, Open Season, 1995, hospital bed, video, glycine hospital bed curtain, dimensions variable, purchase, 1998, image by Aoife Daly. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter One: Queer Embodiment, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

From here on there is no obvious path through the exhibit.   

Where there are no rooms to separate the artworks, a thin curtain is hung from a rod on the ceiling. The flow of the space is, at times, hard to follow. Be prepared to double back on yourself, and be sure to peer behind every curtain and doorframe you come across. 

Chapter 4 

Though it may feel counter-intuitive, the most comfortable way to view the exhibit is to start with either Chapter 1 or 4, then move onto Chapter 3, and to finally end on Chapter 2. Admission tickets, which are free to all viewers, must be procured at the reception area of the main galleries. Up the glass staircase from the reception desk, you will find Chapters 1, 4, and the gift shop. 

Unlike Chapter 1, Chapter 4 has no straightforward beginning. The viewer is immediately faced with a choice – to the left, a video is projected onto the wall of a small dark room. Directly in front is a wide-open space, filled entirely with a massive single multi-media piece. “Empireland” by Mary O’Kelly “grapples with Ireland’s history as a state”. Scribbly sketches of peasant labourers are drawn over a painted wheel of what seems to be some futuristic technology. A crowd of people – perhaps protesters? – are painted in muted purple dots in the pieces bottom right. Above them sits a neon orange picture of what appears to be a factory.  

Mary O’Kelly, Empireland, 2016, oil on primes metal places. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. Donated, 2017, image by Aoife Daly. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter Four: Protest and Conflict, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

The piece displays the best qualities of modern and contemporary art. It’s not until you try to explain what exactly you viewed that you realise the complexity of the work. Standing in front of the massive board that has been used as a canvas, the image makes perfect sense. There is a certain flow to the artwork that cannot properly be put into words – it is not meant to be understood, but felt. 

From here, you are led to a singular lengthy corridor. Shane Cullen’s “Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines”, which comprises of 96 green panels covered in transcriptions of “the written communications smuggled in and out of the H-Block prisons in Northern Ireland during 1981-’81” takes up the entire space. To the side are smaller rooms containing multiple other works. This imposing corridor marks the end of Chapter 4. 

Shane Cullen, Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, 1993 – 1997, painted text, acrylic on 96 styrofoam panels. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, 2000, image by Aoife Daly. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter Four: Protest and Conflict, IMMA, Dublin, 2021

Chapter 3 

Once you are finished in the main galleries, exit back out to the courtyard. To one side sits a bright blue coffee cart, strung with fairy lights and decorated with vines and other plants. On the wall adjacent, up a wheelchair ramp, is a small, unassuming wooden door. It took me a good five minutes of wandering around the open courtyard, trying to convince both myself and any onlookers that I was not at all lost, to realise that behind this door was the third instalment of the exhibition.  

The inside of the courtyard galleries is vastly different than the main galleries. The whitewashed walls stay one consistent colour the whole way through, the creaky wooden floors and empty fireplaces giving the impression that you have accidentally wandered into a renovated Connemara cottage. 

Kathy Prendergast, Stack, 1989, cloth, string, paint on wood. Collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, 1991, image by Aoife Daly. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter Three: Social Fabric, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

It is here that I found my personal favourite piece out of the entire collection. “Fenced Within the Silent Cold Walls” by Bassam Al-Sabah is a twelve-minute CGI film. The viewer is given a virtual tour of the artists former home in Iraq. In every room, disturbing shapes stream out of some technological device – a radio, a TV and a computer screen. These shapes overtake the entire room, swallowing it whole until the camera pans slowly away. At the end, as the house crumples in on itself and disappears, Al-Sabah’s grandmothers disembodied voice plays through a speaker, explaining why she burnt her coveted collection of family pictures when her children fled the country. Again, this piece is hard to truly explain through words. Viewing it however, left me feeling empty, gutted, and almost on the verge of tears. 

Chapter 2 

Chapter 2 is the most physically exhausting component of the exhibition. This chapter is split into three levels – the ground floor, the upstairs, and the basement. Upstairs, Leanne McDonagh’s illustrations of “Prints from Why the Moon Travels series” occupy almost an entire room. The artworks depict images from a collection of stories “rooted in the oral tradition of the Irish Traveller community”. 

Leanne McDonagh, Prints from Why the Moon Travels series, 2019, pigment onn copper house photo rag. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, 2020, image courtesy of the IMMA. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter Two: The Anthropocene, IMMA, Dublin, 2021. Photo Ros Kavanagh.

Two rooms later, you will encounter a room overtaken entirely by Dennis McNulty’s “I reached inside myself through time”. Giant cuboid shapes that appear to be made of tinfoil lead you through the space in a zig-zag pattern. The windows have been covered with red plastic, separating the room from the outside world and giving the impression that you have entered an alien planet. A small blue screen hangs from the ceiling and plays a script of names. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand this piece at all, but it was a wonderfully fun artwork to experience. 

Dennis McNulty, I reached inside myself through time, 2015. Collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, purchase, 2016, photo taken by Aoife Daly. Installation view The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Chapter Two:The Anthropocene, IMMA, Dublin, 2021.

If you have the time, venture down to the basement, where a nearly hour-long film plays on repeat. There is only one other artwork down the stairs, two small, framed paintings by the same artist. 

The Otolith Group, INFINITY Minus Infinity, 2019, Video, 56 min. 51 sec., Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Purchase, 2020, image courtesy of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, photo by Ros Kavanagh

Conclusion 

If you have the time to make your way down to the IMMA and then spend a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, I would definitely recommend this exhibit. It’s a dream come true for lovers of modern and contemporary art pieces. The artwork is experimental and all-consuming – in nearly every room you will something intensely interesting and new, and the combination of videos, sound, and static images really helps break the exhibit up. The works challenge you to think carefully about what exactly the artist means them to say. 

For those less fond of modern and contemporary art, the exhibit is still genuinely enjoyable. There’s a lot of technical and aesthetic skills to be admired, and even if you find yourself completely confused by a piece, you might leave it feeling oddly charmed all the same.  

The whole experience is surprisingly draining. There’s a lot to see, hear, and think about throughout the course of the exhibit. There are pieces so large that even being in their presence feels exhausting, and there are pieces so intricately detailed that it’s overwhelming. Overall, it is an enjoyable and engaging experience that I would recommend to both those who love art, and those who are stubbornly indifferent. There is something to enjoy for those of almost all ages (but let’s be real, there aren’t many art exhibits you can recommend for toddlers). So, if you’re looking for something different to do this weekend in Dublin, consider giving “The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now” a go. 

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