As spring approaches, I always think about Ireland a little more than usual. I moved from Dublin in the spring, and every time there’s a whiff of spring in the air I remember the crocuses that were merrily breaking through the ground when I left Ireland. Standing in stark contrast to all that spring gaiety was Ballymun.
Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the area one travels through to get to (and from) the airport in Dublin was dominated by seven low-level apartment buildings and became infamous for its drug-related activities, particularly when Dublin suffered a serious heroin epidemic in the 1970s and 80s. To quote Design Research Group’s thorough feature:
They were a well intentioned attempt to relocate people from the inner-city of Dublin to more modern high rise accommodation on the then outskirts of the city. The symbolism of the names of each block, Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett and MacDermott, each a leader of the 1916 Rising was indicative of efforts to re-imagine an identity for the Irish state during the late 1960s. Their very modernity was such that it embodied a shift away from the rural towards the urban.
Owing to a complete lack of infrastructure (including roads, services, and even access to basic goods), the site quickly suffered a kind of ghettoization, with the apartment blocks becoming the epicenter of the spiral downward. People may know the line about seeing ‘seven towers’ (and no way out) but they don’t necessarily know the place, much less its history or people. Author Lynn Connelly worked to set that right in 2006, when she published The Mun, which portrays its residents in a far different light than the drug-filled media reports that dominated Irish press for so long.
In 2004, demolition on the infamous apartment block began, its residents relocated to housing as part of the area’s regeneration. There have been plenty of good developments, including a Civic Centre, a theatre, residents’ groups, and of course, new housing. But the Ballymun renaissance hasn’t included everyone, alas.
Genius Dublin artist Maser, who’s been doing his special brand of pop-meets-graffiti around the city for over a decade, offered his own colourful contribution to Ballymun, just before demolition began. I used to see Maser’s early work when I’d wander around Dublin, old Minolta in-hand; looking back on it, the graffiti-meets-billboard approach incorporates so many elements of art I love: colour, texture, playfulness, and subtext.
This was done as part of the They Are Us project in 2010 and is dedicated to Rachel Peavoy. The Ballymun flat resident was found on January 11th, 2010 in her apartment. She’d died of hypothermia. An inquest into her death revealed that Dublin City Council had turned her heating off and refused to turn restore it to the flats despite the cold winter.
Next time I’m in Ireland, I’m not just driving through Ballymun. I’m going to stop for a while.
Pardon my lack of updates lately. In the midst of mad searching for full-time paid communications work, I’ve had to take on what I’m terming a “joejob” and it’s been very draining to balance that with eagle-eyed job investigating and applying, radio interviewing, and creative pursuits.
A good friend of mine called my return to the joejob a form of graciousness, referencing a beautiful compliment I received on Twitter a few weeks back, in fact. Aw. It doesn’t feel gracious, however; the entire experience is rather more grinding, humiliating, and energy zapping. I have to remind myself every day when I return home, cranky and haggard, that all of this energy expenditure pays off in the form of enablement: to be paid for my talents, and to not lose sight of what it is I really want to be (read: should be) making a living at. Blogging is, I’m coming to realize, a way of reinforcing that commitment and desire, and of fortifying my determination.
So, without further adue, a collection of things that have inspired me the last little while:
I can’t say the sequel to Iron Man completely enthralls me though in all fairness, I haven’t seen it; I just know I’d rather see Robert Downey Jr. without all that metal. He could probably convince me he’s Tony Stark with just tin foil. (I wouldn’t mind borrowing that Iron Man suit to wear to the joejob, however.) I’m tossing around seeing the flick itself, which has garnered mainly good notices (and huge box office). The steampunk-meets-high-tech badass design of Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash might be the tipping point -and who am I kidding? Downey’s good medicine for the weary: if he can rise up, then… ! It’s fanciful, but don’t laugh -it’s also inspiring, kind of like this tune, “Stop The Party”, taken from the movie’s soundtrack. Bouncy and ballsy, it’s a good post-joejob pick-me-up and has some swish, snazzy production courtesy of cutie smarty-pants Swizz Beatz. Nicely done.
Bono and Bob Geldof edited Monday’s edition of The Globe and Mail. This has, as you might imagine, provoked a holy sh**storm of backlash, particularly online, where the blahblahblah-richrockstars-hype-hypocrites-how-dare-theys were out in full force since the announcement of their editorship happened last week. Yawn. I’m just happy it made for damn good reading, and gave voice to a range of activists, artists, and authors we don’t hear from enough in mainstream media, especially in daily North American print. Dear Newspapers Everywhere: do this kind of thing more often. Ignore the haters. It’s good for content, and, as evidenced by the Monday edition’s popularity, good for numbers. Please more.
Brian Eno is curating the Brighton Festival, and people really like it. No wonder. He’s brought a new kind of vision to a town that is hungry for unusual ideas and experiments. I’ve always found Eno a scary genius; when I met him many moon ago, I was so intimidated by his aura of… smart. A skilled, confident, razor-sharp kind of cutting intelligence surrounds him, and I barely got out my name, let alone my hand. Even now, the memory is vaguely chilling. It’s a testament to the residents of Brighton and the surrounding area that they’ve so openly embraced the sorts of brave things Eno has introduced, particularly in, around, and on their public spaces. Kudos to them, and kudos to him. But then, that goes without saying. Durrrrr.
Not all new ideas from respected artists are appreciated, however. Graffiti street sensation Banksy was in Toronto, and did a number of works that were later removed or painted over. The latest work to fall victim to a fellow street artist was a clever Banksy piece showing a man holding a sign that reads “Will Work For Idiots” (which I *cough* relate to); the piece was tagged (yes, tagged) over by a ballsy local. Valid? Invalid? I find the whole thing such a perfect symbol of the focused inward-turned narcissism of the city as to be laughable in a really sad, frustrating way. Torontonians are constantly told the city is “world-class” and “cosmopolitan” -labels I’ve consistently smirked at as they’ve become more widely used (and marketed, and swallowed whole). Really? Ha.
More smirking -but this time in a good way -over a piece in The Atlantic exploring the scary genius of Lady Gaga and her relationship with Pop. The piece takes apart her appeal as both a tastemaker and taste-buster simultaneously. This really, really captures the phenom of Gaga, though I have to admit, I was disappointed the writer (James Parker) didn’t mention Warhol, or later artistic counterparts that have so influenced one Ms. Germanotta. Maybe he were too distracted by the hat or the flaring bra.
So ends a recent column by writer Russell Smith in last week’s Globe and Mail. I pondered this line as I reviewed various favourite blogs, artworks, musicians and artists. “Personal” is a complicated matter, especially within the creative realm. Doing it well entails walking a fine, hair-thin line between insight and narcissism. Regarding the personal as “small” depends on who you’re asking, what you’re creating, and how you’re synthesizing elements of life, imagination, and observation.
I’ve always been a fan of the venerable Mr. Smith, for the way he manages to seamlessly integrate all three, while pouring in mounds of thought-provocation about the wet-dry trails of footprints that map out our contemporary lives. Last week I attended the launch of his latest book, Girl Crazy, which revolves around an established urban man’s obsession with a stripper and the seedy underbelly he is inevitably drawn to. I haven’t read it yet, but based on Smith’s past writing, as well as a recent (positive) review, it seems like a heady mix of questions around social class, the nature of modern life, the drag of adult responsibility, and the hot steaming throb of obsession ballsing the lot up. What’s more, it feels, like much of Smith’s past work, entirely shot through with a smart sensibility that embraces both male and female perceptions around the deliciously taboo two-backed beast that both scintillates and scorns our society, vampirically sucking at the humming root of desire that sits inside us all.
Just before attending Smith’s book launch, I went to an art opening featuring the work of Quebecois artist Dominique Fortin. Like the author, the personal is anything but small in her world; with references to family, friends, and her own history (and future), Fortin beautifully fuses the twin themes of epic and intimate to render the most personal moments understandable, real, and present. Ironically, the title of the exhibition is “Petits Geants” (or “Small Giants”. Fortin embraces and celebrates femininity in an epic yet intimate way that I found deeply moving as well as inspiring. Using faces and figures as her main motif, Fortin integrates the visual play of Klimt (notably with the creative use of spirals and intricate patterns, for which she employs a range of mixed media) and the graffiti ethos of Basquiat (especially in her use of text around and/or above her figures). The effect is something of a punk-rock Alice In Wonderland, with china doll-esque black and white female faces sitting atop large (sometimes winged) figures, lost (or maybe found) in a swirling, soft focus world of imprecise measurements and imperfect geometry.
One of the paintings features Fortin’s daughters as facial models, which is brave, considering the artist confessed her determination in depicting an all-around female archetype in her work. I’m not a mother, but I related to the dark-angel whimsy of her work and found myself mesmerized by the raw, aggressive scrawls and strong painterly colours, especially in the context of their contrast with the delicate-faced figures. Featuring one’s offspring as the model of that universal, and deeply powerful idea, is both brave and crazy -but overall, the show (running at the gorgeous Thompson Landry Gallery through May 9th) is totally beguiling. Fortin embraces both child-like wonder and adult desire with equal gusto, and the results pour beautifully forth on her mixed media canvases.
I have a feeling I may find the same powerful mix in Smith’s words as I do in Fortin’s artwork. The “personal” as small? Only if you’re small-minded to begin with. Done well, and there’s nothing more universal -which is, at least to little ole me, makes for the most memorable art.
Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I’m left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it’s been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.
Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They’re not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat’s own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.
I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Basquiat’s shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou’s proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.
It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat’s father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father’s homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou’s words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti’s citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn’t, and perhaps, won’t. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.