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DAN SHIPSIDES - Essay for Four Now project


Essay for Four Now catalogue.

Selections from ACNI and the Arts council of Ireland collections at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork. 2005
ISBN 1-904291-15-5

I've lived in Belfast for ten years. Before moving over from England I had a limited knowledge of Irish art and although I have since become very familiar with aspects of it I didn't ‘artistically grow up' with it . This perhaps gives me a different position than the others on the selection panel in that my fondness for certain artists and works (older than ten years old) doesn't exist in a personally experienced historical context. I wasn't around when the work was breaking its ground. For me this puts much of the work in the collections outside an historical framework. Clues to period dating work can lie in style and aesthetics and certain presentation values - but these are aspects which don't overly impress anyway. Work that is imbued with an obvious period style tends not to appeal to me. In fact I'm more interested in work that might avoid the modes and mores of its generation and may present a challenge in the assumption that the artist is pursuing specific lines of enquiry beyond the formal. To me the collections were interesting in that I felt little obligation to an ‘official' or personal history and was able to cherry pick ‘whimsically' through the ideas, concepts and themes present in the works.

Whilst there is some in my selection, I thought I would be attracted to more landscape painting. I felt a responsibility towards expanding ideas on landscape in my role as a selector and much of the work I thought about selecting would have kept the subject tightly tethered. Landscape is quite present in other ways though - ‘space' in a conceptual sense directed my selection. All the works in my selection exhibit some dimension of space, whether it be rural, urban, political, geographic, physical, measured, graphic, metaphysical or spiritual. Of course it is easy to find some aspect of space in any artwork, it is in some way pretty integral to all art activity, but particular spatial explorations seem central to the work I have selected.  

The spatial landscape, rural or urban plays a big role in my own work. I tend not to work with pictorial far horizons but with images or ideas that deal conceptually with a nearer more tangible and often physical space. Complementing the artist's stated intention for his work to address the relationship of memory to place (another spatial dimension), the sense of the local and clarity in Willie Doherty's text and photographic work Echoing emphasizes the precision needed, implied in the subject matter, to spatially measure our surrounding environment in relation to our needs and designs. The water-level gauge in this photograph sums up a measured physical and personal engagement with place - a dynamic which seems wondrous, pragmatic and necessary.

Whilst unassuming, Leo Duff's small painting Belfast Flour Mills seems to glow with energy. The fabric and food mills of Belfast, mainly disused or reused, are amazing and particular structures. They represent the sense of ambition and feasibility (along with an undoubted unethical history of trade and power) which grounded Victorian and Edwardian Belfast and connected it with other continents. Much of flour for the bread eaten here would have traveled through this mill from North America. Does the strange supernatural light in the painting embody a trust in an empirical future or the sunset on that faith? A very similar or maybe this particular mill still stands on the shore of Belfast Lough. Perhaps now the image suggests the ‘Ready-Brek' glow of the transformational potential that is claimed to be architecturally and culturally happening, and certainly should be happening in Belfast, or instead it could suggest a hall in flames. The actual real building is massive, really excitingly big. The painting communicates that in quite an intimate way.

Space in many artworks is particular, considered and experimental but architectural design engages with and articulates the space of specific locations in more physical precise ways than traditional modes of art are perhaps normally able to. So I was really interested to come across the architectural designs and models which make up the A room of one's own School's Show touring exhibition, commissioned for The Arts Council/An Chomhairle EalaÌon collection. Seeing this alongside the other art in the collection is interesting because it points towards critical discourses embraced by much contemporary art practice. A preoccupation for many artists today is how we engage with the spaces around us and so it is not unusual to see artists thinking and making like architects, and indeed visa versa. However there maybe specific differences, as evident here, where the architectural brief looks for solutions to spatial problems (designing a place to inhabit), art practice often poses problems as alternative perspectives.

Grainne Hassett's designs for A room of one's own, sited around a rocky coastline, are understated, beautiful and utopian whereas Charles Oakley's painting Coastal Structure is challenging, bizarre and surreal. Coastal Structure is a strange painting of a concrete coastal construction. The structure seems to have taken on a graphic life of its own, as if it has evolved (or mutated) to a bizarre set of external and internal pressures. It's a very contemporary looking image. Without the paint I could imagine it being a computer generated motif - an absconded corporate logo now hanging out on the beach, tattooed, body pierced and smoking pot. To me the painting is a musing on a manufactured structure found on a natural coastline, possibly a meditation on nature assimilating the man-made or a suggestion of nature's revenge in the form of a corruptive dissenting gene. It's a fantastic painting. I wish I'd seen it before now.


The selection process was interesting in many ways, but the most fascinating thing for me was that it began to profile the selector through what they liked and didn't like. We can be defined by what we select. Whenever a black and white, monochromatic or an image of a rock (but that's another story) came up unidentified in the selection it was jokingly assumed to be one I selected. Scanning my selection, such a colour schematic is evident and through this kind of ‘statistical profiling' we might find out or see our inclinations more clearly. It led me to try and put into words why monochromatic works are prevalent in my selection.

I have an acetic taste. I like things which are economic and without indulgence (but I must stress I do not classify wit and eccentricity as indulgent and so feel justified in including work which is bizarre and irreverent - as long as it is economic). I wonder if I feel the need to justify art as having a purpose and direction and I think and feel that monochromatic work, wrongly or rightly, tends to suggest this more.

This whole process has brought me into closer contact than ever before with the collection of my Arts Council, The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and it has inevitably led to some consideration of the purpose of the collection. A stated funding objective of The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is that in buying artists' work for the collection they are assisting that artist. And it recognises ‘the importance of purchasing contemporary work as a means of supporting artists'. This is of course would seem true but only in very basic sense of providing some extra income for that artist. Indeed in the past one or two artists have had considerable amounts of work bought at regular intervals - to a point that those artists perhaps could assume regular purchasing as a supportive income. This doesn't happen quite so much now. That's probably a good thing because there are lots of good artists and for a collection to be rich and valid it needs to reflect breadth quality and so a limited budget undoubtedly needs to be spread around. This means less regular purchases from any one artist. Today then, the idea that the collection financially assists the artist doesn't stack up so well because infrequent and usually small sales do not provide great support, and can have the negative aspect of setting up an unnecessary and unbalanced relationship with the artist based on a conservative structure of art patronage which may be seen to foster favouritism.

The collection can offer valuable forms of support beyond purchasing. Whilst evident issues of limited resources available to manage the collection make coherent exhibition difficult, exposure would seem to be the most valuable potential of the collection in terms of support for the artist (and service to the public). If you know a particular collection is acting as an active, expansive cultural resource (that is collected and shown in a considered and interesting manner in regional, national and international contexts) then as an artist you might well want to be represented in it. I'd like to think that the position in regard to developing the collection is shifting from one of an outmoded assumption of benevolence to one of proactive engagement and promotion. Much of the collection is now being gifted to museums, subject to Government approval. It seems vital that the new works being bought into the collection are there for a purpose other than financially supporting the artist or for ‘prolonged storage'.






Dan Shipsides (born 1972 Lancashire, England) moved to Belfast in 1995 for the MFA course at the University of Ulster. He has since been a co-director at Catalyst Arts and is now an artist based in Orchid Studios and also currently a Research Fellow at the School of Art & Design at the University of Ulster in Belfast.

His art practice explores a creative relationship to space based on the experiential. It aims to find a way of exploring spaces often with a physical engagement and produce “landscape” artworks based on that experience.

In 2004 he was awarded the ACNI Major Artist Award, in 2000 he won the Nissan Art award IMMA ( Bamboo Support ) Dublin and 1998 won the Perspective award, OBG, Belfast (The Stone Bridge).

Recent solo and group exhibitions/projects include; Platform, Istanbul ( Hit & Run ), HEDAH, Maastricht ( Rochers á Fontainebleau ), Riga Sculpture quadrennial, Latvia ( European Space ), Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast ( Beta ), Rialto Santimbrogio, Rome ( Think Over ), Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin ( Pioneers ), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney ( Sporting Life). Smart Project Space, Amsterdam ( Endure ).