Young artists stake their claim to the city’s open spaces.
An ominous clank rang from the speakers, and a woman clad in what appeared to be a lampshade stepped onto the stage. She advanced toward a rope hanging from the ceiling. Like some kind of bipedal sloth, she wrapped a big toe around it and climbed solemnly. Three colleagues joined her, two bedecked with helium balloons that floated, Medusa-like, from their hair. Each ascended a different sash, pole, or trapeze.
As the electronica thumped louder, and pairs of heavily shadowed eyes blinked on a screen behind them, the four women dangled and swayed in midair. I wasn’t sure if I was watching a circus or one of those 1960s-style happenings that inevitably ends with everyone sitting around afterward asking, “What was that?” It certainly wasn’t like anything else I’d ever seen. This wasn’t the Dublin I had heard about.
This was PaperDolls, Ireland’s leading—and, dare I say, only—all-female aerialist dance troupe. To get here to see them was an adventure in itself. It required trekking to a dormant retail space converted into a performing arts center in the Dublin neighborhood of Smithfield Square. Once inside, I weaved through a paper maze of inscrutable sculptures and then sat cheek-to-cheek with 60 strangers on benches and boxes. But more than any individual effort, attending a performance of PaperDolls required a collective transformation. It needed Ireland’s once booming economy to go bust.
The news out of Europe has been grim, nowhere more so than in those countries so charmingly referred to since the 2008 crash as PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain—whose economies threaten to upend the entire European experiment. In Ireland, where the fierce economic growth of the late 1990s and early 2000s earned it the sobriquet the Celtic Tiger, the collapse has been particularly dramatic. But if the crisis has reduced the tiger to a mewling kitten, it has also helped forge a new Dublin. The city of pubs, footballers, and butcher shops selling Leopold Bloom his morning dose of pork kidney that I had envisioned has given way to one of pop-up exhibitions fueled by a fresh, do-it-yourself energy. A new generation of visual artists, performance artists, and even culinary artists is staking creative claims to spaces left empty by the bust, forming an avant-garde that couldn’t have come into being without the crisis.
I had sought out this brave new Dublin my first evening, a few nights before the PaperDolls show. Traversing the city at sundown, I started at Ballsbridge, where neat townhouses lined a narrow canal. I took a shortcut across the yard of Trinity College, where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett attended classes. Arriving in the bustling Temple Bar neighborhood just as the pubs flicked on their neon, I walked past the silent cathedral to the western edge of town. There was no one around. According to a sign posted over a cement lot, the zone was being monitored “due to antisocial behavior.” I was about to turn around when I spied a huddle of hipsters rolling cigarettes outside what looked to be a massive warehouse. Whenever someone opened the door, the sounds of a party rushed out. So I pushed my way in. There, indeed, was a party, with loud music and lots of people clutching plastic cups of wine.
“They used to keep bank records here,” explained a girl in scuffed white cowboy boots and green nail polish. She was Kari Cahill, one of the founders of Basic Space, which was celebrating the opening of its latest show that night. She told me that she and two friends had begun looking for exhibition space while in their second year at the National College of Art and Design, short on cash but long on creative ideas. “There were plans to turn this old warehouse into a budget hotel, but that never happened because of the crisis,” she said, gesturing around the hall. “So they gave it to us rent-free as long as we promised to use it as an art space.”
Basic Space looked exactly like the kind of place someone might store a few decades’ worth of bank statements. It was a drafty hangar with bare concrete floors and tall walls that dwarfed most of the art on display. One interesting piece appeared to be a meditation on tension in the form of a low, boat-shaped sculpture, across which a thin cord of aluminum foil was stretched dangerously taut. Most engrossing was Cahill’s contribution: two stacks of ice blocks inspired by her obsession with icebergs, melting under a pair of spotlights.
Building an iceberg is harder than it sounds. Cahill had convinced the owners of an old-fashioned ice factory to teach her the basics of ice engineering and help her build her molds. On the day of the show, she had transported 30 squat, sharp-edged blocks to the warehouse, stacked them evenly, and turned on the lamps. “It didn’t seem like you could think about icebergs without thinking about them disappearing,” Cahill said. “But I hadn’t really considered what they would look like when they started to melt.” To me, they provoked anxiety but also looked weirdly beautiful. Dodging the slowly forming puddles, one couple stared transfixed as the corners of the ice blocks softened into something more organic. Watching them watch the piece, Cahill smiled. “If it wasn’t for the crisis, we would never have gotten this,” she said. “Now I’ll be somewhere and people will say, ‘Have you heard of this cool new space?’ and I’ll realize that they’re talking about us.”
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Walking back to the hotel that night, it occurred to me that pop-ups such as Basic Space suggest an important difference between postcrash Ireland and its fellow members of PIIGS, like, say, Spain. It seemed that Dublin had discovered a new kind of creativity, one that embraced impermanence, and in doing so had rediscovered a sense of community that predated the boom and bust. It’s not just that Ireland has an abundance of empty space. (Spain’s crash, precipitated almost entirely by real estate speculation, has turned entire communities into ghost towns.) What makes Ireland’s situation special is that people are willing to give that space away. Not just for charity, either, but for practical reasons: An occupant might pay the utilities. Might spiff things up. And an occupied space filled with art is easier to rent than an empty one. None of the landlords I contacted were willing to speak with me. Perhaps they didn’t want to advertise the hard times they’re facing. But everywhere I turned I saw evidence of a kind of social compact between artists and landlords you’d be hard-pressed to find in New York or London—a loose alliance that benefited both parties.
Louise Marlborough (above) explained the unique situation when we met for tea the next day. Marlborough’s gallery, aptly named PrettyvacanT, has no fixed location. She’s found enough accommodating landlords to be able to mount exhibitions in an ever-changing roster of empty spaces. “We did one of our first shows in a 40,000-square-foot former supermarket space, and no walls to hang anything on,” Marlborough recalled, shaking her head in amazement. “We got more than a thousand visitors. Can you imagine? And these are people who would never go to a traditional white-cube gallery.” Another show, called Permission to Land, brilliantly sent up the folly of the boom years. Street artist Litmus dotted the city with phony permit applications for outlandish construction projects such as a zeppelin airport on Earlsfort Terrace, the street near St. Stephen’s Green that was once home to University College Dublin. Whatever the content of the shows, filling those empty buildings with art and energy has suddenly made the spaces inviting. Almost accidentally, those landlords have found new tenants who are using the spaces for a greater good. “Most places where we’ve done shows are now occupied,” she said. “We’re a response to the crisis, but also, in a very small way, a solution to it.” The next afternoon, I sat down at a bar with Dylan Haskins to trace the roots of Dublin’s do-it-yourself art scene. Haskins is best known for his remarkable, if unsuccessful, campaign last year for a seat in parliament at age 23. But as a teenager Haskins was already a bit of a creative pioneer.
In his skinny jeans and earrings, Haskins (below) bore a striking resemblance to Macaulay Culkin in his Home Alone days. He spoke with a reasoned sincerity suitable for the parliament floor. A bass player, he started hosting gigs in his house at 15. They proved so popular that he and his fellow band members began writing letters to City Hall pleading for youth-centered cultural organizations. “We never got a response,” Haskins recalled. “I came to feel like young people were being ignored. Despite the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, there was nothing there for youth. So I asked myself, why can’t we do it ourselves?” He and his friends found an old church hall sitting empty as developers waited for permission to raze it for apartment units. Haskins and his group talked their way into taking over the space.
If all this sounds like Mickey Rooney’s “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” for Haskins it meant much more. Behind the DIY approach, he saw an intensely political message: A community can and should take matters into its own hands. That revelation inspired him to help found Exchange Dublin in 2009, a cooperative arts center run by young people (named for Ireland’s 19th-century stock exchange on the same street). With money from their gigs, they installed a public address system and created a venue. All of the center’s events, from photography exhibitions to Street Fighter video game tournaments, are arranged ad hoc, by free-form groups that meet every Wednesday to determine the calendar. “Up until the crisis, everything was just about consumerism,” he said. “Now people are remembering we used to have different values.” He paused to watch a nun in full habit shuffle into the bar in search of the loo. “Culturally and politically, there aren’t many more interesting places in Europe to be.”
I suspected Haskins was right about Ireland’s change in values. During the boom years, observers worried that the Irish were swapping their traditions for U.S.-style materialism. Retail sales grew 52 percent in value between 2000 and 2007, and retail space increased more than sixfold. In her second inaugural speech in 2004, former President Mary McAleese railed against the values of the go-go years, warning that “the cushion of consumerism is no substitute for the comfort of community.” It was a search for that comfort, I realized, that was driving Dublin’s exciting new pop-up arts scene.
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Katie Tsouros, owner of KTcontemporary gallery, is doing her part. The artists she shows are nearly all based in Ireland and in their 20s. Her gallery stands in a converted Curves gym in the posh neighborhood of Donnybrook. In June 2010, when Ireland’s unemployment rate hovered around 13 percent, Tsouros was 22, with a master’s degree from Sotheby’s, and looking for a “real job.” Then it occurred to her that she might be able to create her own. Within weeks she had found her space and convinced the owner to rent it to her on a temporary basis. By November, she had ripped out the carpet, painted the walls, and opened KTcontemporary to the public. Two years later, her pop-up is still there.
When I visited, the gallery’s main room contained a floor-to-ceiling installation by the artist Erica Hoyne. Photos of empty buildings were assembled into letters that spelled out the word empty. “In March 2010, it was reported that there were nearly 350,000 vacant homes in Ireland,” read the curatorial note. This kind of work, Tsouros believes, would never have found representation if her gallery didn’t exist. “The idea of being picked up by a big established gallery as a recent graduate and getting carried away on a wave of acclaim is more of a fantasy now than ever,” she said. “Given the cutbacks in arts funding, artists are doing things for themselves.” She reeled off a few names: Annville Films, a collective run out of Ireland’s National Film School that makes short movies. Edwina Casey, a theater director. Boombox, a group of her friends who put on club nights. Then her face lit up. “Have you tried Mulberry Garden?”
She pointed me across the street. Down a small lane, behind a wooden gate painted magenta, I found a restaurant, shut tight but with a telephone number posted on the door. Standing there, I dialed and got the last reservation available for that night. A few hours later, I returned and was ushered into a bright dining room decorated with strands of woolen yarn strung across the blank walls.
Mulberry’s menu had just two offerings per course, but each sounded so good—a confit pork shoulder with smoked potatoes, a roasted plaice (a local fish) garnished with crisp chicken skin and buttered leeks—my friend Patrick and I decided to get one of everything. The oxtail ragout starter arrived velvety and deep. The dessert of salted caramel panna cotta with plums and fresh honeycomb made a perfect trifecta of sweet, salt, and cream. It all tasted modern and fresh, and identifiably Irish.
Afterward, we were joined by chef John Wyer and one of the restaurant’s shareholders, Brian Lennon. They told a now familiar story. For three decades the space had belonged to a classic Dublin restaurant; after the crash it was empty for another four years. “We got it for nearly half the normal rent,” said Lennon. Another accommodation to the new economy: They decided to open just three nights a week. “Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, that’s it,” Wyer said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have been sustainable.” Wyer still makes a point of seeking out the best Irish products. But the limited hours and limited menu (which changes weekly) forced the restaurant into a kind of creativity I hadn’t seen in other Dublin restaurants. I wasn’t sure if it was art, but it was delicious.
I pondered the impact of limits the following day when Blaithin Quinn (below) and her brother Paul took me on a walk through the Docklands neighborhood. The two run TransColonia, another effort to repopulate Dublin’s empty spaces with artists. To ensure that I understood the immensity of the issue, they walked me past the Grand Canal Theatre, all slanted angles and fretted glass, which was designed during the boom years by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind to dominate the plaza on which it sits. But I couldn’t help focusing instead on the checkerboard cube that filled the left side of the square. It was a striking building, but all the design tricks in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that it was empty. “That was meant to be a hotel,” said Blaithin. “They finished it years ago, but it never opened.”
We continued through the neighborhood, and it was like that everywhere. Big, meant-to-be-noticed buildings dotted the streets like the polished skeletons of beached whales left to dissolve in the sand. It would be easy to see this as a landscape of bad luck and lost chances. But Blaithin and Paul, both of whom studied architecture in college, saw opportunity. And after several days in Dublin, I was starting to see it too. Every empty building had potential to foster budding creativity—a restaurant for a talented young chef or a gallery for a future art star’s first show.
Instead of giving in to Ireland’s economy, Dublin’s young creative class is transforming hardship not just into works of art—artists have always done that—but into possibility. The crisis may have taught them that prosperity is not necessarily permanent, but neither, it turns out, is passivity. An abandoned warehouse, a former car dealership, or even, in TransColonia’s case, a travel agency that once specialized in trips home for the Polish workers who helped build the Celtic Tiger—any of those can, with equal doses of will and imagination, become a space for creativity. If Dublin currently hums with artistic energy, it’s because a critical mass of young people refused to be depressed by the downturn, and instead became inspired by it.
That was my thought as I watched PaperDolls, four women dangling in midair with compelling theatricality in a space that was once devoted to shopping. After the show, I caught up with PaperDoll Emily Aoibheann as she adjusted her lampshade dress to receive the bouquets her giddy friends thrust into her arms. I asked her what the troupe’s plans were. “Oh,” she said with a mischevious smile. “We’re plotting the creative occupation of Dublin.”