LAST week I found myself circling the block on which Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery and Studios (TBG+S) stands, like a vulture. Now it’s obvious to me I was gearing up for what I assumed to be at least an hour of Irish artist Declan Clarke wandering the streets of twentieth-century Europe's cultural and political conscience like some displaced ghost or time traveller. 

Finally, but hesitantly – the battle lost before it had begun – I pushed against the glass door of the gallery which seemed heavier than ever before. Inside I found the space divided in two: a kind of retro lobby area – a cheap red carpet provoking the association – and a dark space. I stalled for a few minutes in the lobby, taking in a regiment of black and white photographs that incrementally document some event that has all the bad hair and tailoring of 1970s or ’80s Ireland. 

Before I could decide on whether to engage further or get out of Godard, friend and art critic Joan Fowler was on me with a "hello" and "goodbye" in quick succession as she darted into the dark space to catch the scheduled 1.20pm start of Clarke's film (art before friends, RESPECT!). 

Almost following her lead I sidestepped to ask the invigilator “How long is it?” 

“65 minutes,” she whispered. 

"Oh," I whispered back, 

all the while backing away and gliding out through the gallery door that had lost a lot of its burden.

This time last year I soaked up to the point of sunburn Clarke's summer-long wandering film trilogy commissioned by and exhibited at Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery (review here). The hours I spent with Clarke as flâneur produced many thoughts and feelings and words, but the idea of yet another commissioned work just one year on, and exhibited at yet another publicly funded art institution in Dublin is too much too soon for one artist and art community in my opinion. The obvious reason for my circling vulture metaphor is the plain fact that Clarke’s trilogy at the Hugh Lane Gallery wasn’t given enough time for me personally to yearn for more from Clarke. I believe being given time to yearn to see an artist's work is pivotal to a greater engagement, if engagement is what you are longing for as an artist and observer. 

My exit from the gallery is not exactly an act of transgression, but confessing it here feels like I am transgressing something – a secret handshake or an unsaid or unwritten social contract with the art community. But sometimes I want to nick the art scene for its own good, and other times I want to caress it; what would art criticism be without a bit of bloodletting here and loving there. But this moment of hit and run at TBG+S did produce thoughts and feelings and words about the dominating contexts that shape an artwork, its maker and the environment in which it is shown. How can the artist and art transgress these dominating contexts? 

In Norman Mailler's marvelous manifesto on the early-twentieth-century ‘Hipster’ ('The White Negro', 1957) he writes that "context generally dominates the man". The context that Mailler is reflecting upon is America's increasingly homogenised and conformist culture, something that the early hipster felt existentially cut off from and resistant to: contrary to Huey Lewis and The News the early hipster did not subscribe to the lyric "It's hip to be square."

You could say that context dominates contemporary art too. It's the first word we learn in art college as fledgling artists. The obligatory issuing of context makes everyone feel they are on the same page, sentence, word, letter, full stop. These readymade contexts shape art into a mere simulation of itself – the edges getting rounder and rounder with each simulation. And the word that I am failing to think of right now due to lack of use – 'visceral' – is never appropriate. Painting is the exception, which still retains the capacity for raw subjectivity. Sometimes, however, I find myself yearning for more dumb instinct from other mediums. 

This simulative art, in which art mimics life not the other way around, is very civilised and sealed in, discursive rather than visceral. Anything visceral is rare in an Irish art context, but when it happens everything else looks and feels the same, like an icy and silent oasis of institutionalised conscience.

Context is everything when discussing the nature of transgression and art. Being an artist is inherently transgressive. Like Mailler’s hipster the artist is a rebel without a cause (and career). But art itself doesn't always transgress. Art repeats the transgressions of itself and others: art is historically or retrospectively or retroactively transgressive, if that makes sense. Transgression, like the art criticism I want to write and read[1], is performed in the present like an instinct, not knowing what it is before it is made public. Transgression doesn't get the privilege of Time. 

There's something telling that year-on-year more displays of transgression occur at end-of-year college degree shows than in the official art scene. When things are good in college a strange individualism and competitive spirit rages. Whereas outside, it's like a ventriloquist art society (or human centipede, which I am sure I saw a Carol Rama version of in the current exhibition of her work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA)).

But acts of transgression are usually one-hit wonders, because the temptation is that the first (removed) transgression one makes as an artist is enough.  Desperation to get attention? Attempting to be somehow different? Young and naïve to what D.H. Lawrence called the graduation of "kitsch selves" and Nietzsche's "automatons", whatever the reasons the original transgression is treated as the eureka moment, the moment of revelation, the moment of success, the moment of validation, the orgasm that can be prolonged; that this first and only act of transgression is tantric enough to sustain a career, with slight variations of the first transgression to keep the sex fresh. But that's just style, and style is process and transgression is not process. Transgression is preceded by hesitancy that is then acted upon, like my hesitancy and action at TBG+S. 

Absurdly, process and production seem to be the two things that artists most value or share when they talk about their art lives. But being zombie productive is not transgressive. Transgression is when the zombie punches through the soil of its own grave. Transgression is when the zombie eats its first victim. But after these acts the zombie ‘life’ becomes mere process. Transgression is like the feeling of someone walking on your grave. It's a violation of your senses (taste, sight, hearing) and a violent attack on how you see yourself, and a choice as to how you want the world to see you, know you even (ethically and morally and intimately). Transgression is the antithesis of your Facebook status.

Because transgression is revelatory. The act of transgression sheds light on the transgressor's drives. Mailler tells us that the early hipster's only "life-giving answer" to death by conformity is "to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger". Transgression in some ways is as much a letting go as it is an assault on our sensibilities. Transgression is a fugitive state of self. 

That's why transgressor-philosopher Georges Bataille sees transgressive acts being not dependent on overcoming self-repression, but rather the self needs to be expunged in order for transgression to be enacted. According to Bataille the modern world is the real inhibitor, while the modern individual, with his internalisation of God, the Freudian super-ego or the Shakespearian conscience can never be capable of transgressing the normative because of the shame and guilt and embarrassment and sin of being transgressive (Carol Rama's remedy for that: “My master is a certain sense of sin”). In the end we have to become someone else – to fictionalise ourselves – in order to be transgressive, like Bataille in Story of the Eye (1928).

But although these transgressions of the mind can be imagined in great detail, they rarely come to light. Transgression is an ideal or action that someone else performs, like charity, or calling the police when you witness a crime. People who desire to be transgressive, but cannot for whatever reasons, are envious of those who can, especially those that are celebrated or even vilified for it. 

Those of whom fantasise about transgression are enamoured with the idea of transgression but are not equipped with the tools to let it play out because it was never fostered by their family, their friends, their teachers, their therapist and so on. They live vicariously through those who have transgressed, thinking that the internal fantasy will be enough. But imagine if, as artists and writers, we were willing to share that internal fantasy, that forbidden thought or action, confessionals that test our perception of ourselves and reflect something back on the art scene that is not a version of itself?

Imagine still if artists were ashamed of their art, or at least radically insecure about what they produced and conscious of how people would react to their art and its message. I sometimes feel that anxiety pulsing in art colleges but not as much in the Irish art scene, where it is too publicly conscious.

To be transgressive you need to be enamoured with yourself; self conscious not publicly conscious. Transgression and narcissism go hand-in-hand – it's a case of Michael Heizer lost in the desert, with nothing but himself and his art. It feels today that with the promotional clamour behind artists, curators, institutions and their exhibitions, that everyone is more than comfortable with what they are and what their art says about them in the public sphere. It feels like transgression is taboo in the art scene: transgression is beneath art in more ways than one. 

As Adam Phillips states, there is no such thing as “free transgression”. Transgressive acts are always preceded by hesitation, denoting a tortured ambivalence between what is right and what is wrong for you: transgression is in the choosing. It's the difference between being caught in the spin cycle and sitting on the spin cycle but intermittently getting off before pleasure sets in. Because, as Bataille sees it, pleasure is more homogenous spin cycle than heterogenous transgression. Transgressive pleasure just ends up being process, a ‘zombie formalism’ if you will. Style! And there is no hesitation in style. 

Philip Guston is ironically 'accepted' as the legendary transgressor of style. Guston was pulled into the spin cycle of American Abstraction when he arrived in New York in the 1940s. Coming to the end of two decades of pretending to be 'a style' (the context certainly dominating the man) his daughter wondered (due to the psychological torment she witnessed in her father at home) whether "the image maker in him that feared and longed to create golems probably never did feel entirely comfortable with abstraction". How must have it felt for Guston when he made that first transgressive mark in the studio from abstraction back to figuration? And, moreover, to be ambivalent about its future direction? (Transgressive acts discombobulate). And then to imagine further how Guston felt putting it out to public pasture? And then leave it up to DeKooning to put a downer on events by responding toe-to-toe with Guston, 'I get it!'

I am struggling to think back when I experienced something in the official Irish art scene that either transgressed my own taste, or a transgressive artwork that stopped the spin cycle for a moment. One exhibition that abruptly comes to mind is Aleana Egan's solo exhibition ‘Sunday Night’ at TBG+S in 2009.

2009 wasn't a hopeful time for the Irish art scene like in every other walk of life. On that dreary and dark December night when the artificial fluorescence of the city seemed too bright, too much, Egan's stark black and white and cryptic formalism (looking back) was contextually the right amount of wrong. In a sense I am imagining transgression retroactively here. And perhaps this is how transgression works on the senses – it's delayed.

Egan's 'Sunday Night' was non-discursive at a time when discourse seemed to be over-establishing itself in art education: I had just finished art college in Dublin and was chocking on words, but for Egan, I had none. When intellect comes before instinct transgression has no chance of taking root, even in the grass roots. Bataille tells us that discourse kills off transgressive acts. It's like what Michelle Richman says: "eroticism is to sexuality as the non-discursive is to language”. 

While Aleana Egan’s work at TBG+S in 2009 transgressed my personal taste, Richard Mosse’s film The Enclave shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2014 transgressed public taste and consensus. When the stock phrase ‘Love it or Hate it’ trends the art scene you can be sure that a bit of nicking and caressing has taken place. The film wrenched the Irish art scene out of its own arse and got everyone opining about ethics and morals and even Richard Mosse himself. The film produced an excess of diametrically opposed opinion. It was like a spanner had been thrown into the works, causing magenta waves of criticism to flood the art scene. 

With Mosse coming off a series of awards and plaudits for his photography and film, any moral or ethical line that his work may or may not have crossed was obviously inflated. When status enters the art context polarising opinion on whether that artist is deserving of that status comes into play, which effects reception to the work; especially by artists whom feel they are deserving of the same status, which amounts to a lot of artists out there: inflated status transgressively threatens the status quo.

Beyond the personal memories of Egan and Mosse it was last week’s experience of Carol Rama’s life and work presented at IMMA (before my quick exit from TBG+S) that really wrenched me out of my own reverie to end up here with this manifesto, or whatever it is...

Hermetically sealed within a blacked out apartment in Turin for 70 odd years, Rama continued to make art over a lifetime, a lifetime of being remembered but mostly forgotten: status and visibility wasn't the issue. Some artists talk about the need to make art being more powerful than the need for their art to be seen, while others say that they go hand-in-hand. In Rama's case there seemed to be a real ontological need to make art, whether based on the artist's disavowal of life's traumas or passionate embrace of life's jouissance. In some ways Rama's almost secret life as an artist was as transgressive as her art; or at the very least her life and art coalesced to become the same transgressive thing. 

Our general notion of transgression is usually based around sexual deviancy. Admittedly, Rama's images are decisively and unapologetically carnal in as much the way she paints as what she paints. But the artist's most pronounced transgression in the narratives that surround this exhibition at IMMA is how she continued to make art even though it remained relatively unseen in a world that is all about being seen.

Transgression in relation to what I perceive as its absence in the Irish art scene doesn't have to be just about sex (or something so horrid or lurid or beautiful that we can imagine it with absolute clarity, nausea and joy). It can be about the small things – gestures that derail the self and society, prediction and pattern, and most of all, consensus. To transgress is down to our little and big world experiences. It's also down to the language that we use to define transgression, or ill-define it as it were.

Transgression is about swapping sides, from the side of your inhibitors' personal values and beliefs (family, friends, religion, law, education) to the side of your imagined but never realised temptations and ambitions, instincts and intuition. But transgression can also be an act of reaching out beyond personal and private temptations to challenge the status quo, the normative, the passive, the beige. 

The fact is there are artists out there producing transgressive work in outlier spaces and through fugitive projects (and in art college) that will never catch what they naively perceive as the bright searchlights of the institution. I remember I brought to the attention of a curatorial board a host of recent graduate artists as potential future solo exhibitors. I was told in no uncertain terms that the list of artists didn't meet the curriculum vitae standards of the institution's mission statement. (What does mid-career artist mean anyway!?) To be honest the whole thing stank of blinkered careerism – the making and retaining of careers and sustaining of institutions. As Joan's cold shoulder demonstrated at TBG+S, ‘art before friendship' should extend to art before the whole gamut, and that includes jobs and the very institutions of art that support and promote and advocate for art.[2]

When artists transgress their own aesthetic identities, when their process becomes subtractive rather than additive, when they transgress their own tastes, their own environments, their own education, their valued modes of distribution and reception, their own models of influence, their own inhibitors, their own ambitions, everything changes. Of course we need the institution, for there would be nothing to give out about or rebel against, but from time to time I wait for an exhibition to force the washing machine to go CLANK!

The question I arrive at is: is it enough to just imagine transgression in the local art scene? Will that keep someone like me supplied with new words. Because it is artists and their art whom prompt new words, and I am tired of repeating and relying on the same words. 

[James Merrigan, 19 MAY, 2016]



[1] I don't prescribe to rules and styles and careers and friends in anything to do with the arts because compromises are made which I cannot stand in others. Take for instance when art writers cock and squat in panel discussions that writing on art has become too confessional, too academic, too highfalutin, too descriptive, too prescriptive, too philosophical, too subjective, too personal, too self-depreciating, too arrogant, too respectful, too amateur. This is always said with a self-administered pat on the back for not being like him or her, them or they, it or that. I believe (me being the confessional type) if you get something from being confessional in your writing or reading then there will be other writers and readers out there that are just like you – you are not special! Those that prescribe and pronounce a right way to write about art are absolute inhibitors. They are essentially conformists.

[2] But we can look at all of this another way. We can say that the fugitive is the centre and the centre is the fugitive, and that such outlier art is where the spin cycle has the potential to CREAK and GROWN. We can look beyond the galleries and publicly-funded art institutions at the centre, where vision is less tunnel, as something more valuable and less fugitive. That the centre is where you go to die (melodrama). We can acknowledge that the minute an artist is catapulted from the outlier and fugitive that they have accepted the terms and conditions and frameworks of the centre, and all the predictability, cheerleading, self-censorship, bias and compromises that may come with being part of the spin cycle.


When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave. (John Cage)








viper tongues and serpent cocks, black bed restraints and a colony of batty trousers belts, trouser snakes and bike tubes, one-eyed monsters and the many-eyed victim, vaginas that growl and penises that pout, plops as penises and penises as plops, bunch of boners and a bouquet of spent syringes, a wallowing wheelchair and an orgy of wankers, masturbating a serpent dildo and cloistered masturbation, square jerking and round rubbing, Gene Simmons’ tongue and bear bestiality, skulls and crosses and swarms of dolls’ eyes, crowns of teeth and garlands of flowers, jouissannce and self-censorship, woman and men...

(extract from my notes on ‘The Passion of Carol Rama’ exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA)