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You Like to Watch, Don’t You.

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There is something masochistic about telling stories that have the same horizon. 

I grew up in a small Irish village. From the very first time I started to archive my own memories in language, not the memories handed down by my family, friends and villagers, I wanted to forget them. I found the village life insular and amnesia inducing. Past events were retold and re-described by the villagers with the invention that comes with repetition and the plot holes that come with emotion. 

These storytellers somehow devalued their pasts. It was like the events of their lives were never good enough, never colorful enough, whichever way they re-described them. Their histories never measured-up to the dramatic memoirs of their idols and icons and neighbours. In the end the stories of our lives become fantasies, not memories. And the smaller the life the bigger the lie.

But the worst thing was, the villagers had the nerve to embellish the same past, bare face to bare face over and over and over again. Perhaps the need to embellish or imagine out-weighs the shame of being caught in a lie: the villagers were writing the same organic script in that respect. 

Artist Alan Phelan shows himself to be a storyteller of villager stock in his tall tale Our Kind currently on show at The Hugh Lane, Dublin, where we see him mining the life of Irish revolutionary and diarist, Roger Casement, to tell a story that is based on historical inconsistencies, half-truths and injustices.

Casement the man has been an ongoing project for Phelan, not just a centenary fling like so much other art made this year. 10 years ago Phelan made a papier-mâché bust of Casement with a rubber plant snaking out of its nostrils, entitled Roger should have stayed in the jungle (2006). Phelan's evolving portrait of Casement seems to be bound up in ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ scenarios.

Phelan's art, which I have come to know and appreciate over the years, is usually hedonistically plentiful and pleasurably tactile. Thankfully, we get some Braille hedonism and pleasure at The Hugh Lane in the wall-bound vinyl texts that covertly reveal 'filthy' extracts from Casement's diaries, which document or fantasise about his men being “stiff” and “huge”. 

Until now, however, I have not always fully connected with Phelan’s haptic excursions into film. The presence of the artist's frenzied and creative hand in his making and hoarding of things and ideas have always made sense to me in the gallery as solid and still objects. Especially when Phelan's hand was injured in recent years, which resulted in the outpouring of artworks that enshrined the importance of the hand to his art. 

Our Kind is a 30-minute film that falls between the durational hinterland of T.V. sitcom and drama series, and once and for all displays Phelan's gift for storytelling in film. The artist has constructed some form of temporal multiverse where you can seemingly cheat physical death but not psychical defeat: Phelan's Casement in exile is a psychologically and spiritually beaten-down superhero.

It's 1941, Norway; an impossible future 25-years after Casement was executed following the 1916 Easter Rising. Against an alien landscape, a haunting instrumental accompanies friend and supporter to the Irish cause, Alice Stopford Green, as she exhales vapours on her way to meet Casement and his manservant-cum-lover, Adler Christensen, who are seen snuggling in bed, dismissing any doubt outright.

Alice traverses a metal bridge that has the profile of some fantasy aircraft or spacecraft, a Lockheed Nighthawk or Cylon Raider. Then past a dragon-scale slated roof. The ice and isolation of the Norwegian landscape suggests to the child in me Superman’s Fortress of Solitude1, and to the adult, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. 

Our Kind is full of fencing dialogue between the 3 protagonists, as they verbally thrust and parry without really coming to a conclusion. The best and most fluid line in the film's choppy and circling narrative is given to Alice: "The choreography of the coincidences is perfect." 

Phelan’s Casement is taciturn and stoic, aloof and secretive. The man is just about surviving the psychological fallout from the British government's circulation of his 'sexual degeneracy', which was publicly unmasked via his Black Diaries. These public revelations undermined any support for clemency regarding the British court’s charge of treason against Casement for his hand in planning an armed rebellion in Germany against British rule in Ireland.

There is only one moment in Phelan's counterfactual portrait when Casement the man is unguardedly human: the moment when Adler exits their bed and Casement gives an anxious yawn in anticipation of Alice's visit, as if there were something troublesome on the horizon. For the rest of the film Casement huffs and puffs like a big and tamed wolf, episodically staving off his abrupt and instinctual nature as the ‘big bad wolf' in his stop-and-go interactions with an ever so judgmental Alice, and his evolving pig of a lover, Adler.

There is something childlike and fantastic about Phelan's characterisation of Adler. In one instance he inappropriately confesses that finding a well-filled wallet was "like a dream". In another Adler recounts to Casement Edgar Allan Poe's short story, ‘Hop-Frog’, which tells the tale of Hop-Frog the dwarf, who turned nasty on a king who lived for the practical joke. Hop-Frog convinces the King's cabinet to dress as orangutans for the forthcoming masquerade in costumes of tar and flax. As part of the theatre the men as orangutans are chained together, a device that helps Hop-Frog to string up and torch his taunters. 

That's the thing about my general reception of Phelan's art, it always seems to elicit childhood. The references to fairytales and superheroes came naturally when watching Our Kind. The title too suggests something more than the obvious; humanity maybe. However, there is no happy ever after here. Something that Alice makes a point of when she says to Roger that he is "not happy" while conversing about the weather in a fairytale forest.

The word ‘generous’ comes too easily when thinking about Phelan's art. It's more to do with the difference between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, like when the late Robin Williams unmasked his joker half to reveal an actor who had pathos in spades.

[James Merrigan]

Through 2 October 2016.


1. For those not up on their sci-fi, Brando played Jor-El, Superman's father in the 1978 movie. In the case of eliciting Superman’s Fortress of Solitude: it could be the notion that the Italian actor playing Adler resembles Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954). Especially in the scene following Adler’s sexual encounter (and betrayal of Roger) with Alice, in which Adler is wearing a wife beater, or 'mummy beater' in this context.


coulda woulda shoulda