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September 06 2011

Dublin art show draws on WB Yeats's darkest lines

Dublin Contemporary's political theme is the 'terrible beauty' in the poem Easter, 1916. But are Yeats's eerie, prophetic verses applicable to recent political and economic upheavals?

From 6 September until 31 October, Dublin is putting on a contemporary art show that occupies some of the city's finest venues and includes a host of Irish and international artists. Dublin Contemporary 2011 can be seen at the Hugh Lane, the National Gallery of Ireland and other spaces, and features, among others, Willie Doherty and Thomas Hirschhorn. It should be fascinating to see such a big spread of new art against this city's backdrop of 18th-century buildings, and the event deserves to draw big crowds to Dublin.

But inevitably, in these times of economic crisis and world political upheaval, Dublin Contemporary has a political feel: perhaps it is the first international art event to take on this year's mounting sense of crisis directly. Both the artists I have mentioned are notably engaged with political events, and Dublin Contemporary takes as its theme "Terrible Beauty", a quotation from WB Yeats's poem Easter, 1916.

This has been quite a summer for quoting Yeats. In the wake of England's riots, columnists were working great chunks from his poem The Second Coming into their copy. Easter, 1916 and The Second Coming both come from an anthology that Yeats published in 1921, his most disturbing and engaged book, reflecting on revolution and anticipating civil war. It is chilling that now, people from Telegraph commentators to art curators find his darkest lines appropriate to our times.

In Easter, 1916, Yeats defines the modern spirit in an uneasy and ambivalent way. He speaks of friends and acquaintances he used to meet after work, to say "polite meaningless words" to, yet who have now become revolutionary martyrs in the Easter Rising:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

This line captures the essence of modernism in art as well as politics – the change that has suddenly occurred is absolute, and unleashes terrible beauty. You can apply that image to works of art from Les demoiselles d'Avignon to Thomas Hirschhorn's Crystal of Resistance in the Swiss Pavilion at this summer's Venice Biennale.

As an aesthetic, this "terrible beauty" is compelling, but Yeats sees human terror in the violence and intensity that has been unleashed, for "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart." In The Second Coming, the poet bears witness to gathering darkness as hearts do indeed turn to stone:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So it is uneasy, to say the least, that all of a sudden, the times we live in seem to demand quotations from the eeriest prophetic verses of the 20th century. Are we really in times of "terrible beauty" once again? Are the troubling symptoms of the summer, from breaking glass to market shudders, really comparable with the bloody age in which Yeats had his revelations?

Dublin Contemporary sounds great. But I hope we can soon go back to living where motley is worn. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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