I have spent the past five weeks in Dublin; it is a wonderful city, but quite pricey: according to City Mayors, the somewhat dubious "international think tank for urban affairs," it is the tenth most expensive city in the world. Having spent many years in New York and a fair deal of time in Paris – both ostensibly more expensive cities than Dublin, by City Mayors' estimate –, however, I've found Dublin's artistic scene to be more prohibitive, in a purely economic sense, than either of these other cultural capitals; perhaps it's because Dublin seems to offer far fewer free events, perhaps because Dublin is so small and its arts scene thus feels somewhat outsize. In any event, I have felt that I've had to be far more deliberate in my events-rationing than I have in either New York or Paris, and have therefore missed out on a great deal of seemingly tremendous things; because of this, I will extend this Cultural Diary – the intention of which is to highlight the cultural highlights of its members' past week – to the full five weeks that I've been here, as to focus just on this past week would bring about a pitifully small and uninteresting pittance of affairs.
All highlighted words and names link to their properly respective websites.
I was fortunate to arrive here just before the opening of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival; relying on just enough money to be able to eat, I had to sacrifice several meals in order to attend a few of these performances, and unfortunately had to miss out entirely on the previous week's Dublin Fringe Festival, which was host to no small number of terrific-sounding shows. All of the shows I saw had some exciting element – slat, a Werner Herzog-championed piece exploring the mental processes of a feral child, had some truly terrifying, as well as poignant, moments, but ultimately its discomfort in figuring out where to place the viewers created a deadening emotional divide between performers and audience; Tales of Ballycumber had a gripping central conceit and a lovely set reminiscent of the one Spike Jonze created for Yeah Yeah Yeahs' MTV Video Music Awards performance of "Maps," but its reliance on monologue for emotional exposition grew a bit tiresome – but there were two that really stuck out: one was the wonderful Playhouse, which turned one of Dublin's drabber buildings into a nighttime animation theatre; sponsored by daft.ie, which would sort of be Ireland's equivalent of Craig's List if Craig's List didn't also exist here, it allowed people to visit its site and send in animation to later be screened on the building's LED-lighted glass façade. It was really just a wonderful and fun addition to the night sky, and one that is greatly missed. Also – and most – thrilling was Pan Pan's production of The Crumb Trail, a piece they've taken all over the world but that received maybe its most coherent, thrilling, and invigorating production here. The performance was unnerving, hilarious, worrisome, and entirely winning in its thoughtful provocations of what storytelling – and elements thereof – is, can be, and can do. Pan Pan is one of my favorite theatre groups, and I can't wait to follow their work further.
Set of Tales of Ballycumber, at the Abbey Theatre.
Still of an animated sequence from Playhouse.
Pan Pan's Aoife Duffin and Bush Moukarzel in The Crumb Trail.
The National Gallery of Ireland is a terrific place to lose the hours of your day. Its collection is wide and unpretentious, and its curators have somehow managed to make its significant size inviting and approachable, even if – and you have to, if you hope to see everything – it demands multiple visits before you can feel you've properly earned a revisit to any particular section. The current exhibition is called Edvard Munch: Prints, a pithy title for a tremendous and refreshingly small and manageable show. It presumes no knowledge on the part of the visitor of various print techniques, and even includes a helpful plaque explaining the many methods Munch used to create the prints in the exhibit. The subject matter is typically grim and melancholy, but somehow, in print form, the occasional maudlin effect of his paintings disappears and his work seems more focused by the limitations his techniques. His portraits seem more direct and piercing, and even his persistent usage of Woman as Metaphor – most typically as the agent of man's madness, but occasionally, and just as tiresomely, as unapproachable Innocence Incarnate – has a certain pathos here that seems missing in his more outré paintings. His print of the Madonna, framed by a fetal Jesus and floating sperm – the interpretation is bound to be attacked as either too literal or blasphemous: but I like thinking it's the sperm of God – is one of my favorites. I loved Munch before I saw this, but somewhat abashedly; I love him all the more after this, and with fewer reservations.
The Sick Child I, 1986
The really fantastic Exchange Dublin is consistently host to or in some productive way partly responsible for much of the most exciting events in Dublin; it's a relatively new organization, and its place in the city will surely only grow larger and larger. On Sunday, October 25, it was home to a 3pm show by Thread Pulls and No Age, the latter of which is one of my favorite contemporary bands and the former of which is now likely to join its company. No Age is one of the best live bands I've ever seen; subtleties that don't quite come out on record – often it's just a matter of seeing them performing – become entirely enthralling to listen to. They are one of the most confident bands I know of, just entirely comfortable in their own skin, so much so that they allow themselves quite freely and adventurously to play with their own songs, turning what could have been – and what may or may not have been – unintentional flubs into fun and exciting new nuances. This show was accompanied by enough outside influences to have utterly flummoxed most bands, among them a noise complaint and subsequent visit from the cops and a broken guitar string, the latter of which proved that guitarist Randy Randall may be the fastest guitar restringer alive; but through all of this No Age remained entirely in their element. This seems particular to this band: they are never not in their element because, wherever they are, they make their own space and draw others into it. I'd never been to an indoor rock show on a Sunday afternoon before, but they made this – as no doubt they make any place and time – seem the natural setting for them. But it was ultimately an odd and unnerving set, if only because of drummer Dean Allen Spunt's evident dissatisfaction with the audience's general unwillingness to move or dance much at all; this led to a few brief outlets of audience-directed half-mockery and disdain on his part, as he urged us to be more active than we were. This is a difficult situation at any show: how to deal with what seems to be a physically unresponsive audience. The buzzkill that the performers feel upon not seeing in the audience a desired response often results in a buzzkill for the audience when they are chastised by the band for, in a sense, not fulfilling their end of the bargain; one could make the lazy case that having paid for the show is enough to have held up the audience's expected participation, but when the performers don't receive what they see as their rightful due – and No Age's performance certainly felt due more audience involvement – the whole thing just feels unfortunate: an increasing chasm between the two develops, and it can often turn, however quietly and uncomfortably, a particularly antagonistic one. So the show went from one of the most fun and fulfilling I've been to in a long time to one of the more upsetting. Being somewhat averse to dancing in public, I was no doubt one of the people ticking Spunt off by not moving enough; I was loving the show, but my enjoyment was lost in translation, as my body wasn't communicating this. Spunt's open disgruntlement placed me right back at middle school dances, when the cooler, confident, dancing kids would mock the wall-huggers. I wish there were a way to communicate to the band how much I appreciate them without having to face my deeper social fears. This may seem – indeed, it may be – a paltry, overlong, overly tortured consideration of this unfortunate phenomenon, but I think it's one that would be good to discuss; if some kind of open conversation about this were to occur between musicians and their more dance-phobic fans, I think some great headway could be made in the mutual understanding of our respective show-going needs and desires. This is the kind of thing we can work through, everybody, but we have to do to it together.
Thread Pulls' opening set was invigorating in the way No Age's shows usually are, and the way this one surely would have been had my guilt not gotten in the way of my having a good time. The duo has a similar essential set-up to No Age in terms of instrumentation: a drummer, playing on a sundry few drums, and a bassist; but they also incorporate trumpet and vocal and instrumentational loops throughout their songs, to terrific, vivifying effect. I'll be leaving Dublin soon, so I certainly hope they make plans to come to New York in the near future.