As Time Goes By - June 1983
In his first year as Director (of the Arts Council), 0 Briain gave a memorable lecture/performance at the National Gallery in Dublin. Sitting in a dentist's chair and wearing a crash helmet he held forth on the state of the arts in Ireland. The same year he opened the Living Art Exhibition sitting in a deck chair with his back to the audience, wearing a pair of swimming trunks. Sunday Tribune May 8
I first met Shelby Carpenter when he came to address the opening of the Splash 0' Paint exhibition. Shelby, wearing a two-tone boiler suit and open-toed sandals, was lying back on a table, his feet firmly tucked into gynaecological stirrups, his head in a bucket of muesli. His right hand tapped out his speech on the table top in morse code.
There was, of course, no audience apart from myself - and I was there by chance, having been engaged to do a last minute nixer on the rather ropey lighting system at the Splash. Shelby, in his inimitable style, had chosen to deliver the opening address the night before the opening. He always sought to smash the bourgeois inhibitions which strait-jacket the human soul. "The coincidence in time and space of speaker and audience is a concept outmoded and barbaric as the treadmill", he used to say. "What is important - all that is important is that the statement is made. Those with ears and minds that are open will hear." At least, I think that's what he used to say. My morse code being a bit rusty, he might well have been venturing an opinion on the diuretic properties of parsley - which is something else he was given to expounding on from time to time with an air of authority that brooked no opposition.
Shelby's first giant stride across the artistic stage was his organisation of the Senseless Irish festival in London. This massive undertaking involved the transportation of the entire population of Leitrim to London, where they staged a re-enactment of the siege of Derry. The festival lasted for three months and the provision of transport, lodgings and walking-around money cost the state £24Im. This event, argued Shelby, would create a cathartic synthesis of folk memories, releasing the inherent homogenity which is at present repressed by national alienation.
The state was committed to footing the bill for the festival when Shelby took the then Minister for Finance on a night of debauchery in the fleshpits of Leeson Street. Shelby is widely known to be a very charming and persuasive person. No TD dared oppose the measure for fear of being called a philistine and bracketted with Ned Brennan.
Little was heard of Shelby for the next few months. Behind the scenes, however, he was still the dynamic little organiser. This time he was raising money for his own project, a feature film which he would produce, direct and in which he would star. The Arts Council kicked in a bundle, RTE loaned some equipment, a bunch of Equity members worked without salary - and that was how The Japanese Hatrack was made. The film was a stunningly simple statement on the nature of sexual desire among Leitrim potato growers faced with a depleted crop due to blight.
The most celebrated scene of this film, you will remember, was the agonising fourteen-minute pan across a barren landscape. The tortuously slow pan from left to right took five days and thirty-four takes to shoot. The intended effect of the famous pan, according to Shelby, was that after the first five minutes of the pan the viewer would be bored, after twelve minutes infuriated - and in the last two minutes all of one's previous perceptions of life would be challenged, overturned and then restored. (Most critics agree that the scene that follows the slow pan - the burning down of Drumshanbo - was a mistake, a visual pun, i.e., from the pan to the fire, unworthy of Shelby.)
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this startlingly original .movie was the fact that it was shot without film in the camera. "The incessant desire to preserve for the sake of preservation", says Shelby, "has ever been a limiting factor where the imagination of the artist is concerned - or unconcerned, as the case may be."
At the premier showing, at the Cork Film Festival (the original film had been seventeen hours long but had been edited down to nine hours for commercial release - of course, we had to take Shelby's word for this) there was a sensation when Shelby stormed out of the cinema halfway through, claiming that the reels had been shown in the wrong order. As the rest of the audience had left three hours earlier, the projectionist closed up shop and went home. That night the cinema burned down. Shelby received a six-figure sum as compensation for the loss of his masterpiece and spent the next two years on a world cruise, contemplating (according to his press agent) "the nature of art in a changing society".
Shelby's greatest achievement was the setting up of the Ace Dossers scheme, whereby 150 artists who can't shift their work for love nor money are to receive large remittances from the state until hell freezes over. The most important effect of this scheme is not the kickbacks to the artists but the fact that a carefully selected group have been allowed expropriate the term Art - ensuring that Art will thereafter be defined by what the Ace Dossers choose it to be.
The inauguration of the Ace Dossers scheme was marked by a special exhibition of "natural sculpture" by the Dossers themselves. On entering the exhibition room one was confronted by a small pile of excrement neatly stacked on a pedestal. According to the catalogue, this work was entitled "Life". Scattered around the room were 148 similar pedestals, similarly adorned, one entitled "Politics", another "Contemporary Literature" and so on. In the centre of the room there was a pedestal on which rested a single red rose. This was titled "Love".
The Sunday Independent said this was "a statement stunning in its brutal simplicity". The Sunday Press said it was "a statement brutal in its stunning simplicity". The Tribune thought the exhibition "stunning in its simple brutality". The Sunday World thought it was "a load of old shite".