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A portrait of the artist as autonomous coastal city-state: by Donna Marie O’Donovan

A portrait of the artist as autonomous coastal city-state

by Donna Marie O’Donovan


In his works, Gary Farrelly gamely extends the generative role of the artist to encompass the forming of a nation, condensing all that is currently important to him into one self-constructed, overarching Utopia. Through the distillation of his histories and preoccupations into a nation-self, Farrelly challenges traditional notions of auto-representation and demonstrates a bold if fanciful recalibration of the relationship between elements of self and elements of State. A 7ft x 5ft hand-fabricated palimpsest of collage and drawing, Farrelly’s Neustern: a portrait of the artist as autonomous coastal city-state (2011) is a detailed map of an invented land mass. Conceived partly as a self-portrait and partly as a totalitarian Utopia, it is a work that extends cartography to encompass portraiture, recasting the artist/citizen as an omnipotent despot whose personal idiosyncrasies and interests form the touchstones of national heritage and government policy. Featuring more than 700 individually named streets – each commemorative of an autobiographical, spiritual, cultural, or sexual aspect of Farrelly’s personality – Neustern (pronounced noy-stern and meaning ‘new star’) forms a vast integrated urban network than can simultaneously be read as a synaptic mapping of the artist’s conscious self.

Begun in March 2010 at the University of Texas at Dallas Artists Residency CentralTrak, and completed in October 2011 at Pickering Forest in County Kildare, Neustern represents a reinvestigation and a dilation of the scope, ambition and application of some of Farrelly’s established themes. Starting with his DefastenKunstRepublik series (2005 – 2007) and continuing with his KunstRepublikObsessive (2007 – 2009) and Nordstern series (2009 – 2010), Farrelly has repeatedly returned to the invented nation state as a site for the conversion of what appears as personal whim into what is wielded as political will. While previous works have featured the imposition of the artist’s private fixations onto the infrastructures of power and nationhood – particularly via the names and nomenclature of imagined urban spaces – the Neustern project takes this further, investing the territory with an intricate phantasm of history, economy, politics, culture, ideology, mythology and society.

In addition to its physical schematics, Neustern has a national airline, a public transport system, a governmental structure, a variety of political parties, and and a glut of accompanying statistical data ranging from murder rates to the breakdown of land usage. The “autonomous coastal city-state” also holds national elections, the most recent of which saw the National Comrades Party (in power since the country’s founding in Farrelly’s birth year of 1983) ousted by the Libertarian Party of Neustern in a diligent reflection of the artist’s own shifting political views. In such ways Farrelly not only moulds the material projection of Neustern to mirror his own psychic self-image, but also conjures a metaphysical manifestation of the place upon which he can impose himself further.

Openly regarded by the artist as his first cartographic self-portrait, Neustern is attended by an index of references necessarily more intimate, more extensive, and more auto-centric than that of any preceding work. Among the streets’ namesakes are fetishised industries (Espionage Avenue), idolised statesmen (Ron Paul Square), pseudonyms for ex-lovers (Somnambulist Paradeway), declarations of faith (Christ Almighty Square), and self-coined sexual terms (Gaytaster Street). The volume of these references testifies to the artist’s persistent and obsessive impulse to insert his personal histories and currencies into the fabric of a self-constructed alternative reality. This quasi-colonial, quasi-narcissistic lens is a hallmark of Farrelly’s creative approach and one that may be argued to reflect an attempt to resolve the incessancy of influence/information with the limits of absorption. Having been diagnosed with the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy as a teenager, Farrelly’s aptitude for filtering received data into a new alloy corresponding almost entirely to his own set of interests may have developed partly as a canny defence against ennui-induced unconsciousness(!). This dialectic between oblivion and concordance with what is deemed relevant accounts for some of the lacunae in Neustern’s infrastructure (the inception of a national football team for example was simply not of interest to the artist), but it also engages with the limited, arbitrary and constructed nature of an ideal or Utopia, revealing it to be not only subjective but ultimately tyrannical.

The notion of tyranny, as both an imposed political superstructure (Neustern’s government is ruled by a figurehead known only as the “Supreme Controller”) and as a latent feature of a synthetic ideology, resonates decidedly within the boundaries of Neustern. At a time when the mask seems to have slipped from the Utopian model of Western capitalist democracy and its incumbent systems, we are perhaps more sensitive than ever to the tyrannical potential of politico-ideological constructs and the limits of their proposed Utopias. These limits apply not only to the form of the ideal – resultant as it is of a partisan fabrication – but also to its attainability; approximations to Utopian states/States inevitably skid on the recognition that they are necessarily illusory. The city-state of Neustern admits and is partly a product of these limits, illusions, and recognitions, engaging with them in its constructedness and fictitiousness, as well as through reference to examples drawn from popular science-fiction – the definitive medium of Utopian thought – in which the words is revealed to be a product of covert manipulation, markedly other than what it is alleged to be (Agutter Avenue and Badler Plaza allude to actresses from Utopian meltdown movie Logan’s Run and television mini-series V).

Farrelly accepts that the Utopia presented in Neustern corresponds to what many people would consider dystopian – a controlled state headed by a totalitarian despot and populated by an architecture that aspires to Soviet brutalism. This discrepancy emphasises the radical subjectivity of Utopian ideals and the wealth of extant materials upon which such subjectivity depends to form an aggregate for the construction of its Utopic design. Farrelly’s selected permutations of influences and inspirations are based largely on his own self, and in this way demonstrate a certain double consciousness that perpetually regards itself though the glass of historicity (the artist signs his works “Gary Farrelly 1983-2077”) and measures itself by the tape of a world with which it never fully accords but from which it perversely desires acknowledgement and approval. In line with this complex dynamic, Farrelly’s production and issuance of a hand-made series of Neustern Sovereign Development Bonds can be read not simply as a wry comment on current politico-economic crises, but also as an extension of the self as nation-state to the self as investable commodity. With such gestures Farrelly manifests his compulsion to create not just artworks, but mediated versions of his self-image for confirmation and consumption by an audience/market. Complicating the ambition of absolute power as wielded in his Utopian projection of Neustern, this tandem exercise of auto-representation and self-franchising arguably asserts that Farrelly needs to be validated as much as he needs to be viewed.