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Joe Caslin - A Helping Hand

Words:

Edd Norval
September 28, 2018

Joe Caslin has chosen to explore the nuanced and writhy subject of power. As such, his work will always be viewed through a contemporary lens. Our conception of power is based on what holds (and doesn't) power at this exact moment. He creates his work in Ireland, a country that has voted to make gay marriage legal and more recently 'yes' to repeal a draconian anti-abortion law, a country with a constantly evolving sense of the word.

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It starts simple. There are the haves and the have nots. Then it expands to those who did or didn't have power and of that, those who have gained it or lost it. From there on in the subject of power morphs depending on to which gender, ethnicity, business sector, sport, social class and political field it is applied. Even those sub-groups just scratch the surface. That Joe Caslin even wants to embroil himself in the matter is worthy of a hat-tip.


Connell Vaughan of Irish news enterprise RTÉ examined the opinion that "Joe Caslin's large-scale work in public spheres around contemporary issues can be seen as a kind of advocacy journalism."


The artist creates large-scale newspaper print-like murals and multimedia pieces that try to decode the information we are fed through a plethora of information highways. It can feel at times that, to stick with the metaphor, we are simply trying to cross the road safely - something that feels increasingly impossible when opinions are flying towards us from all directions. Caslin has to bring these disparate opinions to a point and do so in a way that is engaging for his audience. It's art that lives by talking.

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In Vaughan's piece on Caslin he evokes the protests of 1968 that occurred throughout France. Looking at Caslin from a Situationist perspective he says of the movement's figurehead Guy Debord, "Recognising a world where rebellion will be eventually commodified as spectacle, Debord identified artistic techniques of temporarily derive (drifting) and détournement (reworking) to challenge the accepted atmosphere of the urban landscape."


Simply by creating his art, he is engaging in a form of disruption. That it has political and social implications makes us more inclined to view it as protest. The large and photographic images are inherently reflective. The poses of the protagonists drip with pathos. It's clear that they feel this way for a reason. Depending on when and where they exist, our interpretation of it will change and evolve.


The ephemeral nature of street-art means that they are intended for the here-and-now. They're engaging with the issues that are in the papers and on the news. If they aren't taken down though, we must view them as part of a landscape in flux. What was once something that sought change becomes a reminder that change is always happening.

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In 2015 Caslin turned his attentions to the upcoming vote on marriage equality in Ireland. Should the rights that hetrosexual couples have been extended to the gay community? Ireland being a deeply religious country was torn between tradition and modernity, between holding on and letting go. Caslin's input was one of the most powerful and evocative, yet subtle additions to the intense debate.


His large mural, The Claddagh Embrace/#yesequality was a multi-storey depiction of two men holding onto each other tightly. The image is deeply troubling. The men look wary, or even afraid, that things are going to change. A vote for 'No' wouldn't have had any legal repercussions, instead, it's something that's much harder to take - it would have made people feel 'wrong' for following their nature to it's conclusion - embracing the person they love.


The work was quickly picked up by both national and international press and became a de-facto symbol of the pro-marriage-equality movement. On the cover of the International New York Times the sub-heading read "Vote seen as reflection of social upheaval and waning power of church". What started out as a whisper had become a roar.

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It's not only the shifting dynamics of power that Caslin explores though, it's also the effects it has on people. In his piece Our Nation's Sons Caslin depicts the images of young men on site-specific locations around his homeland. On this project he states, "As a nation we have pushed a significant number of our young men to the very edges of society and created within them feelings of neglect and apathy. It is now time to empower these young lads and give them a sense of belonging"


As power shifts, as times change, some people fall by the wayside. The distressing suicide rate amongst young men indicates that there are underlying issues that society must address, less it risks these men taking their own lives.


That's the thing with power. It benefits only those that wield it. It can drive those in pursuit mad and leave those without it to die. Explaining the multifaceted nature of the beast is an impossible task. Instead Caslin does something much more powerful - he gives us the option to think for ourselves. It means so many things to so many different people that a one-to-one approach is the best place to start. So that's what he did, he started. For such an eternal matter though, it also leaves us wondering - where do his works end? We must hope that his battle is one he won't give up on.

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