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  • Writing the Contemporary Encounter in the Museum:Dorothy Cross and Trove at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2014–15*
  • Niamh NicGhabhann (bio)

In his exploration of contemporaneity and its discontents Pedro Erber argues that "in brief, to be contemporary is to (in a subtle, particular manner) refuse contemporaneity." Drawing on the theories of Marc Augé, Giorgio Agamben, and others, Erber parses contemporaneity in the context of an assumed shared globalized condition. The different registers of contemporaneity discussed by Erber include the condition of "coevalness" (after Johannes Fabian), based on the "dialogic interaction between human beings" and on "time shared though action, interaction, and communication" rather than on a "mere chronological relationship." Complicating this position, however, is the concept of "allochronism"—referring to the construction of distance following the period of "coevalness"—that is created through processes of transcribing, writing, and analysis. This conceptualization suggests a collapsing of clear boundaries of the contemporary and an increased emphasis on the imprecise contours of what can constitute "contemporary" experience or contemporaneity. These challenges lead Erber, drawing on the field of anthropological research, to consider Agamben's proposal in his essay "What Is the Contemporary" (2008) that "those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it." The idea that contemporaneity [End Page 244] requires a level of critical distance is further explored by Erber in relation to shared existence across different times and different epochs. Quoting Naoki Sakai, Erber argues that this condition can be based on "participating in the same discourse" or "sharing the same discursive register," opening the possibility of contemporaneity between objects or ideas from different points on a chronological spectrum.1

These different perspectives on the condition of, obstacles to, and potential for contemporaneity provide a useful frame through which to consider Trove by Dorothy Cross, an exhibition held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) from 3 December 2014 to 8 March 2015.2 In order to create Trove, Cross selected a series of objects from a range of Irish museums and arranged them in conversation with each other in the gallery space. Cross's curatorial practice in Trove reflected Terry Smith's conceptualization of curating as "making contemporaneity visible," but also challenged the limitations of the visible through her exploration of time, allusion, and humor across the exhibition.3 Cross's exploration of time and her use of museum objects as materials complicate the idea of contemporary art and her own position as a contemporary artist, resisting (and perhaps refusing) classification in a way that reflects Agamben's proposal and responds to Sakai and Erber's contention about possible conditions of contemporaneity.

This essay therefore examines the idea of the contemporary as constructed by and refracted through Trove. It first describes the exhibition itself, a contemporary show curated by a contemporary artist based on chronologically wide-ranging historic objects encompassing ammonites of the Jurassic age, with an estimated age of 200 million years, to work produced in more recent years, such as the 1997 portrait of Louise Bourgeois by photographer Annie Leibovitz. The essay proposes interpretations of the exhibition and the curatorial choices made by Cross, and the practice of curating the exhibition is examined as an extension of her engagement with ideas [End Page 245] of time, Surrealist juxtaposition, and contemporaneity. Trove is then positioned within the context of Cross's broader installation-based and site-specific works.

The perspectives on contemporaneity outlined by Erber are valuable in the context of the use of the designation "contemporary" within the sphere of visual art. The concepts of coevalness, allochronism, critical distance, and shared discourses can be used here to negotiate the ideas of the contemporary as employed within art-critical or art-historical discourse. Terry Smith has outlined the growth and formation of the subject of contemporary art as a specific field of art-historical investigation.4 Smith's essay is helpful not only in parsing the different definitions of the term contemporary, but also in the way that he describes the use of...


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