SUBSET: creating space for climate art in the capital

October 30th, 2019

In September, Dublin City Council ordered the removal of a climate-change-awareness mural in South Dublin due to a lack of planning permission for the artwork. 

The mural was painted on a building on Longwood Avenue in Portobello and depicted world-famous documentarian and climate activist David Attenborough. 

It was a birthday gift from an artist collective known as SUBSET for the seasoned earth advocate, unveiled on his 93rd birthday. 

Some councillors opposed the removal of the mural with Fine Gael’s Danny Byrne calling for the retention of the artwork. 

“Common sense needs to prevail in situations like this. This is clearly a spectacular piece of work on a wall which heretofore was targeted with random graffiti,” Mr Byrne said. “I’m sure the Council has bigger fish to fry.”

However, it wasn’t the first time that SUBSET was running into what the group describes as “bureaucratic” difficulties with the local authority. 

In August, the Council took a case against the artists to An Bord Pleanála (ABP), reasoning that their mural – Horseboy – in Smithfield required planning permission to remain on display.

Over 5,000 people signed a petition to save it the mural of the boy in a tracksuit sitting shyly on a white horse with a grey city behind him. 

Getting personal with SUBSET

SUBSET is an art collective with a sharp focus on climate art, hoping to use creativity to spark outrage about the potential death of our planet, in case facts and figure fail to trigger such impact. 

Two members of SUBSET are reluctant to give interviews but agreed to speak to The Green News on the condition of anonymity. They rejected the idea of using aliases, stating that they are merely members of SUBSET with their identities melted into the art.

“There is something lost when people start focusing on the actual person rather than the art,” member one says.  “We really just want people to focus on the ideas and what we are trying to say, rather than who we are as people.”

Speaking to The Green News at the Royal Hibernian Academy, where the group currently has its Micro vs Macro exhibition, member two says that SUBSET is composed of friends and acquittances who have a vibrant love for Ireland. 

“I think really it’s just about a group of people who have completely different ideas and opinions and likes and dislikes, but the one thing we all sort of seem to agree on is that Dublin and Ireland need more artwork and more colour,” member two says.

Highlighting Microplastic Pollution

Raising awareness about microplastic pollution is a goal that SUBSET is firmly dedicated to achieving. 

Inside the RHA, a sprawl of art on a white wall captures attention. At first glance, it is difficult to draw any connection between the abstract artwork’s shapes and colours with microplastics. The piece, however, is composed almost entirely of the polluting material.

“When we started our project, we wanted to focus on plastics, and we thought we needed real material,” member two says. “So, we went to Dublin Bay to try and find some plastic.”

The members recall the arduous work of fishing a cornucopia of plastics from Dublin Bay: balloons, ropes, nylons and even receipts. 

“We spent a good portion of the week to actually looking at this plastic to get some close-ups, and it was interesting to see how it all started to look abstract,” member one says. 

“We thought it was interesting how something so destructive that is causing so many problems can be so beautiful,” Member two says. It was recently revealed that microplastics have shown up in snow samples in remote mountainous areas such as the Arctic and the Alps. 

Bureaucracy or hypocrisy?

When it comes to their street, climate art, SUBSET members can speak quite passionately, like mothers shielding their children from harm. Member two says that the Council ordered the removal of their David Attenborough mural even though they had permission from the owner of the building.

“You have to be really quick about these things and get them up as soon as possible, you can’t go through all these bureaucratic hoops,” Member one says.  “And we had permission from the owner of the property, the owner and local residents they all have shown their support to keep it.”

SUBSET claims that the Council has told them that they had received one complaint about the mural. “So, one complaint has caused all this fuss,” member one says.

They say that the Council’s move is somewhat hypocritical, issuing a climate action plan on the one hand and ordering the removal of climate-change-awareness art on the other. 

“I mean, you could say that the Council is hypocritical as an organisation, but not when it comes to many good individuals who work there,” member one says.

“We have worked with Dublin City Council on successful projects that have been beneficial for the community,” member two adds. 

A spokesperson for the Council’s planning team told The Green News that the decision to order the removal of the group’s mural does not have “anything to do with climate change”.

The Council has to implement a number of statutory functions and the Planning and Development Act is one of those,” the spokesperson said, adding that the local authority has “publicly stated our support of street art”.

“Dublin City Council have a good working relationship with SUBSET and have actually commissioned one of the largest pieces they will execute in the City in support of climate action,” the spokesperson added.

“However, the fact of law remains that murals materially change a building (that’s why they are done) and as such require planning permission.”

Struggling to survive on creativity

SUBSET members argue Ireland, and in particular, Dublin, is not an artist-friendly place, citing the example of the Council’s recent decision on the Attenborough mural and the rise of expensive housing in the city.

At the moment, Ireland is a very difficult place to live, if you’re an artist and young,” member two says. “We’re so capable as a nation, and as a city, Ireland could be a powerhouse in culture in the world, and we have the talent and ability.”

The members lament that their friends get so disillusioned and “pressurised” that they are left with no choice but leaving the country. “Ireland is definitely taking the wrong direction in many aspects, we’re not supportive of our artists, creatives, writers, dancers, painters,” Member two says. “Ireland needs a cultural revolution.”

SUBSET’s Micro vs Macro Exhibition runs until January 26 in the RHA Gallery. For more information on the group see www.subset.ie

About the Author

Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.

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