Dublin Contemporary 2011

The economic crisis is the backdrop to this exhibition.

The signs and symptoms of Ireland's economic and fiscal crisis are hard to ignore. When I take a taxi from Dublin airport, the driver soon launches into an anatomy of his country's predicament. He tells me about the rogue solicitor who ran off with the deeds to the house he and his wife have just bought on Dublin's north side; about the friends saddled with mortgages they were never going to be able to repay; and - the most familiar emblem of the crisis, this - about the vast tracts of empty or half-finished executive housing that have spread out from the suburbs into the countryside.

Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné, the curators of "Dublin Contemporary 2011", an international exhibition that runs at several venues in the Irish capital until the end of October, have taken economic hardship as their theme - they could hardly have done otherwise. They've given the exhibition the title "Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non-Compliance" and say they've chosen work that, in one way or another, "engage[s] society's problems".

There's evidence of this admirable ambition at the main exhibition venue at Earlsfort Terrace, in a building that used to house the engineering, medicine and architecture departments of University College Dublin, and which still bears the traces of its former life (professorial nameplates still adorn the door frames of what are now exhibition spaces rather than seminar rooms). Exhortatory slogans have been pasted on the walls, Maoist-style - one refers to "art's capacity to imagine and effect change in the social sphere". Unfortunately, much of the work on show doesn't quite live up to the strenuous claims the curators make on its behalf.

Among the exceptions are William Pow­hida's Market Crash, a facsimile of an Art Newspaper front page, accompanied by a series of handwritten "Narratives of the art boom", and The Financial Crisis (Session I-IV), a film by the Danish collective Superflex, in which a psychotherapist proposes to treat the viewer's "economic problems". (It is projected in a darkened white cube, on to the floor of which hundreds of one euro coins have been glued.)

In many other pieces, the engagement with the actuality is rather more oblique. A good example is Ancient Ground, a video by the Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty, on show at the Dublin City Gallery. Here Doherty refines the combination of image and text characteristic of his early work, offering lingering closeups of bogs and waterlooged moorland, and a voiceover that encourages us to look at the landscape afresh - or, as Castro and Viveros-Fauné put it, to "reimagine the world".

“Dublin Contemporary 2011" runs until 31 October. For more information and to book tickets, visit: dublincontemporary.com

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter