Years ago, John Carson submitted a request to the Guinness Brewery, asking it to help sponsor his 1979 art project, tentatively titled "A Bottle of Guinness in Every Pub in Buncrana." The brewery was not enthusiastic.
"I cannot see any merit at all in the idea … as it would seem to only perpetuate the myth of the drunken Irish man," an official told Carson by mail. "Guinness is associated with moderation."
Accordingly, Carson changed the artwork's name to "A Bottle of Stout in Every Pub ..." But his correspondence with Guinness became part of the work, along with a series of photographs in which Carson can be seen drinking a bottle of stout in all 22 pubs within the small Irish city of Buncrana.
As with much great art, Carson suffered for his work: He recalls having "a bit of a heave-ho" after lunch, and that he "felt wretched" by day's end. The work's final photo confirms the toll: In it, Carson lies passed out.
At the time, Carson was a post-graduate student living in Ireland. Today, he's the head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. And he's about to revisit his decades-old work.
Carson's project was designed to highlight Ireland's drinking culture. "People drink to excess, in quite a disturbing way," Carson says, over a cocktail at the Union Grill in Oakland. "I knew guys who would have four pints at lunchtime and go back to work in the afternoon."
Now, 32 years after its debut, Carson has been invited to re-exhibit his work at a gallery in Cork -- part of an exhibition challenging Ireland's conservative attitudes toward art. "Fundamentally, I think that Irish attitudes to drinking have not changed," Carson says, though he adds that pubs can be places "of conversation, music and laughter."
But there are no plans to re-create the bar crawl this time around. There are more than 1,000 licensed premises in Cork … and anyway, Carson says, "My liver is not what it used to be."