Postcard from Dublin

The quiet, understated elegance of Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery - located in Charlemont House, a stately Georgian building situated slightly away from the city's melee of tourists and congestion of traffic - seemed like an apposite setting for an exhibition of Tacita Dean's sublime, contemplative work. In fact, a feeling of being in the right place at the right time, the presence of an almost magical serendipity, runs through much of Dean's art. Whilst we might suppose that this is solely an effect that is skilfully engineered by Dean - and inevitably her immense artistic talent (and crucially, that of her sometime cinematographer John Adderley) plays a vital role - there remains a real feeling that, in her very best work, she succeeds in tapping into a mysterious, profound sense of universal flow. This might sound like overblown hyperbole, but the best of Dean's work, which comprises a handful of her 16mm films, captures and expresses very powerfully, something of the essence of what it means to be alive. It really is that good. It is some of the very best art being made anywhere, in any medium.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in what feels like the central, defining work in this exhibition: a recent film, Presentation Sisters (2005). Filmed over the course of one day in a Cork convent where now only five nuns remain, Dean records, in long, static shots, the humdrum (and sometimes touchingly absurd) daily routines of these elderly women. Whether she is capturing them at communal prayer, making tea, tending to some flowers, watching the television or, bizarrely, ironing towels (why iron a towel?), Dean's camera remains seemingly unseen and unobtrusive; not even observing, but rather simply seeing. Not so much a fly on the wall, as some kind of invisible, ethereal presence. This feeling is even more apparent in the sequences that begin and end the film, and feature intermittently in between, when Dean turns her camera upon unpeopled spaces in and around the convent, and where, characteristically, the presence and movement of sunlight often becomes the film's evocative subject.

Whilst in the hands of some artists it might appear too obvious or cloying, Dean doesn't shy away from the rich symbolism discovered at every turn: shots up staircases or down shadowy halls frequently climax in kaleidoscopic, heavenly auras of light; aerial shots almost suggest an appeased God looking on; the signs that point towards death and ascension towards the end of the film, though numerous, are handled with a light, gently ironic touch. Dean has such a wonderful knack for framing and composition, and her camera discovers beauty in the most unexpected of places, uncovering something of the hidden, omnipresent structures of life. Whilst exploring both the irrecoverable passage of time and a paradoxical timelessness, Dean's work gets to the very heart of being in the present moment. There is much more to say about this film, and other excellent works in the exhibition, but it's time to move on...

The Irish Museum of Modern Art is also pleasingly situated away from Dublin's teeming centre. You have to make an effort to find it, and arriving at 10am, the site seemed almost deserted. Housed in the majestic 17th century Royal Hospital building, and surrounded by sumptuously restored gardens, bathed in morning sunshine there was a serene, surreal atmosphere to the place, lending another dimension of otherworldliness to Joan Miro and Alexander Calder's already alien-like sculptures on display in the courtyard.

Venturing into the extensive Lucien Freud exhibition currently on display, the tranquillity was temporarily shattered by a lady doing the vacuuming (not something one imagines happening at Tate Modern), but harmony was soon restored. Except that harmony is of course not something evoked in Freud's raw, beleaguered bodies and cracked, unstable visages. Freud is undoubtedly a monumentally important artist, though in seeing around 70 of his paintings and drawings alongside each other, a realisation begins to emerge that his mature work can sometimes be, dare one say it, a bit one-note. Nevertheless, a handful of canvasses here are brilliantly rendered, devastatingly bleak, unflinching appraisals of humanity and painful subjectivity. One such painting is Naked Woman (1988), a masterly, enigmatic work, depicting the subject reclining, eyes staring upwards from intensely worked features, body slightly contorted, on an austere bed in an otherwise empty, desolate room. One sign of a great painting is that a reproduction doesn't begin to do it justice, and this is a work that really must be seen in the flesh (no pun intended). What's particularly striking about the image is Freud's use of perspective: the far corner of the room is seen at the top of the canvass, which, along with the rushing lines of the floor, creates the dynamic impression that everything in the picture - the bed, the woman, the room itself - is sliding inexorably out of the frame. It is as if she, and we, are forever falling, forever on the brink of sliding off the edge of the world, and always just barely holding on. It is a dark vision, because this sense of falling seems also related to our voyeurism and desire, and hers. This sense of being on the verge, and being on the verge of disintegration, is of course present to a greater or lesser degree in much of Freud's work: in the collapsing features of his stoic male subjects, such as Man in a Check Cap (1986) and The Donegal Man (2006); and in the faces of The Pearce Family (1998), each one a locus of screwed-up, shifting, concentrated activity.

Also showing at IMMA is a display of new acquisitions, entitled '(I'm Always Touched) By Your Presence, Dear', which, amongst some crashingly average and badly installed work, contains a few gems. Phillipe Parenno's mesmeric film Boy From Mars (2003) is a languid, mysterious meditation on the seductiveness of the strange and the alien, and much more besides. And Willie Doherty reflects on the melancholy poetry of spaces we might usually ignore in his video piece Empty (2006).

Looking at some paintings by the incomparable Jack B. Yeats at the National Gallery of Ireland (in a display to commemorate his friendship with Ernie O'Malley), one realises that this is a man to whom Lucien Freud might be seen to owe a considerable debt. Of course, Yeats pushed his figures and landscapes further towards abstraction than Freud has ever done, and this is to the work's enormous benefit. Indeed, Yeats' images teeter on a precipice that is ever more precarious and vertiginous, dynamic and exciting. In the superb painting Death For Only One (1937), which Yeats himself acknowledged as one of his most important works, the full gamut of the dramatic Irish landscape - earth, land, sea, sky - swoops and rushes through the scene, whilst two human figures - one lying dead, facing the sky, the above standing above, mourning his fallen comrade - are motionless, even as the world infects and intensifies them with its mad, Munch-like flux.

Speaking of the Irish landscape, a train journey through about 50 miles of it, up the coast from Dublin, takes you to the pleasant town of Dundalk, where, in the town's old prison, deep in the bowels of the town hall, is found the Basement Gallery, and a group exhibition entitled More Heat Than Light filling its subterranean spaces. It's delightfully incongruous to come across an exhibition of young contemporary artists in this sleepy, provincial town, especially one that contains some intriguing, memorable and original work.

John O'Connell's video And In The End (2006) depicts a kind of post-apocalyptic micro-world: barren and devoid of life but where strangely compelling little bursts of elemental phenomena continue to affect and alter this land/dreamscape. A nicely subtle, minimal soundtrack adds to the oddly disconcerting impression. Teresa Gillespie further discombobulates with her installation entitled interview board appeal justice detained (2007), which runs through the central space of the gallery and into a cell at the far end. Angular white structures are interspersed with black objects such as a suitcase, a jacket and a pair of shoes, and a maddening, menacing soundtrack repeatedly intones that 'systems' have been 'put in place'. The piece felt like a response to the terror of institutionalisation, the structures somehow reminiscent of both a torture chamber and some office furniture. Equating torture with bureaucracy, it felt like a comment on, and perhaps a warning against, the dangers of one's life being simply a journey through a systematised, black and white, anaesthetically ordered world. Marcus Coates is surely not in any danger of living that way, judging by his wonderfully crazed video piece Journey to the Lower World, in which he dons a stag pelt to undertake a shamanic ritual journey in a small room in a block of council flats in Liverpool, in front of an audience of bemused, slightly uncomfortable residents. Coates is endearingly earnest, but also raises some genuinely interesting questions about what and who we believe, and why.