Elective Perspective

Essay by Sarah McAvera.

Miriam de Búrca, Lisa Byrne, Ian Charlesworth, Victoria J. Dean, Seamus Harahan, Phil Hession, Peter Richards, Paul Seawright, Victor Sloan

In 2009 the Golden Thread Gallery hosted an exhibition of work by Polish artists, curated by Monika Szewczyk, Director of the Galeria Arsenale. The exhibition was a chance for Northern Irish audiences to gain an insight into Polish art, the themes and subject matter that are relevant to artists practicing in Poland. This exhibition is the opportunity for Polish audiences to experience a selection of works by Northern Irish artists that all address the troubled history that they lived through.

Despite the small geographical area that Northern Ireland encompasses, it has the dubious honour of being one of the most documented and mediated places in the world. The “Troubles” saw Northern Ireland‘s profile change irrevocably in the eyes of the world’s media, but perhaps more importantly it changed the opinions, sense of place and history of its inhabitants. With virtually every day documented by the world’s press, in a world unused to ‘big brother’ style surveillance, Northern Ireland became a country whose history was no longer personal, but rather collective in the most global sense possible. The Northern Irish art world changed accordingly.

This exhibition seeks to provide an overview of the effect that constant scrutiny and mediation of place had on the artists living and working within. Offering a selection of historical and contemporary works, the exhibition suggests that it was a legacy that has affected more than one generation. The artists included vary in age by as much as forty years, yet all of their work shows a deeply personal reaction to the “Troubles”, despite extremely different experiences.

Victoria J. Dean’s photographic works document the legacy of the “Troubles” on the landscape of Northern Ireland. The series Everything Equally focuses on the dystopia of an island known for its natural beauty. Her urban landscapes zero in on a concrete geometry found in a seaside town: sharp angles of paving slabs contrasting starkly with the fluid beauty of the sea. As if the overwhelming ugliness of the concrete landscape needed further defined, graffiti defaces the architecture of the pier. Dean’s landscapes are largely devoid of people, instead capturing traces of human inter-action. The viewer becomes an intruder, spying, like a surveillance camera.

The detached nature of Dean’s work is the antithesis of the Taxi III, Stand Up and Cry Like a Man, a video work by Lisa Byrne. Byrne persuaded a number of Belfast taxi drivers to be taxied by her around the city, each telling their personal stories of being a taxi driver during the “Troubles”. The profession was notoriously dangerous throughout the period and this is documented in the confessions of men left scarred, both mentally and physically, by the violence that they saw, and at times unwittingly participated in. The video is short, just over three and a half minutes long, but every line of dialogue is essential and highlighted through the use of subtitles.

’Dogs have no Religion’ is also a documentary-style video work focussed on taxi drivers. Miriam de Búrca’s 2005 work is shot with a hand-held camera and presents a low-tech, intimate portrait of Belfast through the eyes of a taxi driver. Her choice of subject is philosophical in his description of how religion divided the city and the absurdity of the situation is summed in his anecdote about the two different types of bread roll, hard and soft, and how one became eponymous with the Catholic religion, the other the Protestant. The taxi driver describes in great detail the virtues of both types of bread and his desire as a young boy to be allowed both, unconsciously creating a metaphor for the situation he found himself in.

Ian Charlesworth’s 2005 video work John formed part of the artist’s investigation into the role of the ‘subject’ and involved him hiring a youth from North Belfast and, through the voice of his agent, giving him fictional scenarios to act out. Part of a generation who grew up with the end and then the aftermath of the “Troubles”, without necessarily fully understanding the politics that surrounded them, John is encouraged to vocalise an anger that may or may not be his own. John is uncomfortable to watch, the schism between the middle-class educated voice of his agent and the character of John stark. One of an increasing number of young men hired by production companies for “authenticity”, the John on camera makes us question the validity of his voice and poses the question who is using whom?

Given the overt or subtle undertones of the political in the works, it is hardly surprising that many of the works in the exhibition are unnerving, difficult and even distressing to view. Peter Richards’ series Memorials is a collection of pin-hole photographs taken across Belfast of a variety of memorials, some individual, others public. While some, such as Memorial: Falls Road, commemorate a collective political statement (in this instance it is a giant H, a memorial to the H blocks of the Maze prison and for the hunger-strikers who died there), another, Memorial: Upper Springfield Road, is poignant in its simplicity, flowers around a lamp-post to remember a single death. The photographs have been printed in the negative, the deep reds, oranges and blacks subverting the view: the unnatural colours further distancing the scenes from reality and highlighting the aberrant blurring of public and private grief.

The Sectarian Murder series was made by Paul Seawright in 1988, but documents a series of deaths in the early seventies. Each image is accompanied by a piece of text taken from local press reporting on the murders, but with the religion of the victim edited out. The images are not of the victims, but rather of the place they occurred. The text is a spectre of the death that occurred there: a transitory occurrence that could be forgotten in the intervening time period between when the murders happened and the photographs were taken. The photographs become the space in between – they do not need to give a figurative illustration of the people who died there, as the text allows viewers to insert that image for themselves.

Memory, remembering and the aural tradition are all explored in Phil Hession’s work, ...night ramblin’ and sportin’.... Hession’s work looks at the role of song and storytelling in collective memory and the piece was filmed on a residency at the Curfew Tower in Cushendall, on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. The footage for the video was a result of Hession inviting locals to drop in and join him in singing traditional songs and telling folk stories. The work questions how we remember and in the context of Northern Ireland also the validity of a collective memory that is categorically divided. The nature of the aural tradition is that the story changes with the teller and it is debatable what role truth, or the perceived truth has. Traditional songs and stories are a way of remembering, but the piece suggests that we must not forget that they are only telling part of the story.

At a very basic level there are always two stories in Northern Ireland - one Catholic, one Protestant – and this divide is beautifully captured in Seamus Harahan’s 2007 work Before Sunrise. The work is a two channel video and was made in response to KP Brehmer’s 1969 work On a Beautiful Day, a film made at the Berlin Wall. Before Sunrise was filmed at Alexandra Park in North Belfast, a park that is literally divided in two with a peace wall segregating a Catholic section from a Protestant section. The ludicrousness of this partition of a park is captured in the pond, literally carved into two sections: the ducks on either side destined never to meet. The second video of the piece documents a statue of Edward Carson, the controversial Unionist leader who established the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and became the figure-head for many Ulster Protestants.

Victor Sloan’s 2004 video work Walk records Orange marches in Portadown, Northern Ireland. Orange marches have developed as a way of Protestants celebrating their faith, though the activity is controversial and often viewed as sectarian, due to the fact that the routes taken often pass through Catholic areas. Playing with the footage and merging images, Sloan’s work is a kaleidoscope of colour and sound, capturing simultaneously a carnival and a sinister atmosphere. Dramatic and attention-grabbing, figures have been manipulated to create multiples and create the illusion of synchronised dance troops: the playful images contrasting strongly to the contentious subject matter.

Curated by Peter Richards, the exhibition is an overview of how artists from, and/or practicing in, the North dealt with the political situation surrounding them. Elective Perspective is conscious of the fact that each artist’s perspective is subjective and that while questions are raised by the work, to an extent they cannot be answered. There is no attempt to be prescriptive. Rather, the works chosen require the viewer to be aware that they are only ever seeing one element of a situation. The works combine to tell a story, yet it is a story whose veracity is at times questionable, tempered as it is by the opinion of the teller.