Cathal McNaughton: Rohingya, Belfast Exposed, Gallery 2, March 5 -21, 2020

The gallery handout introduces the photographer thus:

Pullitzer Price winning Northern Irish photographer Cathal McNaughton travelled to Cox’s  Bazar in 2017 to document the plight of the Rohingya people who were fleeing a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims, forcing hundreds of thousands across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh”

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TO FIND ALL PICTURES SEARCH REUTERS PULITZER – RC1865D90330

I cannot be sure that the similarity of the composition and viewpoint is deliberate reminder of a biblical story. However, even the distribution of light  echoes some well know paintings. Even if its authorship has been disputed,  the image still appears as painted by Hieronymous Bosch or his follower,  1510 -30.

Christ carrying the Cross, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent

The similarity is more in the feeling that both images represent,  the capacity of both the irrational hatred and the way to cope with adverse experience.

A Rohingya refugee arrives at a camp in Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton


Rohingya refugees shelter from the rain in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton – RC127A8FD6B0


A Rohingya refugee stands beside the remains of his father, whose family says he succumbed to injuries inflicted by the Myanmar Army before their arrival, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TEMPLATE OUT – RC1AC00B2100


The last photograph is life size – covering the whole height of the  gallery wall, reminiscent of medieval and renaissance European frescoes.  The photographer said it was enlarged by Photoshop.

Cathal McNaughton stated “Documenting this crisis is a harrowing process. The thing you can’t appreciate in the photographs are the noises when thousands and thousands of people are fighting for their lives…. You see humanity at its most basic in front of you. Children fighting adults for food, adults stealing food and aid from children, it’s very hard to take in….  To see these people being beaten back from basic necessities – even though if the guards hadn’t done so there would be mass casualties – it’s a very surreal environment and not something you can be prepared for.”

And that is the substantial difference between these photographs and that older art. They are not born out of a “word” uttered and recorded  centuries ago. Instead, they document the failure of humanity now.

Vision to vision.

Eye to brain and vice versa.

Semir Zeki  devoted the whole chapter to give a sketchy account what happens in our brains when we look at works of art (see Inner Vision, 1999:99ff).  It is not significant whether these photographs are perceived as document or  as visual art, because they are, in the view of the institutional theory of art (Dickie et al) both.

Zeki claims that narrative art is a search for essentials and constants to build up knowledge about the world.  Even if the viewer does not know the data, the who, what and when, these images constitute a profound knowledge about human species. He points out that even  if a small part of the perceptive field is stimulated in the appropriate way, it results in a reaction of the cells in the brain.  Antonin Artauld  has compared art to a plague, that infects the body before you know it.

The reason why it does not matter whether the viewer think of these images as documents or art is rooted in that receptive field,  when stimulated.  When you look and see the images…

And then the viewpoint, colour,  composition, role of detail, in this case similar  to  passions of Christ painted centuries ago  matters. Together, it appears  as the  stimulus which conforms to the characteristics of the visual cells receptive field. Then and now.

A caveat: there are  many examples of the specificity of receptive fields. Zeki concludes: “It is for this reason that I speak of the art of the receptive field, because it appears to be so well tailored to the physiology of single cells as studied through their receptive field..”(ibidem 103). The significance of this  offers one implicit supposition:  that what happens in one brain (=artist’s) is pretty similar to what happens in another brain (=various viewers).

The caveat, to allow for differences in judgement, comes from the peculiar characteristics of the aesthetic function. Jan Mukarovsky(1936)  observed that the  stimulus that evokes aesthetic experience for everybody works, because the aesthetic function is fluid, it can appear either as religious, historical, political, poetical, biological etc  at the same time to different viewers.  In the case of photography this fluency is narrowed down (not erased) by the apprehension that the lens captures the truth.

Zeki concludes: ” It is true that we  cannot today relate aesthetic experience directly to what happens in the brain…and about the power of works of art to disturb and arouse us emotionally.” (ibidem 217/8) But the finding that what on elementary perceptual level happens in one brain happens in another,  is one reason we  can communicate about art and through art.

For a contemporary viewer, the  suffering locked in these lens based images- which are but fragments-  has power of truth about all humanity.

Slavka Sverakova

White Cottage 21/03/2020





Rong-Gen Yin: A Brush with Nature, Engine Room Gallery Belfast, January 2020


“Michael Rong-Gen Yin, originally from Shanghai, began painting in the traditional Chinese manner in the 1970s. During the 1980s he was a member of an artist collective and had occasions to tutor painting in Japan and Germany. Having come to Northern Ireland in 2003 Rong-Gen has continued to paint and teach traditional Chinese painting techniques.  Rong-Gen practises the two main techniques of Chinese painting – Gongbi, where intricate brushstrokes form detailed coloured landscapes, which can include narrative themes and Xieyi, which is much looser using bold brushstrokes and watercolour wash.  Rong-Gen currently tutors Chinese watercolour painting in the Chinese Resource Centre and the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.” (

The exhibition is breathtaking for its sincere respect for tradition.



This artist feels no need to invent new ways of painting,  holding on to the two inherited techniques with discreet deviations.

Fish symbolising abundance

It is a different kind of freedom when you follow and respect your ancestors while making something that was not in the world before.  It is like growing plants from a seed.

Prawns having fun


On his website he has a comparison of  Gongbi

and Xieyi

Roses and Leaves

In comparison with the vast art market offers of Chinese art on ebay etc.,  this exhibition  offers commitment to poetic truth of the inherited themes, making the lyricism of the brushstrokes comfortable with absences.  Not so much a story – more reminiscent of Goethe’s Faustus selling his soul for the perfect moment. Yes, states of mind.

Fish of the good fortune

And economy of means.  From daring emptiness to noisily busy  composition the commitment to the just the right doses of forms, light and shadows, gets never betrayed.  Humour is allowed to puzzle the attention, here placing the singing bird into a  centre of the composition titled The Autumn Leaves.  Focus on the bird  may evoke the memory of a bird song, focus on the leaves, and the image evokes the smell of the wood in late autumn.

In comparison an image of man made habitat is saturated from edge to edge, cancelling  free space  that does not build the depth – all is a part of the utility  of nature. Anthropocentric motives nest in self-confident countryside.

Leisure Garden

Nature is to serve the mankind without getting completely tamed.

I appreciate this painter’s sincerity to deliver images that do not imprison the viewer’s habitual need for  detailed and complete story.  Instead he dares to outshine the beauty in observation with nothingness.

There is respect, discipline and wild flying away from both, in a superb harmony with empty ground.

Rong-Gen Yin gives demonstrations, teaches the how of his art.  The what  however is in the air settling on the paper with his first brush mark.  The why of his images has to do with his respect for his predecessors.  A very Chinese phenomenon.

The title A Brush with Nature is gentle play with double meaning:  art competes/brushes with nature or vice  versa; , or this is made by a painting brush and  observed nature.  I entertain both at once, with a smile.

The whole luxurious exhibition is on his website. In addition,  there is a charming pointed use of a green hue in otherwise black drawing/watercolour, on his contact us page; it would not let me copy and paste.

Images courtesy the  Engine Room Gallery and



Sharon Kelly: The Salt House, Golden Thread Gallery Belfast, Jan 9 -Feb22 2020

A Salt House is everywhere

e.g. it is a hotel in Bangor,  it is one of the exciting Scottish folk bands.

The significant one does not exist anymore, it is visible on one of the  black and white photographs taken by Kelly’s parents in the early 1960s. Visual perception has an immediacy that is absent from hearing. It also grants a freedom in which order an image is observed. The old photograph and its  translation into a drawing  disclose the image directly and immediately.

The interplay of presence and absence possibly sprouted intention to protect negative space  that manifests  in the above drawing as white. As salt. The trees do not respond to actual photographs. Kelly says she  made them up to obtain the dynamic contrast and believable space. That apprehends truth in the sense of awakening.

Salt has been, and is, a valuable commodity, associated with health and preservation.  Do you have in your childhood memories a story about salt being more valuable than gold?  Salt is deemed to be more valuable because living creatures (people and animals) need it more than they need gold.

At the Project Space entrance there is a salt on the floor as if getting there after someone emptied the cloth pockets on the hanger above. Domestic, functional pockets denoting a class of their maker and user, and making a fragment of memories physically present.   Note, how the salt lights up the wall and the floor, almost as if it mimicked a universe. The textile receptacle wrestles into any memory a viewer may have of old  domestic objects, that are lightheartedly disposed of and replaced by some plastic.


In an interview with academic and critic Carol Becker, Okwui Enwezor once stated:
“We are grappling with very difficult historical issues that concern not only how we live and produce art and culture, but also how we experience it and our place as citizens within the global community.”   The Salt House installation  manifests an honest and unpretentious embodiment of those thoughts while doing it with sincere respect for personal memories.  A chaste respect for memories to deteriorate or even disappear perhaps triggered the need to preserve them.

Sharon Kelly has made art about her life, as if art were the best receptacle for lived experiences.

The way the paper goes in and out of the mangle, empty in, with images out, the real found object assumes significance.  Mangle used to be every day object in European households – part of  prolonging use of clothes, keeping them clean for another use. Thus it offers here, in an analogy, to keep the memory for another day, for the future, also clean.  Mangle being similar to a printing machine also visually alliterates narrative role in memories, histories.

The sunlight coming from outside, although unplanned, by chance, connects  the drawings to the actual Salt House position near the rail track, memory of which metamorphosed into the ribbon of paper.  The mangle is like the train stop for the Salt House.

Detail by Ken Bartley with sunrays

Above, the sun rays added layers  of meaning – expected from art with lens based ancestors.

Without the sun rays… it is more fragile, just on this side of presence.  Drawings of shadows, imprints of remembered siblings, childhood memories. Sincerely private, yet open to sharing.


Art viewing is a private, secret process.

Many today share  the power of  sociology and history as a convenient tool to justify funding of  art.  However, history, be it personal or social, happens now as it did at Lascaux cave or in that new find in Borneo.

During her MFA students years, Sharon Kelly, focused on charcoal drawings of motives from her own life, creating in lens based media later on.  She used to draw on discarded linen, on men’s discarded shirts. Here, decades later,  she chose expensive paper as the ground and gave it a strong role of meaningful emptiness. Paper is everyday, drives out the artist’s self-consciousness – perhaps. The harder I try to nail this down the more it escapes. Picasso also shared the importance of paper, saying that ” it gives him high degree of flexibility. Paper is tear-able, relatively unimportant, bendable…  The figures in the Salt House vibrate with sincerity – yet keep their secrets resolutely intact.


The paper carries them from the mangle into the space, the charcoal hesitating between life and disappearing memory. Memory is not of this world. It floats between here and then.

The significance of the “empty”  in comparison with the “full” – has to do with the poetic tropes, as well as with an optic law.


The significance of black  hue (charcoal) in Kelly’s oeuvre cannot be overstated and overlooked.

She shares the trust that black contains all other hues, a belief which is not limited to one culture.  A search for light and the use of black is the driving force in  Mohammad Omar Khalil’s work (b 1936 Khartoum). He says: “In blackness, I see degrees and shades of rich, complicated colour, more intense than in other colours, roaring and loud.”  The use of black in  his etchings focused on definition of dominant object in the composition be it by contrast or graduation.

Omar Khalil, Petra V, etching,1995, accessed on

Twentieth century art replaced descriptive role of black on white ground  by “coming between the light and dark”(Donald Judd).

In the print below the white is both behind and in front of the burning black.

Felix Vallotton

That kind of “in-between”  is not occurring when Vallotton paints the composition in red and black under the title The Lie (1897), although the subject and composition  share appearance.

The Salt House is a tender attempt to accomplish resurrection of appearance without describing it, to re-create it anew as a new real.  It is more often used for invented motives like this Picasso.

P Picasso, Faune Musicien, 1942.

The Salt House shares with Picasso the ability and resolve to define the form (the subject) as absence enveloped in black.   It imprints itself in white as if on a black soft ground to guard the power of intimacy rooted in a belief.

Darkness has been described as a pregnancy of tiny articles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in a 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows, living in Kyoto at the time, worked from a low desk  gazing out the sliding doors toward the garden. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”  Hence the invented trees –  “making trees up”.

If black is given the role of creation,  the white is the memory, a pathway to memory. The black evokes nature, life,   while the white settles for the man made,  for absence, for intimacy of scrutiny what is remembered.

On the ribbon of the large scale paper flowing from the “misuse” of an old mangle,  the white becomes the “environment”, a ground, for each fragment of recalled past.


Only one drawing is presented on its own, in its own “frame”, possibly reminiscing on the found photograph.


In a short film by Éanna Mac Cana ( https://…) Sharon Kelly  reminisces on the respect for memory, that it needs protection:  if your memory is not shared it dies with you.


Slavka Sverakova,White Cottage, January 28, 2020




Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, 2019, Belfast. Oct 17 2019 – Jan 5 2020

Colin Watson, Summer, oil on canvas

The 138th Annual Exhibition was once more installed on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. The installation is always a problem, given the number of exhibits. While the installation is not a riotous visual assault, the quantity evokes fatigue that traps – in the words of John Updike – a certain breathing space for spirit.

Comhghall Casey, Lauren O’Neill, charcoal on paper

The current president Betty Brown writes in the catalogue: “From an online submission of 1604 works, our Selection Committee of five, work to whittle this down to what in their professional opinion are the top 425 artworks to be pre-selected. These are then submitted to our office on Hand-in Day…..The chosen works then face a second selection  and physical presence comes into play.” (catalogue p 6)

Nicola Lynch Morrin, The risk it took to blossom, aquatint etching

There are two limits: one is the rule that every Academy Member has right to exhibit two works of art, the other is the size of the exhibition space.  This time there were 388 exhibits.

Willie Heron, Yellow House (Inishlacken), painted wood

It is a kind of “Salon” for the members of RUA with generous invitations  to outsiders, namely young generation and chosen high achievers, e.g. Cathy Wilkes  and Abigail O’Brien as President of the Royal Hibernian.

Paul Seawright, She Continued to Weep, 2019, pigment print

Alongside the display  there was a rich program of events: e.g. Meet the Artist, Sources and Inspirations, Art of curating …  For the first time the exhibition will travel – to Enniskillen.

Ready for the public. However, raising the issue of the “refused” and of limits of the space available.  Perhaps – a comprehensive exhibition of all work submitted  in several editions installed in  different places deserves to be considered?

All installations can then circulate Banbridge…Portadown…Newtownards…Downpatrick etc etc…  well any  suitable place on offer.  After all many people live outside Belfast and in a not easy distance from the Ulster Museum.  It is desirable to make visual art accessible where it is not.  Also – refusing to exhibit a work of art of a living working artist is not desirable either.  Every selection is likely to mistake something unfamiliar for bad. I am enthusiastic about the work RUA has done so far – but the constraints they face are neither essential nor desirable condition for their work.

Celie Byrne, Portrait of the painter. oil on linen

A thousand different forces are killing  interest in the arts, and cultural interest in high culture, and both their preservation or recovery depend , at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent.  It often starts with manual work. At times it crosses over many established boundaries, playfully, spontaneously.

Scott Benefield, Colloquy, glass

The sample of the exhibits has been made available to me by Keith Wilson in  photographic documentation by Paul Marshall. They are equivalent witnesses of what appeared – not of my own value judgement.   Chris Wilson’s  fusion of painting and sculpture is crowned with  tiny houses, a motif from his very distant degree show.  The blue, which appeared much later in his landscapes, sparkled in the artificial light; sorry, the image does not show it. Some art is not photogenic.

This superb, highly skilled hyper-realistic painting,  transcends the mode of representation by becoming beguilingly hypnotic.

Caroline Ward, The single egg, oil on board

It reminds me of surrealism, and a statement by Leonora Carrington:

…we have art because there are things unsayable”

Not many exhibits matched it.

Indeed, there are submissions which made me cringe – as they screamed Me,Me,Me… rather than anything more substantially valuable. Male/female bravado has unbeatable impact on memory, but its visual noise forbids any aporia of giving. Excess does not equal intensity. They all seek  the same: to address a viewer  while not compromising their own priorities, which appears healthy until the schematic calculation stops you believing in those priorities. On one hand, it is expected that an artist matches her or his output with his sincere views about life, art and beliefs, on the other we have this suspect hierarchy of the best, good and bad art. I feel sorry for those three adjectives, they have no single firm ground – they depend on the sort of “power” game between aesthetic judgements. It is impossible to use them without naïve enthusiasm or cold calculation. Both useless in relation to aesthetic experience and its fluidity.

Vaida Varnagiene, Happy hour, intaglio etching

Aesthetic experience is a self-directed oscillation between what is made visible and expectation of what should be made visible. And how. And why.  The value of visual art is also in what happens when it subverts what you know.  Art at times is nurtured by the makers as a tool  not only to provoke attention but to evoke critical powers in the way people think.  Radical honesty coupled with humour serves well at times.

Dermot Seymour,On the Balcony of Brexitarium, oil on canvas

The flash of the  visual wit slips into the social, political engagement of the title.  Even without the words, it focuses the attention on absences, on unfinished process of understanding the rewards and obstacles of a change.

Jack Pakenham, The Mask Maker’s Studio 6, acrylic on canvas

A membership based exhibition  depends on respectable support for  “tolerance of differences”  in philosophy, aesthetics and among the artists, even if some artists systematically reject what is different to their preferred art practice. Just recall W. Kandinsky’s attack on figurative painting in Munich when he supported his choice of abstraction by thinking about spirituality in art.

Perhaps more helpful for group exhibitions like this one  is still Charles Baudelaire, his theory of correspondences.

Keith Wilson, Light Around Us, oil on canvas

Wilson’s colour scheme  corresponds to an older European canon, more French (Barbizon) than Italian or Dutch, while it and the composition come from walked observation and  drawing the “seen”.  The marks, be it by brush or crayon, harmonise effortlessly with shapes and space, in a melodic partnering of light and shadow.


Drawings by Keith Wilson not all in the exhibition.






The access to collections in  museums, galleries and online perhaps inspire visits to a historical precedent, older style, or re-working of a composition  e.g.  T. Gericault in one case and pointillist light in another. Even if it is a tribute to the invention of the technique, it still matters that another artist makes it alive again.  It is the matter of matching the how to the what.

Carol Graham, Dawn Shimmer, oil on canvas

Its sensual authenticity is sincere, not staged, believable and inviting.

There are quite a number of atmospheric landscapes and trees  displayed – I hope as a sign of our new  priority vis a vis climate change – presenting various takes on narrative, mimetic approach.

Simon McWilliam, Old Night Blossom

The poles supporting the blossoming crown signal humanity as caring for nature. Or manipulation?

The choice is with the viewer.

Visual art appears the last vestige defining the grip of manipulation of attention, in somewhat playful manner.  There is a radical honesty about staging composition as a critique of manipulation of thinking. The sweet touch of surrealism become its own truth: they both dance.

Neishe Allen,Tulip, oil on board

There is never too much of observation – the trinity of eye, mind and hand,  hailed by Leonardo as a condition for being  an artist still holds its power.

Niamh Clarke, Chapel, graphite on paper

While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.


Willie Heron, Still Life, wood

Helen Merrigan Colfer, Altered State. bronze








These two are visually noisy assemblages of layered shapes with intense stimulation of the difference between the wood and bronze.  Each presents “own truth” about anxiety of being now and here while displaying remarkable attention to the medium. Actually- that faithfulness to the medium  could be perceived in all exhibits, whether they were grounded in scenic elements, historical valence or anthropocene’s impacts.  In summing up: an overall  impact of this exhibition on me  was the tension about the fragility of human condition gazed at through imagination and observation.

Anne Corry, The place with no Time, mixed media print on german etching paper (image courtesy the artist)

This essay is only a fragment of my experience with this exhibition – even so it is too long already!



The catalogue entries do not give dates

The images courtesy of P Marshall, unless otherwise indicated.

Sincere thanks to Keith Wilson for emailing  the jpegs to me.

White Cottage 16 Jan 2020


In her kind reply to  an incorrect point in my essay above,  the President of RUA  included this  correction:

“…a smaller collection of Members work travelled to Enniskillen and was exhibited at Waterways Ireland during the month of February 2019. Although an exiting venture which was well attended and well received, the associated costs make similar forays into far flung venues prohibitive.”


Fenderesky Gallery Belfast – Group exhibition, 28 Nov 2019 – 25 Jan 2020

Forty four works of art, the oldest Abstract Painting 81  by Charles Walsh  is a replay of sensitivity to shades of black, an ability  to recognise  quite a multitude of black shades noted by F. Engels among the workers in chemical industry. I compared once  the Walsh’s mastery to graduate the hue to a whisper in a nursery.  It also ages remarkably well, while turning into a classic.

Charles Walsh, Abstract Painting 81, 2011, oil on linen

The installation is airy, “minimalist”, allowing the privacy between the viewer and the viewed, not on offer in most current exhibitions of visual art.  The images do not rain on you, do not jostle for an aura, even if some were given preference for taller visitors.  That little speck above the row of three, is a small  Seed of painting by Natalia Black. It is her autograph, pastose layers of paints dragged across a thought of composition.  She is not alone in preferring this specific technique for its power to define an image by pushing out the ground and instances. I came across three more painters who are devotees.



Conrad Jon Godly  applies impasto  to mountains on large scale to reveal their “spirit”.

Uploaded from

Iranian Salman Khoshroo ( had made white on white series, switching now to hot hues charged with defining male nudes.  Joseph Lee  (  prefers portraits whose anatomy is masked by forces of emotion.

Downstairs, a tiny  Spiral Star by Dan Shipsides silently plays hide and seek well above the eye level, while the large Rattler and Badass by Ronnie Hughes command the whole space and attention with support of seven smaller  paintings. Small format is favoured by many,  by  Fionnuala D’Arcy, whose paintings appear both here and upstairs. 

Rigorous process feeds the variations on sensuality of the sameness of the format – akin to a musical fugue. The attention to the medium allows the sense of atmosphere to engulf sharp edges of  angular forms. I deliberately avoid to identify these images as made by female or male artist.  Instead, I hope the viewer to engage with it, with the painting, not with the maker, as is the habit in this culture.  “In 2018, male artists created 95 percent of the total value of art sold at major auction houses across the world. And from 2008 to 2018, only 11 percent of the artworks actually bought by major American museums were by women. The art world can posture but, where it counts, less is changing than it might seem, because the underlying idea of the Artistic Genius maintains its hold.”

Louise Wallace

Peter Burns prefers similarly hot palette to stretch, ambulate and contort his busy landscape.

Scenic elements hide a seek on a diaphanous layered surfaces  of David Crone‘s paintings. David Feely intoxicates the rule of right angle with letting the observed to hover between figuration and abstraction.

David Crone


David Feely

Reduced composition  intimates rather than narrate a story  in several exhibits. It appears as preferred mode  of Wilma Vissers   and Felim Egan.

Felim Egan, Prelude, 2010, above it is Vilma Visser’s Utitled, 2019

Installation view with Helen O’Leary’ Air Scale, 2019

Helen O’Leary, Air Scale, 2019

Languid misty high tones embrace the right angles with empathetic tenderness.

Tender delight with details keeps them mischievously playing hide and seek with  meaning, date and technique in the page manquee below.

Tjibbe Hooghiemstra, Haiku, 2018

When abstraction borrows enigmatic quality from an imagined story or performance, it contaminates itself with a narrative. The freedom of choice is left with the viewer’s imaginative habits.

Sinead Aldridge, Sermon to Stones, 2019

Holding the imagination to revoke the real, is often assisted by illusion of space, depth, here between the figure absorbed in contemplation of the cloud and its reflection in the water while that illusion is targeted by the red tree.  It is poetic  to the point of sweet illusion,  perhaps hence the smirking right angle  to subvert it a little.

Paddy McCann, The Cloud in the River, 2017

David Crone, Garden Objects,2015

Top: Helen Blake, Blush, 2019, below Walker&Walker, In Between  o and r

Installation shots.

Shrinking the world to a table op scale is a pre-eminent part of growing up while playing, or playing while growing up. The value of play for cognitive powers is well understood but not often respected. Art has the eternal power to object on its behalf.

Peter Hutchinson, Rounded Square, 2019

Visual art shrinks not from being decorative  while it distances itself from similarity with the observed.

Patrick Fitzgerald, Coast, 2018

If only rarely, the fear of the end of the world visits people every so many hundreds of years – and the humanity’s impact on nature  at present triggers our take on it. The metaphor of darkness,  of a night for end of life is not out of date yet.

James Allen,The last bird in the world leaving, 2018

As if not facing the predicted impact of people on nature, art still potently flirts with  freedom of thought,  be it as a nod to predecessor or to the enigmatic quality of colour.

Tony Hill, Light, 2019

Tony Hill, After Georges Braque,2019

It is perhaps telling about human condition  when the  Shelter, 2019 by Zoe Murdoch  has no opening, no entrance. A closed box on a pedestal.

Closed form also governs  Bill Saunders’s Hide Tide, 2019


Visual art often partners ethics, even if it not exactly follows the kallos agathos…

Images courtesy of Helen G Blake on Facebook.  Without you, Helen, I could not do this essay. Thank you.

MICHAEL HANNA: LOOKING BACKWARD, PS2, Belfast, November 30 – December 21, 2019

I write this while the gallery is moving once more,  above is a photo of a new place in Rosemary Street. Below – ready to move?




Mimicking a threatened organism the PS2 moves and moves to survive. It feels like an omen, that Hanna’s theme of utopia was the final work at its ground floor showroom in the Royal Avenue.


I missed the HIVE choir performance in response to the exhibition.

The lights zoom on some words  of the cut and pasted text from the romantic novel set in Belfast, the notorious Mills and Boon editions. Its hall mark –  a happy ending is a sibling of utopia.

Monument VIII, 2019, Paper on dibond, 142×142 cm

From a distance -when the details merge into rhythm of dark and light grey, it  is reminiscent of Rothko’s grey on grey (I saw it in a Deutsche Bank collection, no image). Viewed nearer the surface, its aesthetics hurries up to be nearer a newsprint,  anxious to let the eye to read words. That difference pulsed like a  life energy determined to cross over mysterious layers of imagination, quickly evaporating.

Hanna decided that the closure would be entrusted to the video, at the end of the walk among the exhibits.  As if premonition of HIVE’s use of light he called it “INDOOR SUNLIGHT” (2019)

It is 16 minutes long  – feels longer in its lento tempo… It offers no  linear story – instead various fragments of various levels of being, found, arranged or constructed, the video offers a flow of appropriated or recorded footage of whatever arrested Hanna’s observation on his journeys  here and across Europe. Nothing is identified by place or name. It constantly provokes and disappoints search for meaning, for some stable identity.


The gallery handout  issued for the viewer of Hanna’s installation gives the statement of intent:

Looking Backward is an exhibition of photography, text, painting and moving-image works by Michael Hanna that considers ideas of promised futures and the relationship between utopia and the local. The exhibition takes its title from a utopian novel written in 1888 by author and journalist Edward Bellamy. The book, which was a bestseller at the time, was written in the midst of great wealth disparity and economic and social turmoil. After over a century of sleep, the narrator awakens in his hometown of Boston in the year 2000 to find himself in a world of post-capitalist harmony. As the story progresses, he learns about the differences between the two periods and eventually recognises the faults of the nineteenth century.

Like much utopian writing, Bellamy uses fiction to navigate his ideological world; however the vast majority of the novel concentrates on detailing its structure. In Bellamy’s future, wealth is shared equally between all, and there is no hunger, poverty, political parties, advertisements, banks or money. The works in Looking Backward respond to this imagined and impossible ‘future-now-past’ state and some of the central themes of the novel through re-worked familiar formats, such as the neon billboard and the romantic novel, and images that employ as well as deny the inherent optimism of utopian world-making…

I have not read theat book, I have not listened to the curator’s ( the talented Alissa Kleist) talk,  I have not joined the vernissage’s crowd. I only spent time with each exhibit.  I prefer and value this freedom for its similarity with listening to a brook in the forest.

First part  near the entrance was displayed to be visible in daylight, the last part followed the now ubiquitous projections in a dark room at the back of the gallery.

The first part was tacit and static. Even the text escaped legibility by preference for minuscule size.  The second part, the video was demanding and refusing to give out its raison d’etre.  Hanna offers in his notes to the exhibition, available as gallery handout, that it “…incorporates, and expands on, the central theme of the exhibition”.

Consequently,  each of the other exhibit ought to partake on that theme.

View from the outside the PS2


View towards the entrance

The neon word  on the PS2 shop window corrupts its spelling by NI pronounciation  in a typeface designed in 2004 ( according the gallery handout), making visible the  vulnerability of utopian optimism about the role of the computers. In my experience, we were promised the world with less paper if switched to the new tools for communication. Well – the opposite seems to be the case forty years on. Hard copies of everything in case the internet or software seriously malfunction.  Hanna’s choice of tying it to NI (via pronounciation) is neither true nor helpful. Nevertheless -it appropriates its subject in a kind of playful illusion smeared by an irony.

The walls carry unassuming pictures.

The Diagnostic View IV(2007) 

is a copy of Der Diagnostische Blick IV, 1992, by Luc Tuymans in the same size!

Reviewing this Tuysmans’ paintings, Peter Schjeldahl observed a value pertinent to Hanna’s appropriation of it.

>>Tuymans discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon. He does so with nothing-to-lose audacity, in terms of subject matter. If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things….He told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, “until I get to the middle of the process – it’s horrific. It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” Now, that – uncertain ends, confident means – is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know.<<  (

Utopia is a confident means with uncertain ends – and everlasting dream of humanity to put things right. Consider just how many medieval and Baroque painters worked that theme, whether they called it Golden Age or a Silver one or a Paradise…

Hanna’s instinct in his little painting is truer than the laboured collection of strings in the video  Indoor Sunlight, where,  the irony and sober intelligence fight their  corner. Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia are more known than hundreds of other philosophers grappling with the fact that utopia is as old as the entire historical epoch of human history.  

The two images of plane flying low  share one title “The Ones Who Walk Away” (2019). One was found online, the other is Hanna’s photograph of the plane near an East Belfast school.



Ownership and use of land  significantly contributes to utopian dreams for freedom and equality.  Increasingly, water and air, are coming under the same controls of ownership. Hanna photographed  Lagan Weir (2012) – a man made structure to control the nature.  That control is not visible.

This appears to be the key image. It connects us to the 19th C  with its inventions of water and steam power. Then several Utopian ideas arose, often in response to the belief that social disruption was created and caused by the development of capitalism.  One classic example of such a utopia was the book Hanna names as his inspiration: Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (1888). It gave title to this exhibition too.

The title of the 16 minutes  video  Indoor Sunlight is the most direct and ominous characteristics of utopian wants and needs.  Whereas sunlight can enter rooms via glass windows, the reverse does not exist, except in a phantasy, or as  a disaster in our universe.  I think of these  two co-ordinates as necessary condition for the variety of utopia and its stubborn survival.  Fear and imagination are willing bedfellows.  Hanna avoids apocalyptic tones – the video is almost “sunny”  through gentle humour that cuts, contorts, reverts and speeds through the various motives. It is a bazaar of  wants and wishes, one undermining the other by simultaneous multiplicity (open-endednes). As EH Gombrich proposed:  the correct (i.e. intended by the artist) reading of an image is governed by variables: the code, the caption  and the context. (The Image and the Eye. 1982: 142)  If, however the viewer ignores any or all  while preferring the “power of the visible” – an experience similar to moving through nature, the meaning shifts from that intended by the artist to that preferred by the viewer. This is glorious and so rare a freedom, that it needs to be protected. I am certainly guilty of departing from Hanna’s intentions as described in the gallery’s handout, i.e.”…attempts at utopia building and how technology  shapes affective experience and future visions…”.  Instead,  I experienced what Italo Calvino refers to as “rain of images” (Six Memos….,1996:81). Of Europe and NI – appropriated and taken –  making up a sort of rain of images that were reluctant to admit identity or a reason to have one.  My freedom to construct my meaning occurs in relation to the visible  recognition of objects and situations.  And I think that is the crux of why people entertain utopia while knowing that it must fail.  That freedom  exists only in  thinking, imagining, in poetry, visual poetry included. A work of art affords the flow of the meaning between the artist’s free intention and the viewers free response. The freedom creativity craves is worth preserving over and over.  And yes, it is a kind of utopia to aim at one complete account of indissolluble synthesis of L’Etre et le Neant (JP Sartre).


Images courtesy Michael Hanna.





Raymond Watson: Hands of History +20, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 7th December 2019 -18 January 2020

Watson’s bronze casts of hands of politicians who signed the Great Friday Agreement also known as Belfast Agreement in 1998  echoes some  concerns central to  Situationists, Fluxus. “social sculpture” of J Beuys  as well as the question when is art.  When an “object”when in the gallery is art, and outside it is not. Warhol and the institutional theory of art opened up that issue.

“Hands of History” (left below)  aspire to be a reliable document, do not aspire to be beautiful like  A Rodin’s modelled hands of Burgher’s of Calais  below right.(pierre_et_jacques_de_wissant_main_droite)


It is as if Watson shared the following reminiscence:

“All of my work, all of my writing,” Wormser said in an interview with Richard Cambridge in Solstice, “is about the circumstances of Time in terms of each of us as a human being, being born into the world of historical time — what that does — how that plays out in our lives.” (Legends of the Slow Explosion by Baron Wormser is published by Tupelo Press.  Baron Wormser ,born 1948, in Baltimore, Maryland, is an American poet.)

In a tight, if not consciously chosen, parallel the   ArtisAnn Gallery  curated this exhibition  titled  Agreement: The people’s Process, in  four distinct units  connected to the same history.

Photography intensified the verism exhaled by  the bronzes in seven groups from sites of conflict and its transformation in different states.


Frankie Quinn, Peace lines,1994


Selected and commented upon by Dr Pauline Hadeway the   Invitation to Observe is a lopped digital display of photographs, 17 minutes 15 seconds, Colour and Monochrome.

  1. Belfast Shadows, LCpl Stan Holman’s photographs, collected by Jamie Holman, 1970-1972
  2. Interface Images, Belfast ‘Peacelines’, Frankie Quinn, 1994
  3. Israel – Palestine, Frankie Quinn, 2012
  4. ‘Bitter’ by Sajida Um Mohammed, from Open Shutters Iraq, Eugenie Dolberg, 2006
  5. Labrando Memorias, Edwin Cubillos Rodríguez, 2011
  6. Desapariciones (Disparations), Helen Zout, 2009
  7. Entries, Chad Alexander, 2016

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin  coined a  term “active human interface” for each local history  when  placed into an international continuum, perhaps with a hope for a more comprehensive and complete renewal. The screen with the Invitation to observe  is placed at the end of the Watson’s exhibits, mimicking, evoking,  a music notation – da capo al fine. The hearing is already engaged by the commentary.

Almost on the other side of that wall is a commercially sleek video of  reading  from the text of Agreement titled

  • Lyrical Agreement (2018)  is an animation created for the Institute of Irish Studies,University of Liverpool  by Alt Animation around the excerpts from the GFA text read by persons of all ages and both sides of the border.  The expectation was that a viewer will be compelled to realise the power of that Agreement.  It harnesses, as if effortlessly,  two registers: serenity of hope in the statements and commercial sleekness of the visual design the best adverts are accustomed to.  If you think that the link between political and commercial is vulgar or out of place, consider the reality wherever you are.  Even the cover for that Belfast Agreement was chosen by the commercial partner selected from a bank of commercially available images.  (We also examine the photographic image sent to every household in Northern Ireland on the cover of the historic political agreement. We reveal its location and the identity of the uncredited photographer.  viz editorial in Source, 1998, issue 15 )

The photographs and the reading are still partaking in verism, not in the  loftier classical Greek ideal of kallos agathos in art. Verism has its roots in the idea that art is the way of doing something, a concept with roots in  triumphal  columns of ancient Rome telling the stories of the battle and triumphs, e.g. Trajan Column, AD 107 -113, photo courtesy University of St Andrews)

Image result for trajan's column


The next part of the exhibition would have been welcome by William Morris as a support of his late 19th C lecture on Lesser Arts, those rejected by academia but significant for supporting life.

  • Your Legacy Lives On is a set of   three Memorial Quilts courtesy  of the  South East  Fermanagh  Foundation makes those who lost life the subject of their visual art. They do not lionise the signatories of the Agreement, they do not include them.

  • Your Legacy Lives On, Memorial Quilt, H: 188 cms x W: 254 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x 330 cms), 2014
  • Patchwork of Innocents, Memorial Quilt, H: 175 cms x W: 269 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x 330cms), 2016
  • Terrorism Knows NO Borders, Memorial Quilt, H: 175 cms x W: 290 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x330 cms), 2016 (with additions 2019)

The Memorial Quilts hope to encouraging viewers  to consider the  Troubles from  the point of view of lost life.  We shall never be offered the chance to know what those murdered would have invented,  developed, cherished, cared for.  The quilts installation is accompanied by  a brochure Terrorism knows no border.  In it it reads:”  The Memorial quilt is a piece of living history...”(p 4) By chance I found an analogous image from  another country where groups of people make art as a way of coping with their living history.  A young man recites poetry calling for revolution in Khartoom, on June 19, 2019. ( Yasuyoshi Chiba,Getty Images)



Look at their hands –  even in the meagre illumination by mobile phones the hands are powerfully evocative.  In comparison Watson chose non poetic approach,   moreover, direct casts.

The installation of  the whole exhibition of work by Raymond Watson’s Hands of History +20.  consists from bronze casts, sculpture, performance, video, painting, sound and light installation. found objects,  a print, and short story with close up lens based images.


The Hands of History
Material: Bronze and Mourne Granite
Years: 2000 to 2019
The hands are mounted on  granite bases

First group are  bronze casts of hands of the signatories of the Agreement, subsequent casts include group of politicians, Watson perceived as significant in relation to it.

So for ex. In the smaller group are all the  signatories who actually worked on the Agreement and took the courageous decisions to stop the runaway violence.


The bigger group includes those who followed their example. This ethical distinction is not made visible. The names indicate the later stage of support for the Agreement.

  • The Good Friday / Belfast Agreement was signed on Friday 10th April, 1998 
  • The Referendum was held across the Island of Ireland on Friday 22nd May 1998
  • David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were designated First Minister and Deputy First Minister on Wednesday 1 st July 1998
  • The NI Executive took power on Thursday 2nd December 1999

The bronze casts are standing for each of the signatories, thus the disembodied hand is a tropos of  synecdoche for those who signed that agreement.  Initials at the lower edge of each indicate the identity. The hands are “imprints” of a living tool, of hands that signed that agreement, which in turn  allowed to old “world” to meet the one that did not exist yet.

A tropos, esp the metaphor or synecdoche, according to I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed., here the hands of the persons.  The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed,i.e. the text. The text, the agreement amongst them all.

The preference for the hand as a tenor  has been documented all over the globe, since the earliest cave paintings.

Santa Cruze,, Argentina, Cueva de los Manos,13000 -9000 years ago,sprayed from bone made pipes.

Durham University researchers identified a link between hand prints (tenor) and the rock(vehicle): “Using morphometric data we were able to show that in all cases only a small number of individuals – 3 or 4 – left prints in each cave, and the size and finger ratios of these were consistent with these being female. We were able to show that in all caves studied the greater majority of hand stencils were associated with specific features of the cave walls. An association with small bosses on the walls which the hands appear to be ‘gripping’. Watson makes his hands “voting” not signing the document.

Associations with cracks were very evident too; perhaps enforcing the notion that cracks in cave walls form points at which this world meets another.” (my italics) (

The key words are ” the points at which this world meets another“. The similarity among all cave paintings  be it France, Spain, Balkan(2018) or Borneo (2018) points to shared experiences in decisive mapping up of shared rules: human figures just as dark silhouettes, animals  strong and alive.

The hands are “imprints” of a living tool. That idea appears in the casts made by Watson: hands that signed that agreement allowed to old “world” to meet the one that did not exist yet.

The cave paintings have emotional force, which Watson’s casts have to do without.  E.g. In 1928, the artist and critic Amédée Ozenfant wrote of the art in the Les Eyzies caves, “Ah, those hands! Those silhouettes of hands, spread out and stencilled on an ochre ground! Go and see them. I promise you the most intense emotion you have ever experienced.”

The whole of the current exhibition approximates  that insight with some effort, it is a cold art.  Whereas, below, Ken Bartley’s photographs responding to his viewing animate the small bronze sculptures which silent on a pedestal reduce themselves  to a document. It means, every viewer’s experience is open ended, changed by moving around, looking closely.

The significance of hand as visualisation of a fact thus satisfies its use even when the legal text is its real defender and guarantor. As an exhibit, it obtains freedom to associate with noisy disagreement at one stage and elation when resolved.

This exhibition anticipates the  focus entertained for  The  Armory Show 2020 planned  as “the ways in which artists construct a version of reality when the boundaries of fact and art are shifting”. Indeed Watson casts the real hands without modelling, like death masks.  In comparison, for example,  with 40 sculpted portraits  the difference becomes obvious.

Doncaster Heads (2018-2019) were sculpted from life each in two hours sittings. Edwards remarked: ” my hands were like they were at a typewriter”. (

Both Watson and Edwards give up a significant part of their imagination to strengthen the documentary value of their subject.

Watson goes  further when he applies self-confession about his  jail sentence for belonging to IRA. He also gives up the visibility of it, burdening  the sound with greater significance. Art as a confession has been with us for decades, think of Tracy Emin etc. Watson’ s resonates also with older cases – in literature.  Dostojevski writes after his death sentence was muted to 4 years in a Siberian labour camp followed by compulsory service in the Tsar army with:” If anyone remembers me with malice…I would like to love and embrace at least someone…”. Watson chose less emotional reminiscence, reminding me of Maxim Gorki’s  realistic confession : My universities (ie my life and experiences).

In another exhibit Watson performs to a camera. Consequently the aesthetic impact depends on both the performer and the operator of the lens.   The Grappling Hook, made by an unnamed prisoner, is a found object. Watson uses it to climb so called Peace Walls.

“The Grappling Hook” – A Video Installation Digital Film, Colour with Stereo Audio, 5 Minutes 21 seconds (2018)



It feels of now and essential. Also the artist making the performance is  the man now, not that youth in the prison.

I suppose as it shifts from document to private experience, the performance hits the viewer with the impatient wish that Northern Ireland develops its future free of the inherited divisions. In places this video is poetic. It has a soul twin,  made in collaboration  with light, the installation,  The Keys.
Metal Keys and Cables with Quadrophonic Audio, 13 Minutes 16 Seconds (2018)

Watson collected the keys after the Crumlin Road Gaol was decommissioned.  He says that the aim was to examine the notion of imprisonment and freedom. That becomes visible on some of the keys carrying the label easily identified with the jail.   However, it is not the sound, but the light source-  as they project the shadows onto the draperies -that defines this installation as art.  The sound track is almost able to stand on its own somewhere else, or not to be there at all.


When projected onto the curtains The Keys  morph into human silhouettes, reminiscent of  one Magritte’s painting, making up a mute chorus.

In addition, Watson installed  six more exhibits.

A Cold Floor,2002, yew and mahagony, 20x30x45cm

The book indicates traditional belief systems, the disembodied feet allow both inherited trust in the old belief and  its critique. as the disembodied feet  recall martyrdom of irrational  believers.

Blast Bomber,2002, bronze and sandstone, 35x15x15cm

In a visual paradox of the move,  the figure is ‘playing cricket’ and   ‘letting go’ of destructive forces. Your choice.

Visible mutilation of bodies by sorrow evokes contrary interpretations.

Not my Son,2002, limewood, snadstone, 45x15x50 cm
The motive of mutilation, of cut off  limbs as sign of martyrdom,  appear also in the painting  with identifiable “holy” books as a ground on which some people feel safe standing.

Holy Books, 2019, Oil on Canvas 60 x 80 cm

A kind of bitter irony feeds the increased loss of identification in the only print exhibited, The Legend, 2001, photo etched, 95 x 127 cm


The confessional exhibit twins images and speech in Unlocking. Close up photographs of keys and identification tags describe Watson return to the de-comissioned jail.  Watson shares his memories and reflections about them.


‘Unlocking’ – A Video Installation Digital Film, Colour with Stereo Audio, 22 Minutes, 6 Seconds (2018)

His preferred mode is relational aesthetics as he gives up autonomy in service to  devotion to the grand and impressive historical facts, in service to documenting politics and self as its part.  Reminiscent of socialist realism? Yes, in being dominated by the ideology of the day.  It is as if he realised that the power of an object and a story  fails to switch on that all important denouement, catharsis. As the exhibition battles against the anxiety of remembering it cannot win against the anxiety rooted in the gap between its intention and viewers current experience of the real. The multiple triggers of history then and now are similar and yet constant state of emergency to change.

Peter Bazalgette mentioned the inherent values of culture in defining personal and national identities through collective memory.  Watson challenges that by stripping that idea down to the personal experience of material objects:  It is only as good as the person who tell it or write it, or paint it, or sculpt it. I do not doubt that he also is acutely aware of the power of choices, and of necessary incompleteness.

While many people were involved in the lengthy process of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, journalist Brian Rowan assessed Fr Alec Reid’s legacy in the 14 Days documentary: “I think when the historians look back on 30 years of conflict here, and on the journey of war to peace, the story will not be told without the name of Alec Reid right in the middle of it all.” Also in 2013, the Irish president, Michael Higgins, led tributes to the late cleric  “Fr Reid will perhaps best be remembered for the courageous part he played in identifying and nurturing the early seeds of an inclusive peace process…Fr Reid’s role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA ceasefire and created the political space for the multiparty talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday agreement.”

If there was a mention of Fr Reid  somewhere in the exhibition, I missed it.

Carved out of lived past the exhibition opens entrances to synchronised  resonance, that may impair spontaneous self-organisation of viewers own responses.  In that it is similar in theory to Zhdanov doctrine of social function of visual art and to the Situationists’ stubborn struggle to obtain “denouement”. This exhibition whispers and echoes  many other previous works of art, from Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol.

Images courtesy ArtisAnn Gallery who produced and curated the exhibition.






ELEVEN VOICES -Antoine d’AGATA at BX Belfast


Eleven Voices, Nov 8 –December 21, 2019, Belfast Exposed, Belfast NI

Antoine d’Agata (b 1961, in Marseilles) joined Magnum Photos in 2004, the year he made his first, of two films rooted in a chosen site, be it a person or a city, or both, Ventre du Monde.  Two years later, he focused his longer film Aka Ana on Tokyo, as a visualisation of Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography, defined as a “study of the precise laws and specific effects of geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” (gallery handout notes).


He spent 11 days in the city of Belfast meeting and interviewing eleven individual citizens, taking photographs of them and of fragments of close to them environment.

The display illustrates Antoine d’Agata’s stated judgement “only the voices let me understand” by large panels with the transcribed recording.

The gallery walls are  divided  by vertical boards  reminiscent of  pilasters on a church  walls. Each board carries a text of one   ‘voice’ – in varying lengths   ( e.g.29 pages) quite difficult to read, and demanding on viewing time). The unedited texts match the willingness, spontaneity  and commitment of each speaker.

The visual representation of the time  and place  of each encounter  avoids identification, protecting the speakers privacy.   Each voice is made visible in four prints:


Take day 4 for example:

1/A diary note 2/ Fragmentary view of housing in the area where the artist met the “voice” 3/  Intensifying what was visible and static, e,g, separating walls 4/ A chance encounter with a person (not  necessarily the ‘voice’) in that environment.

Day four for example  has 29 pages of text – from an active retired solicitor, who teaches English to immigrant and works for various sanctuaries for disadvantaged persons/immigrants.   He feels that his modus vivendi is determined  by his family with four children, by his very different predecessors, by him becoming gay later in life, and by a section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that gives the Belfast council statutory duty to promote good relationship between people. He shares a motto with immigrants: ” Welcome, Safety, Inclusion and Integration”.

The text is as rich as it is long – more suited to a book than a wall display.

Antoine d’Agata saturates his camera with multitude images of fences, gates, walls  that are an opposite of this person’s raison d’etre: “Walls should not be there”, he says.

Thus the central image is a coexistence  of the two, the desire to get rid of the walls and the reality of the walls casting darkness of the home life.

Another set points to a better housing, and links to the voice talking about the differences between people with different incomes.


Transcription of  13 pages of a voice telling of going to integrated school  and thinking about “identity all the time”, is critical of lower paid as not open to new ideas.



The  speaker treasures both the school and family influence on becoming tolerant while acutely aware  and critical of class based divisions of society: in comparison with the better off citizens, the working class are apparently  less tolerant, less willing to free themselves from inherited indoctrination and toxic masculinity : “People have opinions but they do not know why they have it”.

The verbal  makes the visual secondary in relation to time  needed to view each.

An uncanny  reminder of how people view visual art in large museums and galleries, they read about it for longer than they look at it.

Here, that dualism is heightened by the relative scale of each part. From that point of view the dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, between visual art, the visible, and words, experiences, memories, life, is overwhelming.


A similar display has been chosen by Chloe Bass(b 1984 NY) and Bill Dietz (1983, Bisbee, Arizona) for their  current exhibition Trade Show ( – clinical precision that echoes architecture.  Divergent values of exhibits forge dissonances among objects, texts and sound miming those in life.   Both exhibitions share willingness to dissolve the boundaries between art and life.

Another current   five exhibitions present some of the most compelling artistic practice in the Netherlands today. All five artists work with forms of storytelling, witnessing and testimony. They re-introduce forgotten or silenced narratives using evidence drawn from personal histories and official archives. Positions #5: Telling Untold Stories invites visitors to encounter the politics of story-telling in myriad ways. (

Back to Belfast Exposed.

Having the comfort of similar ideas does not guarantee, nor aims at, similar aesthetic experience.  The BX chose a display that visually accentuates sameness at first, only to harvest the power of  details to  reveal differences. Those are presented in the images of houses and the verbal long stories.


One is told by a policewoman, another by a priest, another by a grandmother etc  The openness, sincerity of the “voices” is surprising – they trust the foreign artist, they give their accounts warts and all.

Value for a value – D’Agata listens, he is not  a threat to them. Uncannily, it reminds me of Also Sprach Zarathustra –  the passage where Nietzsche introduces perspectivism. Perspectivism argues that all truth claims are contingent on, and the product of, a person’s perspective.

Antoine d’Agata presents eleven perspectives on  truth as lived  and  shared in words by eleven persons in contemporary Belfast.  The visual is servicing the lived and recalled, in most cases with sincere ambiguity and limping logic.  Hence this would be a good book, better for considered attention than the walk in exhibition.

IRELAND. Belfast. 2019.

Nevertheless, the photography is stunning in a particular way. Not as a fashion or celebrity images, glorifying some ideal. I sense its submission to the fleeting truth, just its visible appearance.

More like a war correspondent snatching fragments on a move, not knowing what will come next, thus allowing verism to bond with the chance, d’Agata saturates the exhibition with the images of the environment,  not just one environment, housing, which is omnipresent. The commons gingery appears as if  we need to be reminded of it.

IRELAND. Belfast. 2019.

Just as well – at the time when so many have no safe home to go  to – all over the planet. Surprisingly – faces on the wall become a kind of the commons, shedding the privacy as unnecessary weight.

IRELAND. Belfast. 2019.

In d’Agata’s  photographs of people, there is an endearing sincerity  – drug addicts, old who  move with difficulty,  young confident students, well made up women – variety of appearances signalling other values. They could be from another city, thus harvesting a greater context of the civilisation that includes, but is not identical with, that troubled Belfast. In that sense it corrects the limits of Debord’s notion of precision, while the stories are not just specific effects of the environment, as they harvest different judgement of the same environment.   The aesthetic experience of walking through “that diary” of  a ” visual meeting” eleven persons at eleven sites, is not in any way flamboyant or shocking.  It is reminiscent of some 20th C art and poetry focusing on “ordinary things” (e.g. J Walker, K Capek, K Teige etc)  – not as deeply intoxicated with foregrounding as poetism, but nevertheless foregrounding the ordinary being in the world. Taken together – it brings forth differences between individuals as significant.

It is a good exhibition – if you give it a lot of time.

It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.

W. Somerset Maugham

Images courtesy  Belfast Exposed.






EXPANDED STUDIO PROJECTS:Belfast 19-30 Aug, Nottingham 23-28 September 2019

Peter Mutschler calls himself director/caretaker of PS square in Belfast, while he could be also an honorary white witch or that proverbial  Phoenix capable to go on and on in spite of Arts Council withdrawal of financial support.

“Since 2018, we are one of four recipients of the Freelands Artist Programme, funded by the Freelands Foundation, alongside Site Gallery, Sheffield, England; g39 in Cardiff, Wales and Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. This new programme will provide funding totalling £1.5 million over a five-year period. Each institution will curate a series of two-year programmes with five artists annually, allowing those artists to receive much-needed support across both creative and professional development. This will enable us to work and support 20 Northern Ireland based emerging artists.”

The Expanded Studio Project is grounded in responsive collaboration between 30 artists from two different cities, Nottingham and Belfast.

As such, it is an interesting case of bonding across and above the aura of authorship. To co-produce an object of art, rather than just one of practical use, requires a mind that can, first, consciously discern beauty in the world around it and, second, see that the shared material (idea) can be imaginatively transformed to hold that value.

This essay follows two cases:

Linguistic Ambiguity involves the transformation of matter by  Sinead McKeever (Belfast) and Kashif Nadim Chaudry (Nottingham) in relation to a simple command, e.g. Cleanse and Stain and Transition.

The haptic exploration of metal and clay by  Christine Stevens (Nottingham) with Sinead McKeever(Belfast).

Linguistic Ambiguity started with McKeever receiving three metres of muslin and a word Cleanse from K N Chaudry.

Nadim Chaudry sent 3m silk muslin and a word “Cleanse”. McKeever applied sage cleansing



She selected the sage cleansing ritual, then folded the silk between two blocks of wood.


McKeever then sent to Chaudry 3m of Irish Linen with the word STAIN. He infused the fabric with Tandoori Spices and added the word Erase. McKeever housed in in Perspex cube on a plinth, placing the Cleanse part on the top.  The plinth is covered with found material.

Linguistic Ambiguity,135 x30x 30, smudge stick, raku pot, wood, perspex cube, plinth, silk, linen, spices

These illustrative images keep silent about the visual elegance of this object, its absolute unity of materials so different that the likelihood of their togetherness was null until the imagination of these two artists overtook the real and the found. The insouciant object elegantly overcomes aporia of otherness by making visible the hospitable values of personal freedom and openness to the other. It started with materials and words. It ended near a philosopher’s remark: “Words are for meaning: when you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words. .” (see  Zhuangzi). When I viewed MvKeever -Chaudry’s Linguistic Ambiguity  in Belfast – it was its mute poetry, it was a closed object and dark. The choice of haptic values on the surface of the pedestal and the resolutely closed perspex cube that offered unconditional hospitality: reflections of the surroundings.

At the Nottingham exhibition the command was Transition. Chaudry’s cleansed silk appears as too heavy for the slim support, and McKeever’s linen becomes a cloud with multiple threads preventing it to escape out through a window.

McKeever and Chaudry are operating a sense of transcendence that offers a bond, whose coherence admits that visual art, tacit visual art, is a spiritual wellspring. It inspires a feeling of wonder of an immersive transformation of one material into something else. Like in a Magritte’s paintings, but here, accessible not just to sight, but also touch and smell.  The current research in related fields proposes that aesthetic qualities exceed functionality and are thus part of strategies for survival (Augustin Fuentes, 2019).

The two artists named their intention as “addressing ritual, identity and cultural heritage.”

Haptic Explorations  have their roots in drawings and conversations. The inspiration offered by Viral Landscapes  McKeever made decades ago is easily recognisable in her metal sculptures. Inspiration by older work could be thought of as inhaling its memory, artists are often converted to art by art itself.

While both responded to that inspiration each used their usual materials.  Christine Stevens preferred porcelain,  Sinead McKeever metal, namely mirrored Dibond, aluminium and wing nuts.

Haptic Explorations

The optical softening of the ceramic piece elegantly evokes the remembered haptic sensation, born, as it were, from the ecstasy of welcome influence. Martin Heidegger called the task of re-situation of an object  “enframing”.  Stevens frames her material by echoing the poetic charge of the metal curves.  She makes familiar and capable of becoming convincing a kind of “useless ” objects. They are containers with no opening or too many openings.   The bulbous objects are still as fragile as any porcelain cup or plate, but optically they deny that they can break.  The humourous interaction softens any possible doubt you may have that the porcelain sphere can collaborate with metal loops.  It is also convincing.

Both artists treat influence as a gift, as an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.  It became more visible in their work for Nottingham.

As the metal loops cradle the squashed clay or broken shapes, they insist on the magic power of one to protect the other.  The openness to the other, the ecstasy of sharing, are values made visible and tangible, and without a doubt seriously needed in contemporary societies.  Rarely an ethical and political statement has been made visible with greater grace.   The poetry of the Annunciation by  Fra Angelico comes to mind, its supposed (believed) healing force.   In the gallery handout, Stevens and McKeever name the healing of trauma as their leading subject.

Stevens and McKeever achieved aesthetic oneness while respecting the materials differences,  like Plato’s Demiurg making the world from circles of similarity and difference (see Timaeus).  After the western world and its art plunged into the dreamscape of commodities any attempt to find the way out ought to be hailed.

McKeever, Stevens and Chaudry offer an aesthetic experience that includes the emancipation of senses, the spell of the sensuous, creating intimacy that deflects anxiety born in the world around us. The aesthetics of silence offering freedom from quotidian efforts.

What happens when what you see subverts what you know?

Images courtesy Sinead McKeever.

Note:   Expanded  Studio Project included art by:

Declan Proctor and Rhiannon Jones; Rebecca Gamble and Sinead Breathnach -Cashel (twice); Marek Tobolewski and Grace McMurray; Hannah McBride and Paul Weber (twice);  Heather Wilson and Sarah Tutt; Alex Brunt and Ines Garcia; Tom Well and Louisa Chambers; Zara Lyness and Sarah Tutt; Christine Stevens and Zara Lyness; Chris Lewis-Jones and Esther O’Kelly; Gerard Carson and Roger Suckling; Dr Jacqueline Wylie and Mik Godley; Heather Wilson and Pete Ellis; Declan Proctor and Pete Ellis.