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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 Hughescommand 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.”
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.
Reduced composition intimates rather than narrate a story in several exhibits. It appears as preferred mode of Wilma Vissers and Felim Egan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visual art shrinks not from being decorative while it distances itself from similarity with the observed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.<< (https://saintpassionate.tumblr.com/post/229353138/luc-tuymans-orchid-and-der-diagnostische-blick)
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).
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:
‘Bitter’ by Sajida Um Mohammed, from Open Shutters Iraq, Eugenie Dolberg, 2006
Labrando Memorias, Edwin Cubillos Rodríguez, 2011
Desapariciones (Disparations), Helen Zout, 2009
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)
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 LivesOn 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 (http://www.kunsthalle-willhelmshaven.de) – 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. (https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The calm of the display invites intimacy between the viewer and the viewed. Conspiracy even, to make what the gallery notes call visual conundrum into an intimate gamble to implant a meaning.
Observing the Cezanne’s faith into a diagonal some colours disobey as if intoxicated by the uncertainty of abstraction (e.g. yellow, blue) while others decisively cumulate into stubborn volumes, e.g. the boat and the kneeling figure while disregarding the visual logic of the receding planes. The pink smoky celestial body and foam are both behind and in front of the yellow horizon pierced by the blue silhouettes of skyscrapers. Reminiscing on Andre Derain’s Charing Cross Bridge, 1906. The city importance is dwarfed by two vivid multicoloured birds resting on an unbelievable round ground from which an incomprehensible stump reaches to the boat to become its part. The capture of the birds’ attention is mastery.
The diagonal of blue slivers on the dress and tree crowns succeed in denying the blue foreground (water) and the sky between the parting trees to flatten the space. Instead, there are the classical three distances, and sudden intoxication with volume – except the left bottom corner appearing like a forgotten canvas. The tree trunks feel like a homage to Maurice de Vlaminck and Andre Derain.
The diagonal composition allows a flow even if irrational and threatens with breaking down. Perhaps that determined the title of the exhibition Flop Sweat. Would central composition support that dynamics between observation and fantasy?
The soft tenderness of the brushmark manoeuvres between heavy illusion and ironic detachment as if the drama of the hues aimed to disable the risk of sentimentality. Subverting Paul Henry through a precarious integration of opposing pictorial energy of keys like in a Kandinsky’s Murnau paintings.
Someone, like H Bergson, thought that art never simply is, it is always becoming.
The clumsy, wooden, figure is modelled with instinctive care to let the caressing light bring it to life, visible in close-up. The messy ground competes with the figures chance to live – as if a quasi -Titian like maniera of patches failed openly to tell the grounds apart and remove the cartoon facial definition. The resulting sense of restlessness leaves also the landscape undefined between observed and imagined and ignored. Composed in a high key the composite landscape can not survive without demarcation lines and outlines, and the apparition of the man with a moustache becomes more defined and humorous.
There is a clearer resolve and control in drawings that form a part of this exhibition, thirty of them.
Some embody the memory of 19th C verism, others are flirting with Twombly’s whispers, both harnessed to deliberate distortion of the observed.
I hesitate to conclude that drawing allows this painter some defence against anxiety, yet they embody what I see in the assured historical Chinese brush drawings: to give value what looks like of no importance. And yes, McGreevy’s are talkative versions of the decidedly western idiom.
(The following four images taken kindly by a visitor Joen from Denmark on my mobile to illustrate the brilliant flow between the observation and free imagination)
Quizzical images aspiring to confirm the value of imagination made visible.
All other images courtesy of the curator Hugh Mulholland, MAC, Belfast.