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) (https://www.dur.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/all/?mode=project&id=640)

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”. (https://messumslondon.com/exhibitions/exhibition-laurence-edwards-minors-heads/)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Slavka Sverakova

writer on art

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