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.

 

 

 

 

 

Travis Somerville and Ian Cumberland at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 04.08 – 22.09 2018

The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG  2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may  give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case?  Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value.  However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.

Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm
Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm

Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”.  Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.

Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97
Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97

Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another:  In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480
Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480

Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.

Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm
Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm

Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.

I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing? 

The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning.  In life and in art. Yet – what I see  I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly,  the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity.  Human condition.

20180807 Golden Thread Travis Somerville 008

20180807 Golden Thread Travis Somerville 014
Travis Somerville, This Land, 2017, graphite on vintage cotton pick sack, appr 256.5 x 133.3. cm

Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming.  Between observed and made up.  I recall  Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”

Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking”  with “ways of making visible”.

In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment.  While the reality is inherently fugitive.  As is generally the case with visual perception.  It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good.  The rest is, as Balzac pointed out,  indéfinissable.

20180807 Golden Thread Travis Somerville 00220180807 Golden Thread Travis Somerville 006

On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.

Raft20180807 Golden Thread Travis Somerville 013 (2)
Travis Somerville, The Raft, 2017, Oil on Canvas 8 sections, 67 in. x 126 in.

It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole.  Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”.  The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story.   There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno.  Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.

The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to  Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue:  the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable.  Homeland Insecurity  mirrors the experience as it would be lived,  a part after a part.

 

Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland  in Gallery One.

20180807 Golden Thread Ian Cumberland 002

The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous.  Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do.  Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?

20180807 Golden Thread Ian Cumberland 021

The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back,  moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.

Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.

20180807 Golden Thread Ian Cumberland 001

The All Consuming Selfie (2918)   presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts.  The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back.  Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.

Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London)  pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.

“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “

Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure,  extended to the human being.

Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.
Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.

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To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life.  The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings.  Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence.  Spark -germinate-unravel.  There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….

Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm

Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.

Objects are there as if the painting needed them.  As if without them it would be incomplete.  Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part.  The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?

Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media
Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media

Marxism  defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work.  That’s not the case here.  Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.

That is applicable to these exhibits.  The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her.  So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.

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Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon
Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon

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Handwritten over the above  painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.

Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition  – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.

That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects.  That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.

In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)

Cumberland  moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.

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The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence.  Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…

____

Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.