Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Henry joy won't be chuckling

You have just a few days left to vote for a new sculpture for Belfast's Arthur Square. But Jude Collins isn't impressed by the contenders

The ghost of Henry Joy McCracken must be doing some twitching in recent days. The word is that Arthur Square in Belfast, the place where they hanged the leader of the 1798 Rebellion, is to get its own commissioned sculpture.

There are three pieces of public art in the running, but none of them will depict Henry Joy or anything to do with the United Irishmen. Too controversial, that. Henry Joy may have died there, but this will be a politics-free piece of art.

There's Phoenix Rising - a spiralling tube of brown wire mesh pushing into the sky. It is, we're told, a testimony to the way Belfast has come back from the dark days of the Troubles. Once a city driven by violence and conflict, Belfast now rejoices as a shopping centre rises in Victoria Square and a squeaky-clean Custom House draws the eye in Custom House Square.

The second is Spirit of Belfast. It consists of a number of interlocking hoops that have been bent and twisted in on each other. The piece weighs over seven tons but looks, we're told, airy and light. Which is a good idea, because it's supposed to represent the linen trade on which Belfast's wealth was built.

The third is The Dancing Tree. With this one you get five upright girders, each topped with a couple of chopped up girder bits that move around in the wind These girders, we're told, represent an oak tree with five branches, which in turn represents the five streets that meet at Arthur Square.

All three sculptures do clever stuff with light. The Phoenix Rising will have LED illumination shining through its woven surface, the Dancing Tree will be lit by spotlights set in the pavement at its base, and the Spirit of Belfast will change its colour to match a given event or celebration. Great possibilities, particularly with that last one.

Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie's department is handing over £200,000 for the work and she says all three designs are 'compelling and inspirational'. And final selection of sculpture will have an element of democracy: members of the public can vote for their favourite sculpture on a nominated website by this Sunday.

Great. But do we know what we're voting for? What if the names had got mixed up. What if the Spirit of Belfast had been attached to the wire-mesh spiral, and the interlocking hoops been labelled the Dancing Tree, and the five girders with wobbly tops declared the Phoenix Rising: would you have been any the wiser? I wouldn't.

Or what if they'd told you the wire-mesh spiral represented an Executive out of control, or that the interlocking bent hoops reflected the forced coalition of the DUP and Sinn Fein, or that the five girders with wobbly bits signified our five education and library boards soon to be dissolved. Would you have known they were having you on? No, me neither.

Art, Shakespeare said, should hold the mirror up to Nature and let her see her face.

The face of Belfast that we're told looks back at us out of these sculptures is a face set in a relentless grin. No sign of the scars or wrinkles of the past, for the very good reason that they've been surgically removed. Artistic nip and tuck has produced a visage that's smooth and smiling, one in which pain and experience have no place. At least, that's what we're told the three sculptures offer.

But supposing they hadn't told us what to see. Supposing they'd left out the names and what each signified, and let us look at the sculptures and discover our own meanings. Now, that would have been democratic.

Given that freedom, the relentless optimists could have gloried in Phoenix Rising as a an image of hope, and gloomier souls could have seen it as a twisting Tower of Babel. The Spirit of Belfast could have been seen as a paean to the triumph of Belfast linen or a warning about four-wheeled carnage on our roads, The Dancing Tree could have reflected a coming together of difference on shared ground or five wordless girders pretending to confer but in fact only wobbling and gawking.

I like new sculptures - I really do. I like Hula Hoop Nuala down by the Waterfront Hall, I like the fiddlers at Strabane roundabout, I even kind of like St Patrick on the edge of Downpatrick.

But I don't like art that gives itself labels and then tells me what to think. And I don't like the people behind the art who do a Henry Ford and tell me I can have any sculpture I want as long as it's Tweedledum, Tweedledee or Tweedledoo.

If art is about anything it's about telling the truth, not half-truths. It's about allowing the viewer to see for him or herself, not through rosy lenses supplied by some Brave New Belfast spin-meister. Margaret Ritchie may see these three offerings as compelling and inspirational. For my money, they're the artistic equivalent of the Chuckle Brothers.

And I bet the ghost of Henry Joy would agree.

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