Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

I have a Wish... cut out all this bland post-conflict tripe

Wish - the largest land-art portrait in the UK and Ireland
Wish - the largest land-art portrait in the UK and Ireland

Have you been up in a helicopter to see the latest piece of public art in Belfast? Because that's what you'll need if you want to take a proper look at Wish: a giant portrait of an anonymous local girl, photographed by the Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada (below) and recreated, using soil, sand and stones, on an 11-acre site in the Titanic Quarter.

The hype has been bubbling away for weeks. Before the 'reveal' of the piece, we were promised that we would be presented with something of "magnitude and ambition and beauty", something that "epitomises the principles of excellence and democracy", something that "showcases the new story of Northern Ireland".

But if you don't have the height – and even the tallest buildings in Belfast won't get you there – all you can see is what appears to be a vast ploughed field, boggy in parts, with the odd sparse sprinkling of grass.

Much bombast and big talk, not much happening on the ground? I'm sure there's a moral for us in there somewhere.

There's a certain telling absurdity in the fact that nobody living in the city can actually see this artwork properly, given that it was supposedly created in our name.

At the launch of Wish, a strictly invitation-only gathering at Titanic Belfast last week, we were told that "the city of Belfast made this happen", that it was a "dialogue", "created in partnership with the city of Belfast and its people" and that the piece as a whole was "so of us".

Who knew? It's true that local volunteers did much of the lugging of the good old Ulster muck that makes up the portrait, presumably under the direction of the internationally-acclaimed artist.

But in what sense is this really 'public' art, something that belongs to us, says something real about us, or asks us to think about ourselves – and how we inhabit this city – in a new way?

Even if we could actually see the darn thing, would Wish mean anything more than it does right now? According to Rodriguez-Gerada, he photographed this Belfast girl "in the process of making a pure and simple wish for the future".

To my mind, the resulting artwork is mawkish, trite, twee. It's almost culpably safe and bland: a piece of empty sentimentality, blown up to a massive scale. Banality writ large. Come on, this is Belfast, one of the strangest places on the planet. There is a riot (and I use the word advisedly) of clashing colours and contradictions going on in this city.

It's also true that we have long had an embarrassing provincial tendency to think that big automatically equals better. But is this large expression of a tiny idea really the best we can do?

The eager promotion of Wish as a community event is part of a wider push towards mass participation, inclusivity, a renunciation of the idea that the arts are elitist. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Yet as the writer Frank Furedi points out, too often this is founded on the unspoken assumption that ordinary people lack the capacity to engage with complex ideas.

As Furedi says, "This philistine agenda patronises the public and treats people like children that need to be protected from more disturbing cultural and intellectual challenges."

There's nothing to be proud of in increased participation if what you're asking people to participate in is dumbed down and sanitised to the point of meaninglessness.

But it's the inflated language that gets me most. And it's certainly not limited to the promotion of large pieces of public art.

Witless, overblown marketing speak has infected the entire public life of this country like a plague. It's not enough for anything local to be good anymore, or even excellent. It must be world-beating, better than anything else that the entire globe has to offer.

Recently, I noticed that my own beloved alma mater, Queen's University, has got in on the act and 'rebranded' itself, with a wild leap of imagination, as – you guessed it – 'world-class'.

Apparently, the university is also "rich with heritage, innovative, dynamic and full of life", all of which is summed up under the cringingly boastful slogan 'we are exceptional'.

Northern Ireland is a complicated place. We are proud, broken, hopeful, despairing, joyful; some of these things, none of these things. What we're not is some bland, one-dimensional post-conflict paradise.

So, just for a change, why don't we tell an honest story about ourselves?

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