Pompous paramilitaries paint a pathetic picture
So often in Northern Ireland, the sinister gets mixed up with the shambolic. Take the recently revamped UVF murals in east Belfast.
The one on Carrington Street, off the Ravenhill Road, previously featured a couple of masked paramilitaries with disproportionately tiny legs and feet, giving the whole thing a weirdly frivolous, Riverdance effect. Now it's been chipped away and replaced by a single masked man clasping his weapon and staring sorrowfully out against a post-apocalyptic cityscape.
It's when paramilitary groupings start these attempts at self-mythologising that the absurdity creeps in – and it's by no means confined to loyalists.
Take the time that veteran republican Marian Price held up a statement for a rather tubby guy in a balaclava to read out at a dissident republican rally in Derry on Easter Monday.
For a start, the pages had obviously been folded several times, the sort of thing you would dig out from the bottom of your handbag when you were having a clear-out. Rather than a grand proclamation, it looked more last week's shopping list.
And then there was the question of why Price needed to hold the statement at all, in such an apparently deferential handmaiden move. Presumably, the idea was to confer a bit of pomp and ceremony on the occasion.
But the combination of porky paramilitaries and crumpled statements made a mockery of this ostentatious |attempt at dignity and ideological grandeur. Like the loyalist murals, the effect was pure bathos: a strenuous effort at status ended up looking lumpen, commonplace and rather silly.
It was the same down in Dublin during the Queen's visit, when dissident republican protesters tried to set fire to a Union flag, with a picture of Prince William and Kate Middleton — pathetic rather than powerful.
Back with the murals, the bathos recedes somewhat when the art is better: there is less to provoke irreverent, nervous giggles. In May, a mural commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands was unveiled in west Belfast. Painted by local artist Frank Quigley, it shows three masked IRA men, armed with SKS rifles, firing three shots over the coffin of Sands.
It's a competent and straightforward enough rendering of the scene. Loyalist representatives – reacting to concerns over the new UVF artworks – ask why there is outrage over their wall paintings, but far fewer questions asked about the republican mural which, after all, also shows armed paramilitaries not only wielding their weapons, but firing them.
The answer isn't a question of style, however. While the Sands mural may be distasteful to some, it shows a historical event: the UVF paintings, with their images of gunmen lurking around corners, and rhetoric about ‘the right if you are attacked to defend yourself’ imply a live and present threat.
Of course, the paramilitaries aren't the only ones with a taste for the ostentatious gesture. The same provincial lunge for hype, for show and greatness — the biggest, the best — which is destined always to fall flat is characteristic of the official attitude to public art here.
It certainly explains the (thankfully abortive) attempt to erect a ‘Magic Jug’ on Fountain Street. A well-fought campaign put paid to the jug, complete with plastic kingfisher on top, which was originally justified – as these things so often are – with some spurious-sounding historical narrative about a kindly man who diverted water to Belfast's poor in ye olden times. Whatever. I'm just glad I don't have to bump into an outsize piece of kitchen crockery when I'm walking out of Waterstones.
Big is also assumed to be best when it comes to Rise, the new sculpture on Broadway roundabout, aka ‘The Balls on the Falls’. As the city council's publicity material breathlessly informs us, Rise is ‘three metres taller than the Albert Clock and six times the weight of a double-decker bus’. Well, clearly it's bound to be a brilliant piece of public art then — if size is all that matters.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it has come to this. Look who's in charge of much of it: government agencies with no remit for the arts, such as the Roads Service and Department of the Environment. Do we want the bureaucrats responsible for re-surfacing our roads to be the ones to decide about the public art on our streets?
Whether it's over-sized balls designed to embody the sunrise of hope, or murals of doe-eyed loyalist paramilitaries looking as though they're about to burst into song, perhaps the best thing to do is laugh. It's one way of puncturing the pomposity.