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Images of past strife fail to stir into life

The Art of the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum gathers together artistic responses to the conflict. But Malachi O'Doherty finds it easier to say what art isn't than what it is.

An accordion is hanging on the wall. The buttons on one side bleed into a larger image, become the pixels of a picture that is hard to make out. The guide says that the picture is a portrait of Bobby Sands. Stand back, squint and you will see it.

From the accordion comes a power cable to a push button switch on the wall, the type you get in flat blocks that spring back out to switch off after a minute. Press it and the accordion will begin to play.

It plays a low drone, in and out.

So, ask yourself what that's all about.

Is it the dying of Irish culture, symbolised by the accordion which is a popular instrument in ceili bands?

Is it the dying of Bobby Sands himself, his last weak breaths? Is there a deep and wise point being made that you are missing? Is this poetic? Is it cynical? Is it cruel? Is it offensive? Or is it, for some, a thing of beauty?

The piece is called Ballad No 1, so no clues there. It is by Belfast-born Philip Napier who was 16 when Bobby Sands died. Phillip is now head of the Faculty of Fine Art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. So there's a clue; it's fine art. And it was a gift to the museum from the Arts Council.

I wouldn't have thanked them for it. This is one of the pieces on display in the striking Art of the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum. The exhibition brings together artistic responses to the Troubles, sculpture, paintings and photographs. It is easier to say what art is not than what it is. It is not, for instance, journalism.

Few of the photographs on display were of the type journalists were looking for when covering the Troubles. The sole exception is an image of a burnt out car by Mickey Doherty.

Blown up very large, it is one of the most familiar images. Everyone saw burnt-out cars. But on display on this scale and with vivid colour, the image caught on the corner of a country road on a grim day, it does represent well the bleakness of Northern Ireland during the violent years.

Some of Doherty's work seems to suggest that the very landscape and weather have produced a despair and depression that were a fitting backdrop to the Troubles.

One enormous video, or slideshow, simply concentrates on successive images of woodland after rain yet evokes a sense of horror and anxiety while making no comment on political violence. But it is more difficult to comprehend what some of the other photographers are up to.

Donovan Wylie has previously exhibited and published in book form his sequence of pictures of the Maze Prison.

These are horrifically bland and repetitive. And maybe that is the point, to get us to appreciate the blandness of prison experience through the very drabness of his images. All of the images are alike, similarly framed shots of passages between bleak walls, with weeds and rust taking over. Nothing brags of photographic skill. The prints are slightly blanched or desaturated to make them even less appealing. And no one that I saw stopped to linger, to consider and appraise.

No one was stroking a chin or engaging a friend with animated reflections on what this could possibly be saying.

The sequence was given a whole wall and most people seemed to take in at a glance that it had nothing to say to them and walked on by.

The notes at the side say that Wylie was given access for six years to reflect on the Maze and come up with this, which he hopes can be "a metaphor for the peace process".

The photographic artists appear to feel challenged to distinguish themselves from journalism, yet they are stuck with the fact that journalists caught far more engaging images during the Troubles than they have been able to manage since. The best work, like Doherty's, seems at least to acknowledge that.

Other artists have been prompted by journalism or the familiar images that have appeared in newspapers. Take Richard Hamilton's Finn MacCool. This is a reproduction of a famous photograph of hunger striker, now Sinn Fein MLA, Raymond McCartney.

Hamilton was a pop artist and he has represented Finn MacCool as the blanket man. Well and good. One can imagine that he saw McCartney in a television documentary and thought to himself: "That's probably what Finn MacCool looked like".

So he makes the point by copying the image in front of him and calling it Finn MacCool. Some will think that if they can be regarded as artists and exhibited in galleries for doing as much they might now sketch Jim McConnell from his photograph and call the piece John the Baptist.

There has to be a suspicion that some artists have so little to say about the Troubles because they had little or no experience of them. Robert Priseman has reproduced in painting a photograph taken just before the Omagh bomb. We all know it. We all have seen the man with the child on his shoulders, smiling for the camera beside the car that is about to explode.

But we had already got the message from the picture. No added value comes from painting a copy of it. Or have I missed something?

There are some stunning pieces. Robert Ballagh's piece, Northern Ireland, the 1,500th Victim 1976, is one of them. It replicates the body outline drawn on the road after a murder but with fresh blood flowing from it.

That's good and it is taking an approach which some of the best newspaper cartoonists have used. It awakens us to how used we had got to violence, reminds us that the story of the death is not the person.

One of the FE McWilliams bronze sculptures of a woman in a bomb blast is there and also recalls the humanity of the victim, imagining her still intact, landing on her bum, her legs in the air. Clearly this isn't representing a bomb victim as she would actually have appeared, but maybe he is saying that we are all blown over, all blinded by the explosions.

Like Doherty's photograph of the burnt-out car, some of the other images that are most striking are the most simple. Joe McWilliams offers simply a scorched door, with a rain passing through it, representing the flames above and, I think, party colours below. His tryptich of local politicians represented like byzantine icons seems to be saying that this was a time for sarcasm rather than subtlety.

Locky Morris's binlids arrayed like shields in Gap of Danger at least remind us of reality. This is piece that makes you feel and makes you wonder what you're feeling when too many others are merely polemical.

Rita Duffy has arranged cell doors into a pillar and then made it silly with tear drops hanging in the air inside for us to view through a peephole, as if we needed to be reminded that prisoners were sad.

Why art insists on distinguishing itself from journalism isn't clear when its own statements are as explicit and even – some times – more trite and more superficial.

Dan Shipsides shows that you can take the lettering UVF and with a few strokes turn it into LOVE. I think I first encountered that glib idea the year Dan was born, in a column in the Sunday News. But there is wonderful stuff there, too, like Gladys McCabe's After A Car Bomb Explosion – Ulster Village, which shows a village thrown back a century by the blast.

The Art of the Troubles exhibition does not represent the full response of artists to that period, nor could it. For me a significant omission is a piece by an artist I have worked with (so I am biased, I know) Carole Kane's Petals of Hope project, created under her guidance by schoolchildren, as a tribute to the dead of the Omagh bomb, out of paper made from the flowers left at the scene.

And on Friday next several writers, including myself, Ann Devlin, Tim Loane and others will discuss themes around art and the Troubles at a one-day conference. I will be talking about the memoirs and short fiction of Gerry Adams.

What will our artists say when asked by their children, what did you do in the war?

Some will point, to their efforts to articulate the grief and pain of stricken communities and some will be able to say that they produced a plastic witticism that didn't quite work. Some will say they confronted political and religious pieties with the appropriate sarcasm at a time when others were silent.

And some may say that they spoke from the heart and haven't, even yet been understood, perhaps because really they were only talking to other artists.

An historical high five

The Ulster Museum estimates that its top five exhibitions have been:

1. Age of the Dinosaur – a blockbuster, interactive dinosaur exhibition

2. Street Art – showcased international as well as local street artists and included work from Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Sickboy and D*Face

3. Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci – featured a selection of Leonardo da Vinci's finest drawings and was the first time these works had gone on display in Northern Ireland

4. The Ulster Crisis: Irish Home Rule and the Ulster Covenant – featured rare and compelling objects from National Museums Northern Ireland's collections and explored the background and developments leading to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 through to the outbreak of the First World War

5. Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition – ever-popular annual exhibition showcases the exceptional talent that exists in Northern Ireland and presents works by members of the RUA, invited artists and artists selected through open submission

* The museum also hosts a broad range of exhibitions in partnership with community organisations, ranging from New Lodge Arts and Seacourt Print Workshop to ethnic minority groups representing, for instance, the Polish and Mongolian communities.The annual True Colours exhibition is also staged in the Ulster Museum, showcasing the work of the top GCSE and A-Level students from across Northern Ireland

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