Politicians, journalists and photographers who were in the Stormont parliament building on 24 November watching Michael Stone, the loyalist murderer, come crashing through the revolving doors armed to the teeth with bombs, a knife and a handgun, might have imagined it was a genuine “attack”. As he yelled “No surrender!” and was wrestled to the ground by security personnel, naive bystanders may have thought they were witnessing a Protestant nutter bent on their imminent destruction.
How wrong can you be? The truth, as revealed on Tuesday in Belfast’s High Court where Stone is applying for bail while facing charges of attempting to murder Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, is more subtle. His defence lawyer, Arthur Harvey QC, claimed, with an admirably straight face, that the incident was not intended to hurt anyone, but was “a piece of performance art replicating a terrorist attack”.
Stone had written to Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, and Sir Hugh Orde, Ulster’s Chief Constable, pointing out that he was performing an “unfinished work” called Never Say Never – a confrontational item designed to highlight the need for political stability in Ulster by embodying “the spectre of our troubled past”. He obligingly traced the influences on his no-holds-barred style to Picasso’s Guernica, and to the journalist Eamonn McCann, who once moved into a Londonderry building to protest against the war in Iraq.
This explanation diverges sharply from his stated aim, on the day itself, of killing Adams and McGuinness in the debating chamber because, he yelled, “These sectarian bigots are unworthy to hold political power in Northern Ireland.” He didn’t mention it was an Art Thing at the time. Yet if we look at the scene on 24 November, it’s clear that Stone is in a tradition of aesthetic display, in which the artist becomes the artwork.
His flung-out arms suggest both Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross, but also Sebastian Horsley, the art-terrorist, who had himself crucified (he called it “method painting”) in the Philippines.
Though he is more scary than Gilbert & George, the original performance artists, Stone’s insistence on his function as symbol and emblem recalls the pair’s Singing Sculpture (1970) in which, painted as gold statues, they sang “Underneath the Arches” for four hours at a stretch. Stone’s work is more vivid and his vocalisings (“IRA fascists!” fortissimo) offer a briefer but no less moving synaesthetic grace-note.
And one cannot contemplate his manhandling by a male and a female guard without recalling the artist Jeff Koons’s objectification of his sex life with La Cicciolina – although Koons’ work has admittedly a more dreamily romantic tone. Stone’s use of mixed media and everyday materials (homemade explosives, gun, fireworks powder) shows imagination.
If Tracey Emin could be nominated for the Turner Prize for her conceptual piece My Bed, there should be nothing to stop Mr Stone entering the whole scene of disarray in the Stormont lobby – the scattered bombs, the horizontal security men, the fleeing politicians – as his own artfully-contrived masterpiece.