Is Belfast finally ready to embrace Gilbert & George?
When the iconic artists last exhibited in the city almost 20 years ago, the gallery was picketed by protesters. But much has changed about society here in the intervening decades, argues Hugh Mulholland
In 1999 Gilbert & George exhibited their work for the first time in Belfast. That was in the old Ormeau Baths Gallery, now closed. That period was one characterised by optimism and the feeling that, as a society, Northern Ireland was on the brink of change for the better.
The Good Friday Agreement was in its infancy and we were yet to experience the kind of political gridlock which now sums up local politics. At the time, though, that display did attract some controversy - primarily due to the protests some religious organisations saw fit to organise at the venue.
Now, Gilbert & George do attract headlines of all sorts when they produce new work, or when their exhibitions open in different cities, so, in that regard, Belfast was not particularly noteworthy and, indeed, for every protester there was someone who stood up and spoke out in defence of freedom of speech and expression and who backed that landmark exhibition.
Now we are 20 years on and much has changed, while much has stayed the same. In 2018, Northern Ireland is a very different place - politically and socially.
The Good Friday Agreement, which brought to an end 30 years of sectarian conflict, affirmed a commitment to resolving issues around civil and cultural rights, as well as justice and policing. While the agreement was overwhelmingly accepted by the majority in Northern Ireland, as well as within the island of Ireland, we here know that its implementation has not been plain sailing.
Disagreements over contentious issues have dogged the agreement and our political process to the extent that we have now been a full year without a fully functioning Assembly or a local Executive. And most people do not hold out too much hope that the institutions will be restored any time soon.
Away from politics, though, society as a whole has certainly moved on and there is a generation of school-leavers now for whom 1998 is ancient history. That generation embraces cultural diversity and is the living embodiment of an inclusive society.
Where we jar as a community, though, is where those new attitudes clash with the older, more conservative generation, who still hold on to values from an earlier era.
It is a reality that the commitment to respect "cultural diversity" within both traditions enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement has not been fully realised.
The political vacuum has stalled the move towards a fully integrated society and, unfortunately, tensions around race and sexuality have surfaced.
For the first time racially motivated crimes now exceed sectarian ones in Northern Ireland. We are very far from being a perfect society. It is into this context that we introduce Scapegoating Pictures for Belfast.
Gilbert & George live in the East End of London and their work all comes from that geographical location. In the Scapegoating Pictures series we see images which are shattered, fragmented, exploded.
In many pieces the faces of the artists appear as though without emotion, other times as skeletal features, or covered by surgical masks. It is challenging work.
Gilbert & George's own artistic principle is that they want their work "to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and, conversely, to bring out the liberal from inside the bigot".
At the Mac, we think Belfast is the perfect place for art that challenges the viewer to that degree. As with previous exhibitions by artists such as David Hockney and Andy Warhol, we anticipate that thousands of visitors will come to this exhibition - not only from within Northern Ireland but from out of state. For example, 25,000 visitors travelled to Northern Ireland specifically to visit the Hockney exhibition in 2016. The Mac is an artistic and cultural beacon for tourists and citizens of Belfast and beyond.
Like other flagship venues and high-profile events, the Mac is playing a part in transforming Belfast and Northern Ireland and plotting a new course to a new society.
Of course, Belfast has moved on in the last two decades. The physical infrastructure is almost unrecognisable in some places, including the Cathedra Quarter where the Mac is based. Even if that was the only change since the last Gilbert & George exhibition, it would be worthwhile.
We think visitors to this exhibition will gain something intangible and they will be both entertained and challenged.
Gilbert & George challenge our deep-seated prejudices and preconceptions.
They place themselves - and, by extension, us - within their work.
Their intention is to be provocative; to force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society.
I am confident that Gilbert & George's Scapegoating Pictures will be as thought-provoking in 2018 as their work was for Northern Ireland audiences some 20 years ago.
Art lovers can meet Gilbert & George at the Mac between noon and 3pm this Friday, when they will sign catalogues and posters from the exhibition.
Hugh Mulholland is senior curator at the Mac in Belfast. Scapegoating Pictures for Belfast runs from January 26 to April 22. For more details, go to: https://themaclive.com/exhibition/gilbert-george