Belfast on Friday; a pleasure as usual.
First to the RUA Annual Exhibition in the former Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices. It threw up for me a series of dichotomies I’m finding it hard to resolve. All the traditional work is there – there are a lot of people who handle paint very well, a large part of it in the service of landscape, though with a fair smattering of grimmer cityscapes. Less emphasis on the figure, though, especially on the figure captured in convincing 3D on 2D canvas, the traditional pinnacle of any Academy. Does that matter? I don’t know.
The prize-winning works did tend to stand out from the crowd, with Emma Kelly’s ceramic dildos particularly striking. The star of the show, though, is the building itself – see images (from a mobile-phone camera). So much was this the case that one of my favourite pieces there doesn’t seem to have been an artwork at all, but rather a spontaneous installation – a self-generated artwork:
Where the white cube is abandoned, art best suited to a white-cube environment may suffer. Perhaps more importantly, though, we stray into the murky territory of the ‘experience economy’ – the idea that we are increasingly drawn to and paying for ‘experiences’, such that art and institutions increasingly find themselves trying to furnish just that. The Drawing Offices are an experience. Against that background, how do works fare whose currency is concept or contemplation?
It is tempting to see the RUA’s temporary venue as turning into a wonderful new space for contemporary art. It has echoes of Venice’s Arsenale, so thoughts rise up of a Belfast Biennale. But nah, the developers move in this week.
Back in central Belfast, to the Golden Thread Gallery. Declan McGonagle has curated A Shout in the Street, another in the GTG’s historical series on art in Northern Ireland. I think I liked every piece in it. When I read Declan McGonagle’s explanation, Locky Morris’ Twist, 1989 – a suitcase with playing-card-sized pieces cut out of it, suddenly carried an extraordinary surfeit of meanings. Sandra Johnston’s video pieces enthralled – they are very simple, but what they record – goings-on related to ‘the marching season’ – seems totally exotic. I like Aisling O’Beirn’s Sputnik a lot. John Byrne’s Border Interpretative Centre video is amusing, as are all the artefacts it records. His Would you die for Ireland? video is probably one of the funniest artworks ever made. I particularly liked the guy who answered “Yes and no" to that question.
To Belfast Exposed, where Factotum start seriously in their exposé of the workings of propaganda imagery. There’s a hint of eyebrow-raising as they move closer to home, with the Northern Ireland-related fare becoming steadily more ironic. We see montages of lord mayors and fashion models, which are mildly mental. The final piece is about a potato-based cure for erectile dysfunction and is in very strange territory indeed.
Last stop but one is in PS2 across the road. Artist Garrett Carr has mapped the border in various personal ways, with photos, anecdotes, sketches, partial maps, and more. It is another take on the fact that the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is simultaneously extremely significant and, when you wander it by bicycle or foot, almost nebulous. It is hard not to recall the words of Kevin McAleer in John Byrne’s Border Interpretative Centre video: that the border is what unites us.
Last stop is at the third space gallery, where Willie Doherty has a selection of powerful black-and-white images; well worth seeing.