There is an echo outside the entrance of the brand-new library at Queen’s University, Belfast: Eco, a layered double-head sculpture by the Breton artist Marc Didou. Eco is haunted by the ghost of its former self which was once located outside Queen’s main entrance – right in the middle of the semicircular space, a few steps behind the War Memorial, available to people passing by. Just like the new library, Eco is going to be inaugurated on 15 October 2009. In brief, the original location of Eco was another one.

The story of this installation is worth recounting not to raise any arguments, rather to wonder whether changing the location of a piece of public art matters in terms of fostering possibilities for cultural debate and social interaction. The story of Eco is interesting for two reasons: first, because it draws our attention to public art both as a challenge and an opportunity for Northern Ireland; second, in broader terms, because it reflects the simple fact that public art should always aim at unsettling existing perceptual patterns, ways of using a space and of thinking about it. Eco lived twice: the first time, its life lasted only a few days, with the sculpture as an attractor of photographic snapshots, laughs, debates and enthusiasm; the second time its life will start on 15 October.

I first encountered the sculpture of Marc Didou at the Festival of Science held in Genoa, Italy, winter 2005, in an exhibition set up at two venues, the Martini-Ronchetti Gallery and the Museum St Augustinus. There I saw some examples of Didou’s works done with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a medical imaging technique which he has been using since the 1990s. I immediately realised the uniqueness of Didou’s work. The greatest majority of artists who work with MRI are interested in it due to the overlapping discourses of MRI and themes such as the perception of the human body, surveillance and identity. By contrast, Didou was not interested in interrogating any of those issues. None of Didou’s sculptures are born out of a working collaboration with scientists, nor out of one of the so-called ‘artist in residence’ or ‘artist in the lab’ projects. Didou tests the aesthetic possibilities of an advanced image-generating technique, combining it with the ancient art of anamorphosis, creating new perceptual possibilities for the viewer. [1]

The path towards the organisation of the Didou exhibition at Queen’s, undertaken while I was an AHRC-funded doctoral student in Film and Visual Studies at Queen’s University, was long and tortuous mainly because of the necessity to choose the right venue and period of the year to guarantee the show maximum visibility. Didou had never exhibited in Ireland nor Britain previously. The search for a suitable place for the exhibition lasted one year. I firstly contacted and started a collaboration with the Ormeau Baths Gallery, due to its established reputation as the best Northern Irish exhibition space for contemporary art. On 1 March 2006 the Ormeau Baths Gallery, in controversial circumstances, closed down for a period. [2]

The exhibition I curated Imaging the unseen: Marc Didou and Gabriele Leidloff was eventually held at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s (20 October – 3 December 2007). The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s, Queen’s University Belfast, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and the Belfast Festival at Queen’s sponsored the exhibition. The creation of new work for the exhibition was negotiated with the artist as a requisite for having a short catalogue. Being Didou’s first solo exhibition in Ireland and Great Britain, Didou and his dealer considered the production of a catalogue to be a priority. A catalogue proved to be important because of the lack of specialist journals in Northern Ireland devoted to contemporary art and capable of critically reviewing the show. [3]

The first maquette providing dimensions, weight and photomontages in situ of the works was prepared a couple of months after the artist’s first visit to Belfast and it involved different spaces: the semicircle outside the main entrance to Queen’s University; the upstairs corridor before the gallery and, finally, the main gallery space. The goal was to render the sculptures and MRI accessible to a larger audience than that of gallery visitors. I was interested in the main-entrance semicircularity, in its central position and the texture of the University’s façade. Eco was approved to be placed in the semicircle by the estate department: its greenish bronze against the texture of the red bricks exalted Queen’s façade, as the video documenting the installation shows.

The two specular bronze heads forming the outside sculpture Eco interacted with the already existing statue of Galileo made by Pio Fedi (1816 – 1892) inside the Black and White Hall: the thoughtful man of science looking downward at the mechanisms of the earth, Eco looking ahead. We could now see the two universes of science and art, while at a distance from one another, interacting enigmatically. Students and passers-by immediately showed their attraction and curiosity towards Eco.

The installation of the sculptures started on Monday 15 October 2007 and was completed on Tuesday 16th. On Tuesday 16th, at night, before the opening day, a group of seemingly drunk people climbed on the sculpture and managed to slightly move the pedestal, despite Eco weighing 600 kilograms and being fixed on its pedestal. [4] Over two days, different possibilities to guarantee the safety of people and of the sculpture were discussed but finally discounted. Eco could not be grounded because it was not a permanent installation as is the case with another version of Eco (2005) which has been enjoying a peaceful existence in the prestigious area of Antonelli’s Dome in Turin, Italy. The proposal to build a bigger pedestal and then to relocate the sculpture in front of the Whitla Hall in the university grounds was not met with enthusiasm from either myself or the artist – to move a sculpture from view, to render it less ‘attractive’, is similar to killing it.

After the artist and I refused to place flowers pots (!) around Eco, police cones were positioned with the result of attracting even more unwanted attentions. In the end, it was decided to leave Eco in a cage. Didou was willing to leave Eco in the cage as this was what the sculpture had eventually become. The fences, however, were removed for the visit of the President of Croatia and for the opening on Friday afternoon. The opening from 5 to 7pm was a huge success, which saw the presence of visitors from all parts of the island. After wine, toasts, talks and compliments for the extraordinary quality of the works exhibited, at 7.10pm Eco was dismantled and removed in front of the artist and the BBC cameras.

Being aware that installations in public spaces are not easy subjects to handle, acknowledging that there were health and safety issues involved, and despite the collaboration received from all the different people involved in this exhibition, it was embarrassing to hear that Eco, a sculpture, was believed to be causing ‘anti-social behaviour’ and to see an international artist, invited as a guest to Belfast, after an incredible amount of work created only for this exhibition, being sent back to his homeland with his sculpture, directly after the opening.

Paradoxically, the failure to keep Eco in the designated space transformed Eco into a ‘five-day-happening’, a ‘performance’ rather than a sculpture. The absence of Eco during the exhibition time constituted a resistance to thinking of presence, of actualities. The space of memory became the liminal site for criticism, with Eco surviving in the catalogue, the photographs, the shootings, the gallery talks and the memories of those who briefly met it and asked why it was removed.

As the video Magnetic attractions documenting the exhibition shows, Eco created a new mode of perceiving and using the space outside Queen’s main entrance. People stopped, taking photographs, exchanging opinions of liking and disliking, at times ignoring the sculpture, at times touching it. I even saw people putting pennies in Eco’s mouth to make a wish. [5] Eco framed a specific spatial and temporal sensorium, that is, ways of being together, ways of moving in a space with other people. Eco asked to be looked at, to be touched, and enticed one to get a sense of that semicircle, an all-embracing space that can be easily transformed into a meeting space (a ‘piazza’) rather than a mere place of transition to reach the library, the lecture rooms and the administration buildings. Could it be the case that a fountain or a work of art are often needed in order to have a ‘piazza’?

A few months later, quite surprisingly considering the fact that Queen’s University was going to close down its Art History department, I was told that a big investment in contemporary art was about to be made: out of all the other sculptures exhibited in the show, the University was willing to buy Eco for being permanently installed not in its original location but in the grounds of the new library, clearly once provided that the artist would agree upon the new location. This does look like a happy ending for all of us: the artist, myself (the curator) and the university… doesn’t it?

Once upon a time there was an Eco which contributed, without any previous intentions to do so, quite unexpectedly, to creating a new mode of perceiving and using that space outside Queen’s main entrance, questioning the existing definition and use of that space, making visible other possibilities for living it and in it, rendering visible the presence of those (the anti-social-behaving) who claimed for themselves the role of users of public art even by means of jumping on Eco’s shoulders. Leaving aside all polemics, I hope that this story around the difficult former existence of Eco in its the first location will now become a space of debate into the possibilities for public art in Northern Ireland and, vice versa, into the opportunities given to Northern Irish people by public art.

Dr Silvia Casini is currently senior researcher at Observa – Science in Society and a free-lance curator in Venice, Italy.

[1] The PDF file of the exhibition catalogue Marc Didou is free to download at
[2] CIRCA reported the controversy between the Ormeau Baths Gallery and the Arts Council:; accessed July 2006.
[3] The only review of the exhibition was in the newspaper The Irish Times, which referred to it as one of the best five memories of the Belfast Festival. See Deirdre Falvey, ‘Best of Belfast’, The Irish Times, 2 November, 2007
[4] This was documented by the CCTV cameras placed outside Queen’s main entrance.
[5] The video Magnetic attractions was not conceived as a companion to the exhibition catalogue. After the exhibition lost Eco, however, I decided to edit the recordings made before the opening into a DVD (made at my expenses) to accompany the catalogue in order to circulate the visual memory of Eco in situ. The video of the exhibition, which shows Eco in its original location is available on YouTube by clicking here.