author: Justin McKeown
byline:Justin McKeown is an artist and researcher from Northern Ireland; he is currently lecturer in Art Theory at the University of Ulster.

A man who considers himself a realist is a man who wrongly assumes that his efforts are not the stuff of dreams. Those who claim that they are in revolt against realism, rather than being explorers and agents of the imagination are only prey to the same fallacy.1

Una Walker: White mummified baby figure, 1989, mixed media; from the exhibition Icons from the North: collective histories of Northern Irish Art, curated by Brian McAvera, 2006; courtesy Golden Thread Gallery
caption:Una Walker: White mummified baby figure, 1989, mixed media; from the exhibition Icons from the North: collective histories of Northern Irish Art, curated by Brian McAvera, 2006; courtesy Golden Thread Gallery

When considering the political conditions of Northern Ireland and the labours of its artistic community I often find myself thinking about the above quote. What strikes me most about it is the way in which it implicitly points to the imagination as the terrain upon which our most serious dilemmas and our most creative outpourings come to ground. In doing this it also highlights the significance of the imagination in perceiving the parameters and thus potential of the most serious and frivolous situations we encounter in our daily lives. In short, our ability to imagine is what holds the potential to move us beyond the events of the past and to shape the form our society takes in the future: imagination is the active part of both memory and thought. Considered in this way, the imagination is an incredibly significant political tool.

Depending on one’s knowledge of history as well as cultural background, one may imagine the conditions of Una Walker: White mummified baby figure, 1989, mixed media; from the exhibition Icons from the North: collective histories of Northern Irish Art, curated by Brian McAvera, 2006; courtesy Golden Thread Gallery Northern Irish society in a number of ways. From a personal perspective I am well aware that as far back as the twelfth century Ulster was regarded as “by far the most warlike and impenetrable of the Irish Kingdoms.”2 As such, I cannot help but wonder if the violent tendency in Northern Irish society expressed through the Troubles, far from being a recent problem, is not in fact something very old indeed. This is not to suggest that we are uncivilised or somehow uncouth; such a suggestion about any people from a land that produced the Brehon laws and who also produced the first body of written literature in her own tongue north of the Alps3would lack rigour. ‘Uncivilised’ is not the right term. But what are we dealing with in the Northern Irish psyche? Perhaps a suppressed imagination that has never quite had the cultural and historic space to come to grips with its own cohesion?

Whatever the origin of these things, at this current time in Northern Ireland we are undergoing an intense period of political and cultural reflection upon the events of the past forty years or so.Politically, this has involved the examination of the Troubles and its impact upon communities living in Northern Ireland. The result of this has been capital injections into communities as various agencies begin to try and instigate a recovery process from the events of the past. Often I hear the term ‘memory building’ used in conjunction with these endeavours. Essentially this means creating events and experiences for communities that will help them to re-imagine themselves in the present, and through this re-think and therefore also re-imagine their relationship to the events of the past. The other term that is used in association with these processes is ‘normalisation’. This term is particularly loaded and even potentially problematic inasmuch as it implicitly encourages us to imagine our own society after the image of other western models of civil society as though others elsewhere were somehow ‘normal’. The danger here is that this may foster a way of thinking that seeks to make Northern Ireland appear like everywhere else and in the rush to do this we may not give full consideration to the aspects of our own culture that may well be worth preserving and nurturing.

It is therefore reassuring that within the arts and cultural sector many organisations are also involved in projects that seek to examine and archive the past. In most cases this is being done not simply so that something can be remembered, but so that things can be taken stock of as a means of implicitly considering the future. Again, in this situation what is being engaged in is a reconsideration of the events of the past, as a means of reconsidering and therefore culturally reimagining their significance.

Gerry Gleason: from Ulster triptych, 1987, mixed media on paper, 127 x 74 cm; from the exhibition Icons from the North: collective histories of Northern Irish Art,curated by Brian McAvera, 2006; courtesy Golden Thread Gallery
caption:Gerry Gleason: from Ulster triptych, 1987, mixed media on paper, 127 x 74 cm; from the exhibition Icons from the North: collective histories of Northern Irish Art,curated by Brian McAvera, 2006; courtesy Golden Thread Gallery

In this way these exercises in political and cultural history are also exercises questioning our present self-identity. From my perspective, what is important in all these exercises is that we tread carefully, for there may well be some aspects of Northern Irish culture and thus also the collective though conflicted Northern Irish imagination that are to some extent unique and therefore worthy of cultivation. But the question is how to materialise and trace these things and also how to nurture their growth? In order to explore this question further I’m going to look at some of the larger projects currently underway in Northern Ireland that seek to examine and chart recent history. The authors of these projects may or may not be thinking about these things in the terms I have set out here. Regardless, from my perspective, they are playing a part in what I am discussing.

Perhaps most anticipated of all the projects currently underway is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s creation of the Troubles archive.4 This archive will initially be digital in form, although it has the potential to become physically accessible as well. There is something very attractive about the idea of a digital archive. One of the problems of many archives is that they act primarily as collections and not as discursive bodies. As such, it is hard for users of the archive to enter into direct documented dialogue with the archive. However, with a digital archive the technological potential exists to make it possible for users to not only view the material but also to comment or respond to it and have these responses documented within the archive itself. This is an exciting prospect if one wishes to begin a dialogue surrounding not only the contents of the archive, but also the nature of the Northern Irish imagination as personified through the artworks therein.

In discussing the construction of the Troubles archive with the archive director Nóirín McKinney, it is apparent that a lot of effort has gone into its curation. This involved the assembly of a team of people who could advise the Arts Council on its initial collection for the archive. These included notable individuals such as Declan McGonagle, John Gray, Andrea Ray, Jim McCreevey and Gerry Slater. Much thought was then given over, not only to the initial artists whose work would be collected, but also to the potential for future growth and contribution.

The project is currently still in its pilot stage but includes work by twenty-nine artists, including Paul Seawright, Willie Doherty, Rita Duffy, Anthony Davis, Gerry Gleason and John Kindness, with scope for future contributions from others. While the archive includes work by visual artists it also includes reference to the murals, political posters, television archives and work by political prisoners. It also provides links to websites containing significant related information, for example the CAIN website. The visual arts aspect of the site is only one component; the site also documents literature and music produced during the period of the Troubles. Through a combination of all these things this web-based archive seeks to become an educational resource, in the broadest sense of the word. It also seeks to act as a virtual reminder of the significance of our recent history. Through this it actively seeks to become a horizon against which we may re-consider, and thus re-imagine ourselves within the present. In so doing it seeks to aid us in imagining the form future Northern Irish society may take.

The pilot version of the Troubles archive will initially be made available through the Ulster Museum as part of its reopening in October 2009. Through examination of how the resource is used and the public response, ACNI aims to then modify the presentation of the collection, making it publicly available through the World Wide Web.

Other projects seeking to document the recent history of Northern Irish visual arts and culture have also taken the form of an archive. These include the Interface Archive, located within the University of Ulster, and the North West Visual Arts Archive located in the Context Gallery, Derry. Both these archives are publicly accessible. In contrast to these archiving projects, another very interesting project has taken the altogether different approach of a long-term exhibition program as a means of surveying the history of Northern Irish culture. Here I am referring to the Collective histories of Northern Irish art exhibition series by Golden Thread Gallery under the direction of Peter Richards. With a plan that is as ambitious as it is thorough, the gallery is presenting a series of twelve shows curated by twelve different curators over the course of twelve years. Currently half way through its programme, each instalment covers a different aspect of the visual arts in Northern Ireland from the perspective of each individual invited curator. The result is that each exhibition embodies a specific subjective take on the history of Northern Irish art over the past 64 years.

Beginning in 2005, the first exhibition in the series was curated by S B Kennedy and Brian McAvera. The primary focus of this exhibition was the period 1945 – 1969. Following on from this in 2006, McAvera curated the second instalment focusing on socio-political art between 1969 and 1994. McAvera hypothesises that the art establishment largely ignored artists producing work addressing the Troubles during this period. Further, that it is only now in the wake of the Troubles that the value of this artwork is being regarded. Although these first two instalments had a very specific historic focus, other succeeding exhibitions in the series have been less chronological in their look at Northern Irish art.

In the third instalment of the series curator Liam Kelly explored the impact of surveillance on the culture of Northern Ireland. In this show he presented the work of artists such as Paul Seawright, Rita Duffy, Willie Doherty and Locky Morris, whose work has explored this issue in one way or another. Through this he illustrated his own position as a curator on this matter. Following on from this came the fourth exhibition in the series focusing on contemporary painting, titled The Double image, curated by Dougal McKenzie. This featured works by John Duncan, Dan Shipsides and Darren Murray to name but a few.
In contrast, the fifth instalment, curated by Declan McGonagle, took a unique approach in considering the work of specific Northern Irish artists as a “moment of anxiety, in a dialogue between what is validated as art and what is not, between what comes from the gallery and what returns to it, and what comes from beyond the gallery – from the street and the media.”5 Focusing on works by Alastair MacLennan, Sandra Johnston, Victor Sloan and others, McGonagle presented a compelling exhibition through which one could consider the reciprocity between art and context in Northern Ireland.

In the sixth and most recent instalment of this series, titled Visual force, Dr Slavka Sverakova takes as her curatorial starting point Joseph Beuys’ visit to Northern Ireland in 1974. Given the influence of Beuys’ upon much of the work produced in Northern Ireland, especially the performance work, this is a significantcuratorial project. Upon seeing this exhibition one realises that something would have been missing from the curatorial series if Sverakova had not curated this show. This exhibition featured a wide range of artists including Una Walker, Tony Hill, Alastair MacLennan, and Fiona Larkin.

What is most interesting about all these shows is that each show uniquely embodies the chosen curator’s vision of what is significant in the art produced in Northern Ireland over the past 64 years. When considered as an ongoing project, these exhibitions find both agreement and contradiction within each other. For example, it is interesting to consider the points of ebb and flow in McGonagle’s view of what is of political significance when contrasted with that of Liam Kelly. This is not to suggest that both shows contradict each other, merely that they present interesting contrasts in emphasis. Walking round these exhibitions is as much like entering an open and ongoing dialogue as it is like viewing an exhibition.

Also very interesting is the choice of artists. Some artists reappear, such as Alastair MacLennan, Dan Shipsides, Una Walker, Locky Morris and John Duncan. Others appear only once. Those possessing more of an audit mentality may see this as the emergence of a canon. However, such a view may be considered short-sighted, especially in Northern Ireland where there exists a plurality of histories. The creation of a canon is far from the intentions of the gallery director Peter Richards, who conceived of this series of exhibitions. It is worth here considering the collective title of these exhibitions: Collective histories of Northern Irish art. The word ‘histories’ is important. As Richards states:

It is a project that sets out to embrace the overlapping and sometimes contradictory versions of history. Its aim is to create a useful historical context from which audiences can engage with contemporary practice. It is not an attempt to create one history: central to the project is an acknowledgement that there are many versions of history.6

In considering this it can be seen that the primary agenda of the Golden Thread Gallery is to survey the history of Northern Irish art through the curatorial endeavours of individuals who have been actively involved in the production of Northern Irish culture over the past several decades. In this way the remit of these exhibitions gives voice to multiple perspectives on the significance of different cultural events in the province, sometimes reframing these events within different theoretical and cultural discourses. Through this the gallery not only manages to present a significant survey of the events of the past several years, it also manages to manifest the heteroglossic and conflicted nature of Northern Irish society. In this way the series arguably embodies the dynamics of the Northern Irish imagination in such a way as to not be explicit although still cause dialogue around this subject matter.

Installation shot, A Shout in the street: collective histories of Northern Irish art, curated by Declan McGonagle, 2008, showing bonfire stack created by two boys from the Dee Street Community Centre in East Belfast
caption:Installation shot, A Shout in the street: collective histories of Northern Irish art, curated by Declan McGonagle, 2008, showing bonfire stack created by two boys from the Dee Street Community Centre in East Belfast

In considering both the Troubles archive and Collective histories of Northern Irish art it is evident that a matrix of information constituted by individuals, institutions, events and discourses is emerging that is indexical of Northern Irish culture over the past several decades. The question is, how do we treat this information? Further, how do we orientate ourselves in relation to it?

To address the first question, one of the largest temptations will be to formulate a canon of Northern Irish art. In itself there is a certain logic to this, given that the unspoken drive of these projects is to explore and better define Northern Irish cultural identity. On the other hand there is something very last century about the idea of actively formulating a canon of art. If Northern Ireland is to ever shake its parochial image, I feel it would be a mistake to actively seek to form a canon of Northern Irish art, or at the very least to discuss Northern Irish art in these terms. Instead, a much more useful approach might be to begin to chart the relationship between artists working in Northern Ireland and those working elsewhere, so that the work produced here can be understood in relation to wider cultural production on the planet.

This brings me to the second question: how do we orientate ourselves in relation to the information produced through the projects discussed here? This is not something I as an individual can answer for anyone except for myself. As an individual it is my personal belief that if we in Northern Ireland wish to make any significant contribution to an international understanding of culture then we must first get to grips with the cultural and historic conditions of our conflicted collective imaginations. This would necessarily involve some kind of examination of the conditions that give rise to cultural conflict, as much as it may well involve the artistic manipulation of these conditions. One need only stop to consider the wider socio-political conditions of the world today to understand how this could be significant. Installation shot, A Shout in the street: collective histories of Northern Irish art, curated by Declan McGonagle, 2008, showing bonfire stack created by two boys from the Dee Street Community Centre in East Belfast

1 Anon. ‘The dream of utility’ published in Arkive city, Interface, Belfast and Locus+, Newcastle, 2008, p 211
2 Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland, University Paperbacks, UK, 1968, p 62
3 Ibid, p 21
4 TroublesArchive.htm
5 Declan McGonagle, A Shout in the street, collective histories of Northern Irish art, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast 2008, p 11
6 Peter Richards, in The Visual force: collective histories of Northern Irish art, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 2009, p7