Art in Ulster

After the recent resurgence in sectarian violence, Belfast artists offer their take

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Untitled, 2013 Image: Hannah McBride

A warzone brought to some kind of stability with ceasefires and peace walls, Northern Ireland is seen by peace campaigners from Sarajevo to Cape Town as a symbol of the possibilities of progress. Members of both sides, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Peter Robinson, share the power lead in local government. That the G8 summit was held in what was once a no-go zone is a milestone, unthinkable only decades ago. At the same time, President Obama pointed to work yet to be done with his speech denouncing sectarian divisions that remain in education.

Recent clashes between police and members of the Orange Order sparked some of the worst violence Northern Ireland has seen in recent times. Disputing their right to pass through the nationalist area of Ardoyne on the annual unionist march to mark the 12th July, five days of clashes followed the parade in Belfast. Over seventy police were injured and crowds held back with the water cannons deemed too extreme for the London riots two years ago. Vowing to hold a weekly protest until their demands are met, the Orange Order will return to Ardoyne this Saturday.

Underneath this narrative of divide-and-rule, the arts scene is flourishing. Providing escape or perhaps relief for the emotive issues at stake, a number of gallery spaces and collaborative projects are making Northern Ireland a brilliant breeding ground for art in the UK. Dual-identity Derry/Londonderry plays Europen City of Culture. Small, community-funded projects and a porous circle of arts and collaborators are just getting on with it, inviting cultural development to flourish in a place where the future seems at best ambiguous. One such project is Household, a festival unfolding across 50 venues in Belfast this August, which aims "to create opportunities to experience new work in unrestricted, non-commericial and non-institutional contexts". We asked three participants for their views on how sectarian politics has affected their work and how they might see art playing a role in future. For all the recent trouble, it may be a paradise yet.

HANNAH McBRIDE

"The political situation in Northern Ireland is something that artists based here have been addressing and acknowledging within their work since political disputes first erupted in the seventies. In many ways things have changed drastically since then, but every so often there are relapses. I don't think these relapses have much of a direct impact on artists working here – most of us aren't making work explicitly about sectarianism, and I don't think any kind of overtly explicit reference to this is likely to re-emerge. However, I feel that it is impossible to separate a person entirely from their background and people will always possess, to some extent, traits indicative of their experience of their home country and upbringing. Growing up in rural Northern Ireland and experiencing the political situation distinctly from one angle, has had a strong impact on my person and in turn, my sensibilities as an artist. My work is primarily about space and the politics of space, and I suppose you could say that in a way, this is essentially what the political dispute here initially erupted over. Recently my work has been centred around considering myself in relation to my surrounding landscape, be that physical, social, economic or political – but again, this is something that most artists probably explore, and I'm not sure that could be said as being specific to being an artist from Northern Ireland.

My work is primarily about space and the politics of space, and I suppose you could say that in a way, this is essentially what the political dispute here initially erupted over.

The art scene in Belfast is known for its strong DIY ethic, and this is particularly strong right now. Pivotal organisations like artist run space Catalyst Arts, who have been around since 1993 and have had the involvement of artists such as Susan Philipsz and Phil Collins, have paved the way for more recent self-initiated ventures such as Household Festival and Satis House – both of which encourage the exhibition and viewing of contemporary art in domestic spaces. These organisations provide a valuable platform for emerging artists such as myself to display work, which is something considerably more difficult to come by, being as physically separate from mainland UK as we are. The art scene here possesses strong links with the rest of Ireland, but still feels somewhat divorced from the rest of the UK. Nevertheless, it is a positive and supportive environment in which to exist as an artist and something I feel will only continue to grow and develop."

Hannah McBride recently completed a residency at the University of Ulster. She will be creating an installation for Household, exploring ways in which social, political and psychological shifts inform art making at 5 Delhi Parade.

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Image: Lyndsey McDougall

LYNDSEY McDOUGALL

"Of course most art is influenced by the politics of the place in which it is created, for me there are just varying degrees of intensity. Even when an artist choses not to comment politically through their work this could be considered their political response. Most artists I know in Belfast seem to distance themselves and their work from the politics of the country. I think most of them want to be part of a very open and culturally diverse art scene. 

I don't consider my own work to be political but of course I’ve been influenced by the politics of N.Ireland, I’ve lived here all my life and the politics of this place is always being discussed. 

I recently exhibited in Berlin and my Italian friend and artist Laurent Pellisser, who has recently settled in Berlin, explained to me some of the political struggles Berliners face today. We discussed how the mainstream media selects what to cover and seems to often exaggerate the political situation in both countries. In that sense artists with their subtle use of images and their social awareness could become a more reliable source for relaying reality.  

Even when an artist choses not to comment politically through their work this could be considered their political response

In certain areas of Belfast at certain times of the year the political situation here is certainly hostile. I think most artists and most people want to avoid the whole thing. There is a very healthy art scene in N.Ireland and the interesting events and exhibitions could serve as an escape from the politics. Household is an event being held this August in Belfast and it is a curatorial collective that gives audiences the opportunity to view art in a domestic environment. Artists open up their homes and invite people to view their work in a non threatening and non commercial space."

Textiles artist Lyndsey McDougall works with hand embroidery. For Household 2013, she will present "Totem" in her own home, 24 Kimberley Street. She is interested in the history of writing, "because I find it the most difficult form of communication and therefore find imagery and symbolism an easier way to portray abstract thought."

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Coupled mixed media sculpture, 2013 Image: Gerard Carson

GERARD CARSON

"I tend to not directly address the sectarian and historical problems present in Northern Ireland. As a rule I don't make reference to the history of the "Troubles" as I see myself somewhat removed from it. The legacy of the Troubles has been excellently represented by artists such as Willie Doherty, Locky Morris, and Victor Sloan, their work was the product of a particular generation, exploring specific points,  during a very contentious time in history.

Whilst growing up in Belfast I was never subject to any sectarian insults or violence, it was always a backdrop that I sometimes heard about yet didn't understand. Growing up in a mixed area kept me disconnected from the wider disputes. As a result I suppose I've developed a more plural and international scope in my practice and how I view Northern Ireland. From viewing the recent violence in the news, I was rather annoyed more than anything, yet I had a general indifferent view to the whole event. I'm of the opinion that the whole event was the result of ignorance, public drunken behaviour, and foolish rhetoric. These are unfortunate aspects that occur way too often. 

I'm of the opinion that the whole event was the result of ignorance, public drunken behaviour, and foolish rhetoric. These are unfortunate aspects that occur way too often.

In reference to the arts/culture scene, I find that many of my peers are involved in cross-community activities whilst supporting their individual practices. I generally find that this is a beneficial effort, however I also sometimes see some of these cross-community projects as fruitless. As an observer, it seems that despite the good intentions, massive social problems still exist that cannot be addressed or tackled by a cross community art/cultural scheme alone. In many ways the political departments that provide the funding for such schemes are politically fragmented themselves, therefore it seems rather ridiculous to expect any real progression. I must admit that I don’t have any idea how this problem can be resolved. It’s an opinion that I’ve heard from many artists working in Northern Ireland. 

 As an observer, it seems that despite the good intentions, massive social problems still exist that cannot be addressed or tackled by a cross community art/cultural scheme alone.

Despite my criticism, Belfast in recent years has many excellent galleries and arts events. Within the last year, with galleries such as the MAC opening and the setup of Household Festival, I do see a growing arts scene in the city, which has been cultivated by a number of excellent artists and curators. I'm very much interested in the fact that wider discourses have opened up, which doesn't solely address post-conflict problems, but the more varied concerns of my generation.  

To my knowledge I’m not aware of any sectarian problems in the Belfast arts scene. Pretty much all the arts organisations are made up of people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds who often work in collaboration with each other. In the past number of years the city has seen the establishment of a number of new arts groups, such as Platform, Pollen, and Satis House. The founding members of these groups often met each other through their studies at the Belfast Art School or through previous projects, which I think makes them acutely aware of the environment in which they operate."

Gerard Carson is a member of Belfast art collective Catalyst. At Household, he will take up residency at the festival's only gallery-specific site Satis House, where he will create a work based on his fescination with art that mimics architecture and techonolgy where the "object or construction presents a minimalist facade".

Household runs from 23rd - 25th August 2013 in various locations in Belfast. For more information, click here.

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