Northern Prepositions 2006

"Incident" Willie Doherty
Dermot Seymour
"The Security Barrier" - Rita Duffy

Art of the N.I.Troubles

Two deep-rooted and related concepts underline various art concerns during the late seventies and eighties. These are place and identity. Where we are, what we stand for, what has formed and continues to inform our sense of difference - these are the questions Northern Ireland artists asked and investigated. A new period of intensive self-interrogation had begun, together with an emergent and confident sense of location. This was facilitated and provoked, in some cases by media attention and enquiry over more than two decades, and by the perceived lack of political progress. It can be said then that the political troubles have indeed acted as a raw and hasty catalyst in the shift from a lyrical but potent pastoralism in the work of a previous generation of artists to the searching intellectual discursive art produced by this represented generation.

Dermot Seymour's lurid, ominous and displaced drumlin borderlands are myth-laden, and words are used to explore conundrums, complexities and bizarre juxtapositions. Nothing seems to be what it is. If the Ulster problem is about territory, then it is about insecurities. Seymour brands and marks his absurd menagerie of sheep, cattle and pookas so that they only stray into his pictures, just as partisans mark and territorialise the Ulster landscape. Seymour is fond of incorporating military insignia, flags and graffiti as other forms of marking and catagorising, but it is the titles of his paintings that set the riddles off. His titles arise naturally from the townland. A crossroads is not just a junction, it is where someone was shot, a patrol ambushed, a 300th anniversary celebrated each year or where traffic is monitored or surveilled. That is the nature of the land question. Seymour's townland is always on the brink.

Landscape for Micky Donnelly is a floating amorphous world in which to place various cultural symbols and emblems associated with either republicanism/nationalism or unionism. He includes emblems such as the Easter lily, James Connolly's hat, the Orangeman's obligatory bowler hat, and the orange lily. These are inflated in proportion, taken out of any real context and allowed to confront the viewer for what they are. If political troubles in Northern Ireland are about anything, they are about the persistence with the clash of identities, in which emblems are a kind of cultural score board.

The two main cities in Northern Ireland are Belfast and Derry. Unlike other Irish and British cities, they are heavily fortified. In a city like Belfast, words are painted on walls only to be dispossessed and answered on other walls, in other words. Words interrogate the wall. They insinuate themselves into the wall structure like shades. Willie Doherty, from Derry, explores the concept of the extra-mural, casting texts into states of seeing. Text is superimposed on photographs, one to subvert the other. It is another form of interrogation, but by an insider working out of and through his experience of place.

A number of Northern Ireland painters have focused on the city, encountering its social deprivation intimidation, divisions, its tensions and visual rhythms- its attraction and repulsion. In a series of social portraits during the early 70's Catherine McWilliams focused on single, isolated female figures. The space she depicts around these forlorn figures does all the work. They are entrapped by it rather than simply being in it. They have little control or choice over their circumstances. Paintings like these are rooted in the direct experience of events and the intimate understanding of place.

In Victor Sloan's series of photoworks, based on the Orange marching season, walking becomes a corporate symbol for expression of freedom, but also the parading of an ideology. (Eventually the march leads up to a declaration, an unloading of ideology, at and in, the concept of 'the field' as an emotional ground). Sloan's technique of scraping and overpainting of photographic negatives and prints parallels the tensions inherent in the emotional apparatus of the Orange marches.

Rita Duffy's work is about Belfast. Her concerns are about segregation, siege mentality, cultural religious extremes, together with issues of gender. The forces in her composition make for circular reading, reflecting the circularity of entrenchment and tradition. The action is often played out on the street. The streets of Duffy's Belfast are not places for religious contemplation. They are perpetually in a state of arousal or group agitation. Prostitution is an activity to be found in all cities, in all times, and Duffy is interested in all roles that women have to or are forced to play. She has, as in all her work, treated them with compassion and humour.

Jack Pakenham explores themes such as manipulation, intimidation, innocence, idealism, and corruption, but especially alienation. His 'actors' all act within and from their own sense of alienation. They are never really on the same stage together, estranged as they are in their fixed soliloquies. The 'stage' itself, once a street corner or an enclosed room, develops on to a multi-faceted series of interconnecting scenarios. The ventriloquist's doll - the artist's alter ego and surrogate victim - is there always risking sentimentality and even over-exposure. He (she) is capable of only one expression, the clown's face, but is surrounded by the expressionless, lost souls of the banished. There is no escape offered nor much hope let in to these pictorial detachments.

The work of Joe McWilliams has explored, amongst other issues, the preservative powers of selective memory. To do this, he has adopted the use of the icon form to enshrine images of political leaders from both the loyalist and republican tradition, such as Edward Carson and Padraig Pearse. He presents them as multi-haloed images within one work. We see their images progressively fade and decay within the sequence, paralleling a physical aging process as they reach a more 'sanctified' state. Their power to fuel current events, however, increases as their iconic status develops. There is, too, the sense that an iconoclasm is required by way of revisionist history to exorcise their power. McWilliams cautioned against any romantic view of the past when he said:
'Political heroes of one generation are canonized by later generations and these saints and their slogans might well be as relevant to today's problems as witch craft is to modern medical practice.....Yeats's 'terrible beauty', like Emmet's speech from the dock, is stirring poetry, but they cloak violence with grace and death with glory.' (i)

Critic, Lucy Lippard astutely and yet comfortingly said:
'Beneath the diverse surfaces lies each artist's need to understand where she/he is, to come to terms with what the troubles means for everyone in Ireland no matter how tired of them everyone is. And that, after all, is what 'political art' is all about - common ground.' (ii)


The essay has been extracted from Dr. Liam Kelly's book 'Thinking Long' published by Gandon in 1996.Throughout Liam Kelly's book, and as evidenced by the works exhibited in An Gaielaraí, it is clear that an imaginative inner journey has taken place to find such common ground - a thinking long.

(i) Artist's statement, Joe McWilliams - A Troubled Journey 1966-1989 (Cavehill Gallery, Belfast, 1989)

(ii) Lucy Lippard, Divisions, Crossroads, Turns of Mind: Some New Irish Art, (Ireland America Arts Exchange Inc., Madison, Wisconsin, 1985)