Art of the Troubles
September 2014

After five months, the exhibition Art of the Troubles at the Ulster Museum, Belfast has finally closed. Fifty artists with sixty works comprised the Museum’s selection to span the decades from the late 1960s through to the so-called post-conflict present. The work was shown in what was more or less a single space. The installation was such that work from the ‘60s was in close proximity to more contemporary work; in fact, there was little by way of division temporally or spatially, no passages or changes of pace: it was something of a bombardment. While a couple of father figures of Irish and British modern art were prominently placed at the entrance to the exhibition (i.e. F.E. McWilliam), an impression gained is that of a non-hierarchical arrangement. There were examples of art styles that are out of fashion to some extent or amateur as opposed to professional, but also a preponderance of traditional art mediums—drawings, paintings, prints, and several sculptures—with a large showing in art photography. New media was under-represented: no performance and only two videos which were shown separately.

Like many UK Museums outside the metropolis, visual art is only part of the Ulster Museum’s exhibition policy and most certainly a large part of its aim as a publically funded institution is to attract and involve communities far beyond a small art community. Whether this was a factor in decisions over selection is not known. If the ‘Troubles’ of the title of this exhibition is convenient in that it originates as a cross-community name for the thirty year strife in Northern Ireland, a name that voids the partisan language of designations such as ‘Terrorism’ or ‘Armed Struggle’, the Art of the title is equally innocuous in its appeal to convention rather than act as a challenge in considering how artists might have reacted. The overall sense of the show is of emotional response to human tragedy: artists caught in or in proximity to a conflict as they try to find the means to convey the extreme distress of victims that many of them had witnessed. There is good reason why the Museum should stick to this simple, apparently a-political line. The viewer is reminded of the dispute back in 1978 when the institution last attempted an exhibition which included the likes of Conrad Atkinson’s Silver Liberties: a souvenir of a wonderful year, a painting cum collage then considered by some museum employees as little other than Republican propaganda with its references to ‘Bloody Sunday.’ The work’s return to the Museum is muted to say the least as it is one of the sixty works installed in a sequence which contrives to avoid highlights. The staging is such that there is little that will attract undue attention as potentially contentious.

As suggested, limiting the range of art media in Art of the Troubles aids in this effect. Whatever the present factors which led to this decision, art in Ulster in the 1960s and well into the ‘70s was conservative. Representational or figurative work in two-dimensions pre-dominated. At first the Troubles were not seen as a viable subject for art; art-making was seen as properly distanced from local events. Catherine and Joe McWilliams are attributed as the first to change this. Through their separate painting-based practices they began responses to what was happening in Belfast. Broader change in art media and attitude began in the mid-1970s, particularly with the emergence of more ‘progressive’ art programmes at the art college in Belfast. By the 1980s many artists living and working in Northern Ireland produced work on Troubles related events, iconographies, and issues. Gender roles within communities were made much more explicit in the work of Rita Duffy than was the case with Catherine McWilliams during the seventies. The reasons for the rise of Troubles related work are complex: the ‘normalization’ process instituted by the governing authorities meant violence was more contained and perhaps allowed for more psychological space than hitherto but, as well, there was greater access and awareness of trends in the international art circuit where the concept of direct social engagement was more to the forefront than before. From the 1990s, as communities are nudged towards post-conflict accommodation, photography and its digitalization becomes a more prevalent means amongst artists in the representation of the Northern Irish landscape.

Historical overview is absent from Art of the Troubles. It goes without saying that historical overviews are selective. By contrast this exhibition appeared as a neutral presentation. No reasons are on offer as to the basis for what is nevertheless a selection of artists and their work. Despite this, Locky Morris’s Gap of Danger – ‘An Bhearna Bhaoil’ (1988) remains powerful in the direct way it confronts the viewer with its raw materials and theme:  a row of battered and burnt metal bin lids each daubed in tar which for all the world looks like the silhouette of a line of military-style figures. Lest it is forgotten the metal bin-lids, which preceded the current plastic wheelie-bin or indeed social media, were banged against the ground as a warning that police or army were entering the community, just as the bin lids themselves are reminiscent of the very basic shields used by the police constabulary in the early days of the Troubles. As regards the tar, one of its uses was the tarring and feathering of those suspected of being an informer. Where Morris’s piece is somewhat diminished by its limited space, the same might be said of Donovan Wylie’s photographs (2003-2009) of the no-man’s land established by inner and outer security fences around the Maze Prison, the prison where paramilitaries were incarcerated until its closure in 2000. These are photographs of an empty space as a potent presence.

One artist, Willie Doherty, had an alcove created for his work—presumably because a dark space was needed for the showing of his two videos, the only concession to video in the exhibition. Also in this space were two of his photographs, one, God Has Not Failed Us (1990), the other (1994) from his Border Incident series. In their scale and cool, sharp aesthetic these works looked like something not simply from a different exhibition but from a different planet compared to the hot busyness of the main area. Positioned in the latter, Alastair McLennan is represented by a drawing entitled, Victim rather than with reference to his performance work. Whatever about the importance of drawing to MacLennan’s philosophy, his performance work is far more influential since the mid-1970s. The latter is described by the artist in a short video, one of several made available through the Museum’s website. Here we see photographs of MacLennan performances in Belfast city centre during the height of the Troubles. Not only were these performances dangerous in what could be sparked off from totally unconventional activity, more to the point they challenge perceptions of art and the social then as now. It is far from clear how these photographs exist at all since photography by members of the public was then forbidden in most situations on security grounds. André Stitt’s contribution to the exhibition is also drawings. In his case they are of knives used in his performances entitled, Shankill Butchers’ Knives. With this sufficiently self-explanatory title, Stitt performed these most visceral works, and the drawings are something of an inverse memorial.

While it is easy to use examples of art produced during the Troubles which most closely confront violence, especially psychopathic violence, for dramatic effect the point is to emphasise that this is not readily achieved through the more traditional art-forms. Insofar as the latter dominate this exhibition the organizers may have been too timid and too fearful of hostile response. As to the work itself, much of the art on the subject made during the Troubles is concentrated on the representation of psychological trauma. While this may be understandable, the emotions are often portrayed in over-simplified form. In this regard there is a parallel with the post-conflict context. Art related work is increasingly done under the guise of research which indicates the extent to which the Troubles are now the subject of academic study with ‘trauma’ as a favoured area in the awarding of research grants. The result is that ‘trauma’ is too often seen as the only way of investigating the Troubles which is at the cost of social and political inquiry.