Some interfaces are more visible, more clearly defined, than others. Some have no formal markers, no obvious boundaries. Others, like the Crumlin Road / Flax Street interface – one of the most contentious in Belfast – are unmistakeable in their purpose.
Two huge steel barriers, each with a padlocked door, seal in a rubbish-strewn strip of no-man's land. Now Oscar Muñoz, one of Latin America's most significant living artists, is set to transform the area with an extraordinary artistic intervention.
Part of the London 2012 Festival, the work has been commissioned by the Golden Thread Gallery on behalf of Draw Down the Walls. DDTW is an ongoing collaboration between North Belfast Interface Network, Lower Shankill Community Association and the Golden Thread Gallery, geared towards imagining a city without barriers.
Following a visit to Belfast in February 2012, in which he met communities from both sides of the interface, Muñoz developed a temporary site-specific work called Ambulatorio, using aerial maps of north Belfast, sealed under a layer of crackled glass. When I visited the site on Wednesday, work was just getting started, under Muñoz's direction.
The ground was being prepared – it's a fairly extensive area when you see it up close – the rubbish cleared, and the glazed panels were being stacked, ready to be laid in position. The installation is placed on the ground so that visitors can 'traverse the city'. When it is completed, the impact of this glassy corridor between the two steel gates will be powerful – both in scale and historical resonance.
In its original version, Ambulatorio featured 36 black and white photos of Cali, Muñoz's home city, where he lives and works today. Cali was once known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and of course Colombia as a whole has seen its share of social and political turmoil. Ambulatorio was first created in reaction to the drug trafficking turmoil between the state and Colombian drug cartels in the 1990s.
Muñoz says that, in general, his work arises from an attempt to understand 'how a society comes to accept war – or rather, a dark and corrupted succession of wars over more than 50 years and which have not yet ended – as part of the routine of living, where both the past and the present are plagued with daily violent events which are persistently repeated'.
Muñoz’s art explores the universal themes of memory, identity and impermanence, and it's easy to see how it can transpose to another troubled city, now looking with increasing confidence to the future. It provides a sensitive way to acknowledge the relationships that are gradually being built between our own divided communities.
Part of the motivation for inviting Muñoz to make this artwork in Belfast was to provide an international angle on a local situation – identifying a national conflict through a global lens – and encouraging residents and visitors alike to see the area differently.
In this sense, the Belfast Ambulatorio is a more forward-looking work than its predecessor. Although it evokes the commonality of human loss, its very location – providing a visible, tangible connection between two historically polarised communities – speaks also of hope, and the desire for progress.
Ambulatorio will be in situ from July 9 to August 4, 2012, Crumlin Road/Flax Street Interface, Belfast.
Fionola Meredith is chair of the board of directors of the Golden Thread Gallery.