Fata Morgana at Catalyst Arts

The illusion between art and reality is explored by various national and international artists in the central Belfast gallery

In 1913, Donald Baxter MacMillen set out in search of a huge island known as Crocker Land. The island had been sighted, and named, in 1906 by Robert Peary. MacMillan had the co-ordinates – 83 degrees N, longitude 100 degrees W. The search covered 125 miles of ice and cost $100,000 – yet MacMillan never found a single pebble.

That is because Crocker Land was a Fata Morgana, a ‘complex superior mirage’, and also the title of the latest exhibition at Catalyst Arts gallery in central Belfast. Curated by Alissa Kleist, Fata Morgana uses sculpture, painting and video installations by a variety of national and international artists to examine and deny ‘aspects of reality’.

Kleist explains that her own artistic work, although not featured in Fata Morgana, frequently dwells on the balancing point between what is real and what isn’t. So the idea of an exhibition exploring similar ideas from the viewpoint of other artists appealed to her.

‘The exhibiting artists in Fata Morgana are Persijn Broersen, Stuart Calvin, Phil Collins, Martin Healy, Margit Lukács and Tim Millen,’ Kleist says. ‘We have a really good mix of sculpture, installation, photography, video and painting.’

Although the theme of ‘constructing and deconstructing’ reality is the unifying theme of the exhibition, the different artists each approached it in their own way – appropriately enough, since once you discard the idea of an objective, undeconstructable reality, then all that is left is an individual’s perception of what is real.

Some of the artists directly reference the Fata Morgana phenomenon. Martin Healy’s white neon sculpture is, in fact, entitled 'Fata Morgana' and uses the imaginary co-ordinates that MacMillen set sail for during his search. The piece is an odd blend of the utilitarian modern – what can be less mystical than an actual neon sign? – and the eerie.

Stuart Calvin‘s sculptural installation ‘Constant Bewilderment’, on the other hand, deals with actual smoke and mirrors. It consists of two large exhibition cases of wood and glass. One is empty – a control group of sorts – while the other gradually fills with mist and then empties again. ‘But there’s always a faint haze inside,’ Kleist points out, 'so you know that something was there.’

Other artists explore new technological methods of creating, or debunking, reality bending myths. Kleist points out a huge painting by Tim Millen on one wall of the gallery, entitled ‘Wilderness Pleases (Virtual Matterhorn)'. The painting is striped with yellow sight-lines and dotted with small white flag-stickers.

‘The Matterhorn is traditionally an unconquered peak, a wildness that man has always wanted to explore,’ Kleist says. ‘But rather than going there physically to sit in front of Matterhorn and paint it, Millen sought out images on Google Maps.’

The various white marks that dot the painting are therefore where people have uploaded their photographs to Google. The unconquered peak is available to view on your laptop.

There is also a video installation created by Phil Collins on a constant loop in a constructed cinema at the back of the gallery. Commissioned by the Aspen Museum as part of the Jane and Marc Nathanson Dintiguished Artist in Residency Program, ‘soy mi madre’ deals with ideas of class and race. ‘It’s loosely based on Jean Genet 'The Maids',’ Kleist explains.

In ‘soy mi madre’ Collins uses the tropes and aesthetics of a telenovela to toy with the various ambiguous levels of reality and fiction involved in long-running soaps. Sometimes the camera follows the actors off the set, including the film crew in the shot, and the characters will change actors mid-scene with no explanation.

It also had a secondary layer of commentary, since the film was originally dual-aired. So while the wealthy art lovers were watching it, so were the people who worked for them.

Finally there is Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukacs’ ‘Mastering Bambi’, which removes the cuddly, anthropomorphic animals and replaces them with a constructed, ornamental nature and dissonant re-imagining of the Bambi soundtrack. The swooping, occasionally ominous score fills the empty gallery with the expectation that something is going to crack the peace any second now.

Fata Morgana will include a number of artist talks and screenings in the gallery. The next is Fantasia on October 27 at 8. Fata Morgana is at Catalyst until November 9.