Liam Crichton's Vacant Echoes at CQAF

The Scottish artist explains why he has built a Japanese rock garden in a former architect's office in the Cathedral Quarter

Japanese rock gardens are meditative, tranquil spaces. Each features symbolic representations of the essential elements of growth – heat, light, water – and for those charged with their upkeep, the very act of raking the gravel or pruning the plants is, in itself, an act of contemplation.

When visitors arrive at the Japanese rock garden that artist-in-residence Liam Crichton has created as part of Household Belfast’s contribution to the 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the elements of a contemplative space are present, but they have been rearranged and re-contextualized by the materials the artist has utilised.

Like much of the Scottish-born, Belfast-based artist’s work, the garden, entitled Vacant Echoes, explores the boundaries and overlaps between the pastoral, rural world in which he grew up and the industrial, urban environments he has called home since reaching adulthood.

Whilst taking in the garden's greenery, viewers stand beneath bar heaters, bound in by black fencing. Light is represented by a reflective, metallic monolith and underfoot, instead of the smooth gravel of a Zen garden, visitors tread upon sub-base, the kind of industrial-strength gravel used to level out a road, to pack it down before hot tar is poured upon it. Crichton doesn’t just allude to industrial processes when creating art, he adopts them.

'In general my work is somewhere between minimalism and pop art,' he explains. 'I deal with pop art in terms of appropriation, but with a minimal aesthetic. It’s not pop art in terms of icons, but it’s about the appropriation of everyday things that go unnoticed, background stuff, and highlighting that, giving that a more important role.'

Vacant Echoes

 

Raised in Wigtown, in the District Council Region of Dumfries and Galloway, Crichton grew up in the midst – and mist – of Scotland’s Galloway hills. From his bedroom window, he could see the Irish Sea. When he turned 17, however, his surroundings changed drastically when he moved to Edinburgh – with its imposing castle atop the grassy Castle Rock. There, Crichton eventually studied sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art before moving to Belfast in 2011. 

'I don’t want to make any broad, sweeping statements about art...' Crichton says, 'but I think I’m probably going to,' he laughs, before continuing. 'All art has to be a form of expression, so in that form of expression you’ve got to deal with where you’re from, how you’re brought up, your surroundings throughout your life. You’ve got to reflect on these things.'

Like most of Household Belfast’s contributions to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Crichton’s work has been installed in a vacant property in Belfast’s city centre. Crichton’s space – a former architect’s office on 41-43 Hill Street – is vast, filled with exposed metal beams and heating ducts. It took 15 tonnes of gravel to cover the floor, carted up and down the stairs one bag at a time before being removed at festival’s end. Crichton finds neither the size of the space nor the work’s temporary nature daunting.

'The scale and size of the space has never intimidated me. I try and respond to spaces. You're creating an experience in an installation. I don't really like to think of making art as manufacturing a product. You're creating an event which is an experience for people to come in and enjoy or take whatever way they want. So there is more than that product, or maybe that is the product, I don't know. I don't like to overanalyze that.'

Vacant Echoes works not only to highlight the available space in the Cathedral Quarter – which has undergone a significant transformation in recent years as a cultural hub, yet still there are many empty buildings there in need of a rebirth – but as a reflection of Belfast itself, a powerhouse of the industrial revolution overlooked by green hills and lapped by the waters of Belfast Lough. Indeed, that duality is part of what keeps Crichton living and working in the city.

'You’ve got what was a real industrial hub with shipyards and industry,' he observes, 'but then you’ve got Cave Hill and you drive out of town ten minutes and you’re in countryside. So you’ve naturally got that contrast. That’s why Belfast is doing it for me at the minute.'

Vacant Echoes runs from 2 May until 12 May. The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 12.