Archiving Place & Time

Bree Hocking takes a trip to Portadown, and discovers that history runs deep in art as in life

I have only been at Archiving Place & Time, a new exhibit of post-Belfast Agreement contemporary art in the Millennium Court in Portadown, a few minutes before a tangible sense of unease descends.

Outside the sun is bright, and the setting offers a strikingly modern backdrop. So why the cause for concern? Perhaps the wall of baseball bats overlooking a field of 66 hood-like constructions that appears just around the corner has something to do with it.

The piece, 'Disclaimer' by Derry native Conor McFeely, plays on notions of paramilitary violence and punishment beatings. It’s also indicative of the dystopia and contradiction that haunt aspects of the Northern Irish landscape.

For an exhibit billed as 'investigating the socio-political and economic development of a post-conflict society', the work of the artists included here, all stars of the Northern Irish art scene, reveals a surprising absorption with the legacies of the past, and specifically, its sectarian and conflict-related elements.

VolunteerEverywhere staples of the Northern Irish symbolic repertoire – the poppy wreath in Philip Napier’s 'The Texture of Memory', the projected H-Blocks map accompanying a reconstructed 'Sputnik I' by Aisling O’Beirn – bear witness to the intransigence of social division.

That the works included in the show have been exhibited before – some at popular Belfast galleries like Golden Thread and The Third Space – hardly lessens their aggregate impact.

The message is clear: the conflict is inescapable, although the show might have benefited from a slightly broader approach to its themes of memory and change. Most people’s lives (and by extension the societies and spaces in which they live) are the sum of so much more than the easy symbolic associations and preoccupations on display here.

Still, the exhibit should be applauded for problematising the 'post-conflict' label. Images invoking the rise of anti-social behaviour and other prejudices offer a compelling complement to such works as Paul Seawright’s quietly incisive photograph 'Erased Texts', where graffiti under a bridge has been whited-out by a strip of paint, its message apparently unacceptable to the powers-that-be.

Less successful are efforts to tackle issues posed by the gentrification of the post-industrial city. Mary McIntyre’s 'Untitled (after Caspar David Friedrich) I' – featuring a lone figure standing alongside a littered landscape gazing toward the Harland & Wolff shipyards, now the site of the massive Titanic Quarter development and its promises of regeneration and tourist appeal – takes steps in this direction but doesn’t quite get there.

Co-curated by Fionna Barber, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, and former MCAC Director Megan Johnston, Archiving Place & Time was previously on view at Manchester Metropolitan University. In June it will travel to Wolverhampton Art Gallery, its third and final venue.

Depending on your point of view, it’s slightly ironic, or entirely fitting, that the show’s lone stop in Northern Ireland is Portadown, 'the politically tensioned, infamous market town' (as Johnston describes it in her catalogue essay), which attracted international headlines in the 1990s due to violent clashes over Orange Parades.

On the day I visit, a local taxi driver snorts derisively when I suggest that things have improved here since the Good Friday Agreement. 'It will never be over in Portadown,' he declares, proceeding to list a string of alleged sectarian incidences. Strolling through the gallery, I begin to understand his concerns.

Even the most conspicuously optimistic work – Napier and Mike Hogg’s Keswick Street'The Soft Estate' -- a large, extendable table modelled after the captain’s table intended for the Titanic (the original survived because it was delivered too late for the voyage) comes with its own troubling ramifications.

Despite the obvious nod to discussion represented by the table, it is missing its leaves, which hang on a nearby wall. The idea, says current MCAC Director Jackie Barker, is for the table to be left open 'to accommodate as much as possible'. Nevertheless, the table can also be read as an essentially gutted entity, not unlike the real-life Titanic, absent the very elements needed to give its form meaningful function.

Thankfully, the exhibit isn’t without some comic relief. Rita Duffy’s iconic 'Dessert', an AK-47 entirely made of milk chocolate, is served up on a bed of Irish linen, encased in an elegant Victorian-style vitrine. Is it a relic of the past, symbolising the end of conflict? A mere museum piece, as Barker suggests? Or is it a clever appropriation of the violent for the toothsome? A dadaesque take on the ultimate burial of the once lethal corpse? Perhaps a bit of all of the above.

The gun in question, cast from a decommissioned paramilitary weapon, acquires yet another layer of possible meaning when a BBC film crew drop in to collect footage for a documentary on Duffy. I watch as a cameraman aims his lens at the gun. For a moment, roles are reversed. The chocolate Kalashnikov, stripped of its power to terrorise, has become the hunted.

Archiving Place & Time: Contemporary Art Practice in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement is on view at Portadown’s Millennium Court Arts Centre through May 29th. For more information, visit www.millenniumcourt.org.