Catholic Blood

Derry~Londonderry's Void gallery hosts Russian Andrei Molodkin's controversial exhibition until June 28

The latest exhibition at Derry~Londonderry’s Void Gallery is a new work by Russian artist, Andrei Molodkin. Its full title is Catholic Blood in the Rose Window of the Houses of Parliament, and it runs until June 28. (A planned second installation, 2009's Direct from the Pipe, was cancelled.)

Catholic Blood is showing in two rooms, though essentially both rooms show the same thing. Encased in a transparent acrylic is a hollowed replica of the Rose Window from the UK Houses of Parliament. It sits on a metal industrial or hospital shelf unit, and is lit by spotlights from the left and behind. On a trolley close by there is a pharmaceutical refrigeration unit, inside which there is a cylinder of human blood.

Around the two units, on the bare concrete floor, are pumps and electrical sockets, and a tangle of leads, tubes and pipes. At irregular intervals the pumps push the blood from the cylinder through the pipes and into the hollow Rose Window sculpture. A camera captures images of the sculpture, which are projected onto the gallery walls. The blood is human blood, and has been donated by Catholic people from Derry and the surrounding areas. Type RC, perhaps.

The scene looks sparse and feels cold and emotionless, industrial almost, with no attempt to hide the workings of the process. It is visually striking and arresting seeing the rose window filling with blood and air, spreading liquid and bubbles around the inside of the sculpture in random and insistent patterns.

It’s like a wound bleeding into a system of narrow tunnels, the blood finding its own routes to the bottom of the chamber. The movement is accompanied by the sound of the pumps shooting the blood – a nasty, brutal, tinny sound – that is somehow unexpected. I don’t see any beauty in the piece – maybe because I know it involves real, human blood – although others in the vicinity when I view the piece evidently do.

Catholic Blood is undeniably visceral and confrontational, and there is a lot about this exhibition that I don’t like. The title, for a start. It is provocative, shocking. It generates programmed cultural responses, pushing people to their own particular sides. That wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily, except, I would argue, it’s pointlessly and needlessly manipulative.

In the days before the opening night, Void sent out a teasing tweet telling gallerygoers that they were 'in for a big surprise'. The surprise turns out to be that the show is, in fact, about the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, in particular the clause that states a Catholic may not advise the sovereign on ecclesiastical matters – in other words, that a Catholic can never become Prime Minister, because the PM advises the monarch on appointments to the Church of England.

The trouble is, that’s not true. A Catholic can become Prime Minister, which explains why parties likely to get elected have had no trouble choosing a Catholic as party leader before. The literature accompanying the exhibition talks of 'the clause of the British constitution that forbids an MP...' But the UK has no written constitution.

If a Catholic were to become PM, there’d be a fudge or a shift, or a committee would be set up, and things would carry on as normal. The work challenges a rhetorical situation that cannot come to pass, so it all feels rather aimless. The artist talks of wanting to establish a 'context for debate', but there’s actually nothing to talk about here, other than the work itself, which is, one might argue, ill-conceived and poorly researched.

Art can be all manner of things. It can be playful, serious, beautiful, ugly, primitive, sophisticated, challenging, reassuring. It can question and discomfort. It can be political propaganda and personal confession. Ironic, direct, technically brilliant, awkward, disturbing, and full of passion. What it should have – maybe must have – is truth. I don’t think there’s any truth in this exhibit.

At the launch of the exhibition, Molodkin invited viewers to interpret the work how they wished. Yet two days later he insisted there was only one interpretation: the rose was an establishment symbol and the blood represented those on the outside. He had originally intended to use Protestant blood also, but subsequently decided on Catholic blood only to emphasis the 'duality' of the situation. The work is, he said, about 'hope and participation'.

If the point is that Catholics are discriminated against by the establishment, why not pick an issue that bears more than the slightest scrutiny and isn’t revealed to be untrue after a 30-second phonecall to the House of Commons Information Office? If it’s about the disenfranchised being brought into the establishment, why not use the blood of the functionally illiterate, or the unemployed?

On first viewing, I thought that Catholic Blood was meant to stir up cheap mischief – a controversial piece for controversy's sake. But I don’t think it is. In my opinion, it’s simply a poor art work, loaded with a mess of images and associations which crumble underneath their own weight.

Catholic Blood in the Rose Window of the Houses of Parliament runs in Void, Derry~Londonderry until June 28.