I Will Go There, Take Me Home

Curated by Derry's Gregory McCartney, The MAC’s latest group exhibition challenges visitors to consider the dangers of ignoring new political, social and economic realities

Who are the barbarians? Is it us? What defines us as humans, and what do we really know of our rights?

These are just some of the questions addressed by the artists Olaf Brzeski, Pieter Hugo and Adrian Ghenie in the latest exhibition at The MAC in Belfast.

Spread out across the venue’s three galleries, the exhibition – part of The MAC’s second installment of their Guest Curator Programme – delivers a powerful and focused message. It challenges the observer to consider the danger of ignoring our history, of failing to adapt to new political, social and economic landscapes, and of exerting control over other societies. It suggests that we need to look at the world afresh.

The artists have drawn on their experiences of coming from countries affected by war and violence, and of living in post-apartheid communities. They subsequently use a mixture of installation, photography and oil and acrylics to illustrate their points.

It is the opening night of the exhibition, curated by Derry’s Gregory McCartney – also editor of art/poetry journal, Abridged – and the evening combines the launch of both. Indeed, this latest edition of the journal has been produced directly in conjunction with the exhibition.

A steady crowd, with a seemingly predominant flavour of youth, threads through the gallery spaces, and our first appointment is with the ground floor installation from Polish artist Olaf Brzeski, entitled ‘Dream-Spontaneous Combustion’. It is an arresting piece. 

Upon entering the white-walled room, we see what looks like black soot exploding from the far wall in an angry deformed cloud, protruding into the surrounding space like an accusing finger. It immediately conjures up a sense of threat – of a pressure-cooker situation that is reached boiling point. Brzeski seems to be warning us that to ignore change will be at our peril. The message is boldly apocalyptic.

I will go there, take me home, The MAC, Belfast

According to The MAC’s description, the full exhibition explores ‘the end of things’, ‘the end of personal and social empires… the apocalyptic element inherent in their destruction, the failure of philosophies; the failure of systems; the failure of people'. For South African artist Pieter Hugo, this theme is depicted in glossy photographic form, with large square pictures decorating the second gallery space upstairs. 

It Is also where we can pick up a copy of the Abridged journal, available in a variety of covers to showcase each artist. Their work subsequently accompanies the poetry inside, which includes a poem by the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2015, Stephanie Conn, along with other national and international poets.

Hugo’s photography is vividly compelling, his subjects staring proud and defiant down the camera lense. They are people marginalised by society. They live in the shantytowns of Africa, doing what is necessary to survive, but always misunderstood.

The images show ‘the hyena men’ (with hyenas, not dogs, as I overhear someone say when picking up a journal), who are viewed as drug dealers and dangerous people, but are simply forced to earn a crust by training wild animals to perform to a crowd.

Urban and barren landscapes sit side by side, each picture bright and bold and beckoning, clashing colourful beauty with black and white brutality. Yet each photograph also portrays its subjects as inherently human – these are people with names and families, and this is simply their way of life. They are carving out new identities in an ever challenging and changing world.

Our final installment in the exhibition comes from Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie, who uses oil and acrylic in the lofty third gallery space. His paintings vary from large sweeping canvases to much smaller scenes that require closer examination, asking us to consider ‘the ghosts that haunt modern societies'.

The paintings are abstract, their layers bleeding one into the other to create collages that show everything from aerial warfare to blurred, featureless faces. The images are complex fusions of colour, yet within each, there is a clear outline of what Ghenie wishes us to see.

I Will Go There, Take Me Home ultimately fuses personal artistic expression with wider literary reflection to draw our attention to the divisions in societies, and the need for us to consider the world afresh. Indeed, we are told that the Greek poet, CP Cavafy, wrote a piece entitled ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ in 1904, asking: 'What will become of us without barbarians?'

Meanwhile, South African writer, JM Coetzee, later considered these themes in his novel of the same name in 1980. Do we need barbarians to function as a society and if so, who are they? What happens without them?

Poet, Aime Cesaire, speaks of ‘hyena-men and panther-men’ in her 1938 poem, ‘Notebook of a Return to my Native Land’, which is so vividly represented in Hugo’s photographs.

All in all, this is a rivetting, highly evocative exhibition which invites the viewer to step into a brave new world. Coupled with the poetry in the complementary journal – inspired by Dante’s purgatory in The Divine Comedy – the overall effect is one of deep contemplation.

I Will Go There, Take Me Home runs at The MAC, Belfast until July 26. Acclaimed photographer, Pieter Hugo, will give an artist talk on his work on Monday, May 18 at 3pm.

I will go there, take me home, The MAC, Belfast