MAC International

With works by 18 artists from around the world, the biennial exhibition rewards its visitors with an experience as rich as its grand prize

Mariah Garnett, Full Burn

One has to applaud Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre, and the Ulster Bank, sponsors of the 2016 MAC International exhibition, for bringing significant art from around the world to Northern Ireland. On show is the work of 18 artists shortlisted from 1,000 entries from 40 countries. The overall winner, the London based Slovenian artist Jasmina Cibic received a prize of £20,000.

It is noteworthy that so many of the chosen artists currently work in countries other than their own. In 2015, Spanish born Núria Güell, now based in Beirut, travelled to the city of Medellin in Colombia to make ‘The Flower Fair’, a disturbing film about the fallout from Colombia’s notorious drug culture – addiction, prostitution, rape, and in particular the deflowering of young virgin girls and boys.

In the Antioquia museum, in front of figurative sculptures and cartoon style paintings by the country’s leading artist Fernando Botero, young female victims of the sex trade describe their personal experiences of pimping and prostitution. 'It’s all about money', says Evelyn, her pixelated face concealing her identity. Behind her is Botero’s painting of a prostitute who is refusing the money offered by a client because she wants more. Her companion, Eliane, points to WhatsApp messages advertising young virgins for sex tourists from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, USA and elsewhere.

Núria Güell, La Feria de las Flores, (The Flower Fair) Museo de Antioquia

Núria Güell, La Feria de las Flores, (The Flower Fair) Museo de Antioquia

In 2013 Wojtek Doroszuk, a Pole who now lives and works in Rouen, travelled to the Congolese capital Brazzaville to film his video portrait of Elohim 'Prince' Ntsiete, a Michael Jackson look-alike. Every day, the Prince polishes his black loafers, dons an MJ t-shirt, a shiny blue suit, white socks, hat and gloves and heads downtown to strut his stuff. Boisterous boys follow him chanting 'Jackson' and 'Beat It' and then, on the banks of the Congo river, the Prince meets a group of local musicians whose rumba riffs rhyme his modified moonwalk.  

There’s an immediate wow factor in the display of pink posters on the long wall of the upper gallery. The nine colour graded monochrome photographs look like very large (100cm x 180cm) gloss colour samples from a paint shop catalogue. They are part of the collection called 'Ocean Europe' by Ismar Cirkinagic from Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, (formerly Yugoslavia) now based in Copenhagen.

Cirkinagic downloaded images of the national flags of 30 European countries then processed each one to calculate its average colour value. Those that are predominantly red and blue print up in magenta. The title hints at the spiritual concept of ‘oceanic feeling’ defined in 1927 by the French Nobel Prize-winning writer Romain Rolland as ‘cosmic consciousness’ or ‘oneness with the universe’. By reducing national flags to a unified colour, Crikinagic highlights our common humanity in a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia.

Wojtek Doroszuk, Prince,  2014

Wojtek Doroszuk, Prince

On the opposite side of the gallery are Nikolas Ventourakis’s photographs from Akrotiri where a British Sovereign territory was established in 1960 and where the RAF base continues to support operations in the region. Ventourakis is aware that local civilians find it hard to tell when they have crossed into UK land because of the soft border between the base and the Republic of Cyprus. On the other hand everyone is aware of the Green Line between the Turkish and Cypriot parts of the country.

The centrepiece of ‘Defining Lines’ (Borderlands) is a compelling colour photograph of a beach party where a small group of people are relaxing on deck chairs and in the shade of sun umbrellas; a woman sets out for a swim and a couple of men stand chatting on the sea shore. There’s a hint of disquiet in their discussions. In the distance is a lone look-out post.

It is difficult to follow the thread of a video when one arrives mid way through and for me this is particularly frustrating in the case of ‘Full Burn’ by the Los Angeles artist Mariah Garnett. It’s the story of four US war veterans who compare their current occupations with their careers in the army. One is a massage therapist and the others are Hollywood stunt men who continue to court danger. As the former special ops marine is prepared for the Full Burn stunt of the title, he is rubbed all over with Multi Mix gel then dressed in a body suit which covers him entirely save for his eyes. The sense of anticipation is palpable but the film ends just as he is being led away to perform the stunt. I feel cheated. In fact the film opens with dramatic slow motion footage of the stunt man being set on fire.

Nikolas Ventourakis, Defining Lines

Nikolas Ventourakis, Defining Lines (Borderlands)

‘The People’s Collective’, by Ana Mendes, a London-based Portuguese artist, is a series of A6 postcards stamped with postage size lithographic reproductions of objects held in ethnographic museums around the world. Mendes claims that many of these items were collected during the colonial era and appear out of context in a museum. Each postcard bears the signature of the person who is petitioning to have the object returned to its country of origin. Heather Agyepong from the Royal Family of Ghana is reclaiming the state sword, currently on display in the British Museum. Eleni Papaioannou wants the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. Aishwarya Soundarapandian is requesting that the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which in now in the crown jewels in the Tower of London, be given back to India. The campaign is supported by letters to Her Majesty the Queen and the Director of the British Museum.

Ángel de la Rubia is a Spanish artist who lives and works in Brussels. ‘Transitions’ is a series of drawings traced from photographs that appeared in Spanish newspapers during the 1970s and '80s following the death of General Franco. ‘La Transisión’ from dictatorship to democracy was a tumultuous time when elections were called, a constitution was drawn up and 500 people lost their lives. Mounted in simple white frames, these immaculate inkjet prints present a reflective view of that period in Spain’s history.

Amid the many challenging issue-led exhibits it is pleasing to turn a corner and take pleasure in the sheer visual verve of ‘Vortex’ by the Icelandic artist Rósa Sigrún Jónsdóttir. The knitted and crocheted structures are suspended in the Tall gallery like exotic pagodas or minarets.

Rósa Sigrún Jónsdóttir, Vortex

Rósa Sigrún Jónsdóttir, Vortex

Jasmina Cibic chose the Palace of Serbia in Belgrade as the setting for her polemical discussion about architecture. With its magnificent interior designed by Mihailo Jankovic, the palace is an early example of total design. One can see why the judges chose ‘Tear Down and Rebuild’ for its magnificent setting in halls decorated with marble and mosaics; for the stylish direction of the protagonists, A Nation Builder, A Pragmatist, A Conservationist and an Artist/Architect, roles taken by elegant young women, and for the script which quotes speeches by the likes of the Prince of Wales, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Hitler and Mussolini. Catchphrases such as ‘respect restoration is a possibility’, ‘carbuncle that blights the town’, ‘the people want apartments’, ‘a small group of men want to make money’ stand out but I find the arguments difficult to follow and the overall effect quite stagey.

Each visitor to this exhibition will be drawn to different work but everyone should set aside at least three hours for a worthwhile tour of the three galleries. It is, however, one of those shows that fully repays the effort.

The 2016 MAC International exhibition runs until February 19, 2017. For further details on the exhibiting artists, opening times and more visit www.themaclive.com/exhibition/mac-international-2016.