Palimpsest

An inventive contemporary musing on the fraught nexus between past and present at the Golden Thread Gallery

Traditionally a palimpsest was a kind of scroll made of parchment or vellum on which new writing was layered on top of old inscriptions with the passage of time.

Most popular in the sixth century, lettering could be scraped or washed off so that the parchment could be used again to make new markings, but the traces of past – the scriptio inferio or underwriting – often stubbornly shone through. Though the parchment was scrubbed clean, vestiages of the past would yet make themselves visible, insisting on the reality of what had gone before.

In many ways, memory and history are like palimpsests, the layers of old experience forever being re-inscripted with new experiences, words and ideas, the past and the present combined in consciousness and in the here and now, through which, as Joyce described, 'the future plunges to the past'.

This multi-artist exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast takes the idea of the palimpsest – or what we might see as a symbol for the complex relationship between present and past, old and new – and explores this in a variety of media and styles. What emerges most lucidly is how vitally past and present are entwined, each impossible to conceive without the other.

Ursula Burke works in parian porcelain to create utterly exquisite busts or sculptures that recall classical antiquity, which jarrs with contemporary slogans that speak to today's Northern Ireland: references to gay rights, a sign satirically saying 'Will terrorise for food', a beautiful woman's head with a collection of flags protruding from her mouth.

Burke's work is a provocative blend of classical sculpture and insignia of the petty sectarian squabbles and conflict of today's benighted, conservative, sadly retrogressive province. A bust of a member of the clergy is defaced with a blue splurge of paint and a lamb hung around his shoulders like a scarf, while another sculpture features a house daubed with yellow paint, strange animals trapped under its surface area.

These pieces instantiate a striking collision of the historical and the present, of delightful classical form and contemporary socio-political commentary. Here the classical sculpture becomes laden with postmodern irony, loaded with the shame of attitudes that belong in the Dark Ages.

Tom Bevan's bowls, the product of a residency in Taiwan, are carefully assembled using fragments found in car parks and river banks, the objective being to create a whole piece from disparate shards, here the foreign and the familiar transmuted into something whole and aesthetic. Like a jigsaw, fragments of the past melded into something new, more artful and potentially functional.

Sara Greavu's unusual pieces, meanwhile, were originally commissioned for a specific hairdresser's salon in Muff, Donegal. Here she takes some 18th century satirical engravings of women's hair – bouffant, towering, seductive – and updates them with fabulous humour, showing gargantuan, skyscraper hair filled with balls of wool and fences, bricks and modern houses.

This could simply be comedy or a deeper comment on female beauty and sexuality, the latter so often symbolised by and associated with long, luscious locks. Helen of Troy's beauty sparked the Trojan War, after all, and here it's implied that the wages of beauty are wealth, industry and the vast line of production involved in the fashion industry – the material girls are top of the hierarchy, beauty is money and power, and the crowning glory of the femme fatale is big, big hair.

Tonya McMullan layers the inside of found items of clothing hanging from the gallery walls with material used to decorate the rooms of the Europa, the most bombed hotel in Europe. Elsewhere she embroiders what look like flies on the inside of people's clothes, indicating the onset of decay and time passing on the surfaces of fabric.

Then, Anne Quail's video work explores a quarrell between perceived medical fact and folklore on the cure for warts, the camera zooming in on the hands of the speakers, one a voice of scientific fact, the other a believer in the magical wisdom of generations. Here it seems the passage of time has diminished the primacy of the latter; these days science is the infallible god bestowing all answers.

Elsewhere there are arranged objects: glasses and vases in a vertical structure that could easily collapse and smash; a kind of trunk with figurines and glass containers and old, glitzy shoes; a sculpture of two large suspended globes.

A photopgraph taken in Pripyat, the city built for Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant employees, by Zoe Murdoch, captures something of the fear and desolation in the aftermath of the disaster, detritus and crumbling architecture abounding.

Murdoch situates the work as a response to a quote from the poet Lyubov Sirota, lines that could well speak for the exhibition as a whole: 'The soul, it seems – is a difficult memory. Nothing can be erased, nothing subtracted, nothing cancelled, nothing corrected!... Even so – the burden is sacred.'

The burden of memory is difficult, all of it etched in the mind like a palimpsest to be gradually unravelled and continually added to, an ever-sacred outlet for the expression and sustenance of the soul.

This is an unusual, sometimes baffling yet brilliant exhibition, with conceptual engagement fully matched by artistic skill – an inventive if sometimes obscurantist contemporary musing on the fraught nexus between past and present.

Palimpsest runs at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast until August 9.