Spring Exhibitions at The MAC

Emma Patterson takes in a triumvirate of international collections the Belfast arts venue has brought to Northern Ireland for the first time

The MAC has been transformed by three artists each opening their first major solo exhibition in Northern Ireland; LA-based artist Mariah Garnett, Dublin's Niamh McCann and Helen O’Leary, all the way from New York.

Whilst the exhibitions sit independently of one another, there is a certain overlap in the subtext of each. 'There are shared underlining themes,' says Hugh Mulholland, the venue's Senior Curator. 'Niamh, Helen and Mariah are all responding to existing ideas, the unravelling of histories both personal and political and the re-interpreting, re-staging or re-configuring of these ideas'.

Garnett’s Other & Father is displayed in the Sunken Gallery and explores the artist’s relationship with her estranged father, David, who hails from Belfast. The exhibition centres on a double video projection, one showing BBC archival footage of Garnett’s father, filmed in 1971, and another presenting her own restaging of the material, shot in 2015.

The video focuses on the cross-community relationship David was having at the time, shot under the assurance that it would never air in Ulster. This assurance was not upheld, and after the broadcast he left Northern Ireland and has not returned since. A third channel pictures the artist’s father watching the original footage for the first time, revealing his reaction to the liberties taken by the BBC in their portrayal. 

Her work is a fascinating exploration of political and personal histories, reinterpreting these both against the backdrop of family and city. It’s a highly personal collection, made even more so by the superimposing of excerpts from Garnett’s diary entries during the first days of meeting David.

A mixture of documentary, narrative and experimental film, this is the first instalment of a large-scale moving image work that will be gradually released over the next few years, focusing on the artist’s fledgling relationship with her father.

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The Upper Gallery features The Shelf Life of Facts, a series of 'history' paintings by Helen O’Leary. The artist draws on her Irish background to explore the concept of origin and the idea that childhood ultimately shapes our cultural, moral and emotional outlook.

The piece is innovatively crafted from thwarted joinery, armatures, insets and shelves that both display all of their components and continually rebuild and reframe their own structure and meaning. It’s a far cry from the traditional view of painting, and as such this specially commissioned piece offers up a truly distinctive experience for audiences.

The work straddles the boundary between painting and sculpture, and between construction and destruction. 'I’m very aware of the collision between the old and the new, destruction and rebuilding are very much a part of my practice,' states O'Leary on her approach to art-making.

'I think of how people construct lives and I construct paintings with awareness of the failures and foibles that are part and parcel of being alive. Painting is a language, we push it forward to keep it going and I’m always aware of its history as I work.'

The standout installation is undoubtedly McCann’s La Perruque, presented in the Tall Gallery. Through a combination of sculpture, painting and video the artist studies the life and times of Hans Poelzig. The Bauhaus architect is best known for the design of Frankfurt’s IG Farben building, notably used for the production of the deadly Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps, and for set design on the iconic film The Golem: How He Came into the World.

La Perruque unites these varied influences and historical touchstones by exploring the idealism they represented in their original incarnations and the ways in which over time they have become overlaid with different narratives, stories and meanings. Numerous narrative threads, from the social to the political, geographic and historical sit together within McCann’s pieces.

A number of original Poelzig drawings are also on display, including designs of the IG Farben building and the Showspielhaus. McCann considers herself a landscape artist and has set this exhibition against the landscape of Belfast.

'Protest Song' is a particularly intriguing element of the collection, a video shot in 360 tracking view outside Stormont, displayed in black and white and set to tenor Sean Kennedy’s interpretation of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Quintet. This piece, more than any other, encapsulates McCann’s interest in the interweaving of fact and fiction.

Niamh McCann: La Perruque

Niamh McCann: La Perruque, Helen O'Leary: The Shelf Life of Facts and Mariah Garnett: Other and Father are all free to attend, seven days a week at The MAC, Belfast. For opening times visit www.themaclive.com.