Art Beat

In the first of a series, critic Peter Haining profiles Brian Connolly

Born in Ballymoney in 1961, Brian Connolly comes from a farming background. He is the first member of his family to choose a career in art, this being encouraged from an early age by Auntie Mary, an amateur painter. Connolly’s first recollections of playing in the sandpit, developing private mythologies and later exploring local landscapes formed the blocks from which his art making would be built.

At the age of 18, Connolly entered the foundation course in art and design at Ulster Polytechnic. A year later he specialised in sculpture undergoing a traditional training with an emphasis on fundamental skills and craft. This instilled in him a discipline and respect for process as well as the knowledge that there are no quick-fix remedies. He graduated with an MA in Fine Art in 1985, yet would not regard himself as a qualified professional artist until he had served a self-imposed apprenticeship of some years.

The young sculptor was eager to engage in a dialogue with his public and to reject the clichéd image of a studio-based solitary whose iconoclastic emblems and symbols have little meaning for people.

In response to a commission from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Coleraine Borough Council, Connolly made his first public sculpture in 1990. Portrush Sundial, concrete constructed and decorated with mosaic, is a seminal work for it sets out principles and ethics to which Connolly would adhere throughout his practice.

The piece is mathematically aligned to a formula written by the late Professor Phillip Adams of Queen’s University, Belfast, with whom Connolly consulted. Portrush Sundial is, therefore, in correspondence with cosmic forces while providing a locus and bench for pedestrians. The work is utilitarian, embraces pure science, and conceals a personal homage to the artist’s father, a liberal thinker with a passion for sundials.

Connolly’s intellectual rigour is honed and acutely focused in Turning Point, a public sculpture commissioned for St Anne’s Square (now Writers’ Square), Belfast, in 1992. The central motif is planet Earth tilted on its axis and supported by four life-size figures, two male and two female, cast in negative so that one can press one’s body into each form. By so doing one’s eyes align with eye-holes cut in the surface of the hollow bronze globe.

Close scrutiny of the inner wall reveals our constellation of stars and planets mathematically and scientifically aligned to Turning Point in Belfast. Our participation in the sculpture locates our presence on the planet and our place in the universe.

The human figure cast in negative is repeated in Healing Tree, 1994, commissioned by Antrim Hospital and Health Care Arts in Dundee, Scotland. Again, two of each sex support a central motif, a living tree – the Tree of Life – providing not only a word play but also a metaphor that implicates the work in the power and process of healing.

Such poignant conjoining of image, site and context is repeated at Dublin Port freight terminal where Connolly has positioned five, larger than life marine molluscs whose beauty of form is further enhanced by a mosaic surface decoration. Commissioned in 2000, this work occupies its architectural environment with authority and the potency of nature.

Historically the development of installation art and performance art can be traced from the modernist evolution of sculpture through the twentieth century. It is not unusual to witness this linear historical progression of art in the personal development of an individual artist.

It is not surprising therefore that Connolly’s practice has extended from site specific public sculpture to definitively located installations in which he, as player, often performs prescribed and improvised actions. The depth and assurance of his practice has led to a wide diversity of venues from funeral parlour to river source.

At the source of the River Po, Italy, in 1997 Connolly placed a deceptively simple temporary structure that at first glance was an ordinary kitchen table standing in a water course. Closer examination however revealed that this social piece of furniture had a triangular glass vessel placed at its centre from which the River Po continually streamed in a miniature confluence down the table top to the edge from where it cascaded to rejoin its parent flow.

Connolly’s temporary installations echo and reiterate the intellectual rigour that is forged into his permanently sited public sculpture. Seer, Seeing Device, Untitled and Viewing Device, develop his scientific theme through gallery based optical installations deploying binoculars, mirrors, photographic imagery and reality.

These offer the public, through direct hands-on contact, an alternative way of seeing history and reality when then two time spans are momentarily fused through a multi dimensional, camera obscura like experience.

In Connolly’s early performances such as History Lesson, Frieze Frame, Palimpsest II, the artist engaged with various props to create dramatic visual dialogues between particular places and audiences.

Such actions were not theatrical in design or intention for they did not impose a determined script on a stage nor did they place the artist directly in the spotlight. Connolly’s ‘Install-Actions’ invariably occur on the margins where they may be happened upon and observed casually.

In the case of such long pieces as Still Assembly in the Ulster Museum, March 2004, sustained over three days, observers could either drift in and out of the work as visitors or stay to witness slowly evolving events and alchemical processes.

Aware of the hazards of divorcing from the public through specialised art jargon and elitist behaviour, Connolly has established an antidotal strategy of humorous performances that place him in the popular domain where people can engage in seemingly flippant activities.

One such work, Market Stall, was set up on the main street of Ardara, Co Donegal, in 1999. Here the artist offered absurd items for sale along with countries of the world. Customers were drawn in to a piece of craic where barter and banter concealed a deeper metaphor of colonialism and globalisation.

Purchased countries were cut out by the artist from the world map using scissors then glued onto card as souvenirs. Such public performances have a universal appeal and can be staged anywhere in the world for Connolly is an international artist whose wit and incisiveness is much in demand.

By Peter Haining

Further reading

Over View 1986 - 1996, Project Press; Thinking Long (1996) by Liam Kelly, Gandon Press; The Suicide of Objects (2004), Catalyst Arts.