Alistair Wilson

Belfast artist representing Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale

Alistair Wilson is one of fourteen artists from Northern Ireland asked to showcase his work at the prestigious Venice Biennale. The exhibition – Wonder of Wonders, or an account of the Nature of Things – begins on June 11.

Born in Penarth in 1951, Wilson studied at Preston Polytechnic, Bath Academy and Chelsea School of Art, also spending a year of postgraduate study in Berlin. He is now course director of the Master of Fine Art degree at the University of Ulster. His work deals with changes of state, order, chaos and metamorphosis. He has had numerous solo shows at the Oliver Dowling Gallery in Dublin with others in Derry, Manchester and Berlin.

In 2002, he created an installation ‘Fonte’, which consisted of an old photographic image reproduced on Perspex, lit from behind and cut to fit the arched altar of the  oratory San Ludovico in Venice. The photograph was of a waterfall in Canada, with Wilson continuing the fall of water and flooding the floor of the church. At the Biennale he is creating a piece ‘Turning Back the Tide’, inspired by Venice’s aqua alta (high tides) in winter. Extracts from an interview with the artist follow.

CultureNorthernIreland: You seem to have a very strong sense of place in your artwork.

Alistair Wilson: I think it’s a question of trying to deal with both the actuality of the real space you are using, and somehow playing with the conceptual space: a memory, a projection or a wish. I was very lucky again with the piece that I did in Venice, where I was able to remake an image that I had found in St George’s Market one day. It came from a set of slides of Canada, which had been used to encourage young Irish men to emigrate there.

You’re Welsh originally, have lived in England and spent time in Venice and Berlin. Has living in Northern Ireland had an impact on your artwork and that kind of place perspective?

I suppose it has. I feel that the pace of life is one of the reasons I have stayed so long in Northern Ireland – outside of the practicalities of being able to afford a studio like this! There are all sorts of reasons why Belfast has been very good – I enjoy the pace, the people, and the quality of life.

From very early on I realised that there was a very lively art community here, and a real art community in the sense that it’s very generous. Although there was a lot going on in London, I think it tended to be much more selfish.

You need only look at the inclusive initiatives that have been made by young artists here in Belfast. They have not just sprung up overnight – all have required quite a deal of generosity. Generally, the efforts have been made by two or three people who have basically given a year or two of their artistic life to set these things up. And I think we should appreciate that.

Such a positive view is a very nice thing to hear, because there is so much criticism of the arts here, of how difficult it is to get established and the lack of funding not only in visual arts but also literature.

Of course the situation could always be better. But I think that with young people rattling cages, a little bit of funding here and some support there, things can happen.

You draw and sculpt - do you take your own photographs as well?

No, not if I can help it! I prefer to find most of the photography. Discovered photographs will frequently be the beginning of a piece. Very often there’s a piece of something that I’ve had for ages which then becomes incorporated – which is the upside of being a magpie of sorts. And ‘sod’s law’ being what it is, you can guarantee that if you do eventually say, ‘I’ve had this for too long’, and throw it out, then two weeks later…

The selection for the Venice Biennale received some criticism because quite a few of the artists included in it weren’t actually born in Northern Ireland. Do you consider yourself rooted now in Northern Ireland?

I wonder what else I could do to become Northern Irish than to have spent 25 years and brought up three children here? I’ve lived in Northern Ireland now probably three times longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I could still be described as a Welsh artist, having been born there, but there’s certainly no embarrassment that I’m considered to be a Northern Irish artist.

What will you be showing at the Biennale?

It’s a sound piece called ‘Turning Back the Tide’ which both anticipates and erroneously attempts to hold back the water. It’s basically a set of floating speakers in the basement of a small palazzo near the Grand Canal. There are various fire sounds, from a small crackling fire to a roaring furnace, which to a greater or lesser extent will agitate the water. Fire and water, the two battling elements.

Do you see the Biennale as a highlight of your career?

If you’re asking am I proud and honoured to be representing Northern Ireland then yes, most definitely, I am. Venice is perhaps no longer quite the high point it once was but it was the original Biennale and is still the best known.