Rural Art in Urban Settings

Darran Anderson observes how art inspired by the countryside is flooding the cities

Art in Ulster has come full circle. Those artists inspired by the complexities of the countryside have repaid the favour by celebrating and enriching the village squares and forest trails with civic art. Now the tide again is turning. Works featuring rural motifs have increasingly popped up in urban settings, reminding us not only of the importance of rural society but also that all areas were essentially rural once, that the bustling streets of the cities are steeped in this unseen history. Beneath the paving stone is soil.

Two artists have been masters in exploring this, Deborah Brown and John Kindness. Born in Belfast in 1927, Deborah Brown became fascinated with nature during childhood years spent amidst the scenic delights of Cushendun in the Glens of Antrim. Residing there during the Second World War, she studied landscape painting before moving to Paris, where she dived into the abstract art movement flourishing there.

Her works have ranged from fibre glass sculptures to swirling geometric portraits, but the one for which she is most immediately known is Sheep On The Road (1991) which is located outside the Waterfront Hall. At first the rugged sculptures showing a man herding sheep in a procession look out of place juxtaposed with the cosmopolitan surroundings of Belfast’s Laganside.

The sculpture is however a haunting echo of times gone by, resonating due to the sites former life as a livestock market. The area, now reincarnated as a business district of plazas, office blocks and concert venues, once bustled with rural life: the jostling of animals, bartering, conversations, characters. Now they exist only in sepia photographs, the fading memories of the elderly and this glorious reminder.

Not far from Deborah Brown’s sculpture is a work that has become an icon of modern post-Troubles Belfast. Located by the river beside the Lagan Lookout, is John Kindness’ sculpture Big Fish. Born in post-war Belfast, Kindness is an artist of international renown whose work is noted for its diversity and its wonderful playful sense of humour. He can combine the magical and the kitsch to surreal degrees, as in his work Prawn Bridge, or he can offer devastating satirical swipes at the kind of piety and self-righteousness that governs both sides of the North concerning their respective cultures and history.

Works such as Dog With Altar Piece and A Monkey Parade, self-explanatory by their titles, manage to offend both sides of the religious divide and poke fun at our deep and meaningful orthodoxies, which is precisely what an artist should be doing today. Ninja Turtle Harp, in which the traditional symbol of Ireland is decorated with cartoon ninja turtles, is not just noteworthy in the sense it is controversial but also that it is hilarious.

Perhaps his greatest work, though, is his collaboration with the poet Ciaran Carson, Belfast Frescoes, a row of painted tiles, each a biographical glimpse of childhood, but each presented in a strange poetic light; a form of magic realism where reality and dreams and memory get jumbled up. He evokes childhood perfectly with images that linger in the mind such as, 'Early in the morning in our house there was a cigarette that moved around in the dark, it was my father getting ready to go to work.'

His first work concerning the country Waterfall Of Souvenirs is also one of the most viewed in Northern Ireland, due to its location in Belfast’s Europa Bus Station. A reconstruction of a waterfall plunging from the roof to the floor, it is made up of collaged shards of pottery and bits of shattered porcelain. Closer scrutiny reveals the pieces to be fragments of tourist souvenirs from all over Northern Ireland. Kindness brings together all the disparate places in the country, each corner that the bus network connects to, and brings them all together in one work, adding touches of humour with ceramic fried eggs from an Ulster Fry. Each day thousands of people, from every place represented in that waterfall, walk past it, either glaring or glancing admiringly. You either love it or hate it, but that is precisely the point. It engages you, it moves you to feel something.

And so to The Big Fish (1999), an image that has become as synonymous with Belfast as the Harland and Wolff cranes Samson and Goliath or the Titanic. The 10-metre-long salmon sculpture at Donegall Quay is covered in a mosaic depicting images of Belfast’s history and folklore. Tudor texts are inscribed alongside contemporary headlines and sketches of city areas and landmarks. This sculpture is all about history. It alludes to Belfast’s past lives and contains a time capsule for when the events of today become history themselves.

And like Deborah Brown’s Sheep On The Road it reflects upon the hidden history, the supposed lost history of the place. The Salmon is a fish born in fresh waters, which migrates to the ocean and then returns to swim back upriver to spawn or die representing the many thousands who have left Belfast for every corner of the globe.

The salmon is a marine creature, reflecting how Belfast is built upon its maritime strengths with its docklands and its history of shipbuilding now in its dying stages. And of course, the salmon is an icon associated with the freshwater country streams and waterfalls, reminding us that this was once the countryside too and it was people from the country who built this place.

The most interesting aspect of The Big Fish is its location. It is situated at the point where the River Farset, after which Belfast is named, reaches the Lagan. This once mighty river was concreted over and forced underground beneath High Street and Bridge Street. Kindness invited schoolchildren from along the hidden route of this river to contribute drawings for the composition. This work asks us to keep our eyes open, it asks us not to forget. For no matter how cultured we think we are, we tend to have a certain amnesia about such matters as the real history of the places in which we reside and indeed our own roots. Roots which in most of us stretch back to the country.

Of course these compositions are the tip of the iceberg as to what exists out there. There are a multitude of displays in hospitals, schools, museums and galleries. There’s art out there not yet discovered, some temporarily forgotten, some being started or finished as we speak. One work that points to a possible future is Turning The Tide by Welsh-born Belfast resident Alistair Wilson.

Wilson is the kind of artist who does not labour points, who does not impose ideas upon the viewer but leaves everything open for interpretation. In Forte he has an image of a waterfall framed like a religious icon and lit from behind. It could be about anything: peace, loneliness, nature, God. The one thing it is most definitely about is water. For the work is being exhibited in Venice, a city built on water, and with every tide the church floor beneath the installation floods.

It could be all aesthetic of course, but the piece does seem to say something of the power of water and our fragility in the face of it. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise causing widespread floods and yet freshwater will soon be in short supply. Everywhere is a Venice, perched in the sea, more fragile than we would dare admit. In Art, the urban and rural seem to exist in a symbiotic relationship taking from and giving to each other. What Wilson seems to be saying, and most of these artists, is that we now need this in reality, or our countryside will be reduced to these museum pieces, lines on pages or sculpted dead wood.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation