The Spirit of Belfast

John Gray finds Cornmarket's new 'onion rings' sadly lacking

New Yorker, Dan George, has certainly taken on a challenge in seeking to envisage ‘The Spirit of Belfast’ with his £180,000 sculpture that now looms seven metres high and centre-stage in Cornmarket, or Arthur Square, as the City Council now insists, in a simultaneous piece of re-branding.

Funded through the Department of Social Development’s Streets Ahead programme, and advised by a predictable bevy of corporate players, has George managed to bring a fresh and challenging eye to an arena so easily dominated by bland and meaningless marketing-speak?

Cornmarket certainly offers a natural architectural amphitheatre, and an opportunity to re-invigorate a space that has lost its way in recent years. Most people will recall the fountain which became a stagnant pond, and the bandstand where bands rarely played. Many will also remember an intriguing anarchic quality in the way that people used the space, with punks jostling with street preachers and political agitators. This recent history was one in which civic worthiness failed, and anything of interest occurred despite it.

Cornmarket’s fate has been something of a metaphor for the city as a whole. Originally a marketplace, later the heart of Belfast’s entertainment area with the Theatre Royal on one side and the Empire Theatre just round the corner, it is now no more than a part of Belfast's ever-extending retail zone. Even ‘the spirit’ of present day Cornmarket is opaque.

For the city at large, the challenge is even greater. No longer an industrial juggernaut, we have moved into the uncertainties of a post-industrial future that lacks the old distinguishing marks. We have welcomed the peace process but are unsure of how to make it work. The old virtues of black humour and optimism, often in defiance of the facts, prevail, but how would you achieve a sculptural reflection of that?

Problems of how we characterise ourselves that were evident at the time of our failed 2002 bid to be European City of Culture remain. Our penchant for clutching at memories of flawed greatness remains undiminished, hence the new Titanic Quarter, and the George Best Belfast City Airport, though thankfully nobody has yet contemplated a sculpture of George Best on the deck of the Titanic to capture our ‘spirit’.

How then should we envisage it? George has answered no questions for us. An imposing and beautifully-crafted granite plinth in almost classical mode is approached by a rather half-hearted set of steps, as though we are all invited to think of stepping onto a stage, and then to think better of it.

Nor could we, or anyone else, perform upon it, as the space is largely occupied by the curved metal loops of the main work. The loops are broken, and are not fully connecting. Do they reflect a broken spirit or one still in the making, perhaps the present state of community relations? It lights up at night without achieving any additional illumination.

George himself says, ‘I was thinking about the history of Belfast with its shipbuilding and the linen industry, so you might see it as having the strength of steel and the delicate woven fabric of linen’.

Few will detect even a sniff of linen, though apparently the light achieves woven effect, but we can’t live on in a future of vanished industries, and so George suggests that really it ‘has the spirit of modern Belfast, its openness and sturdiness of spirit and energy’. Failing that, ‘everyone will see it in a different way, and really the viewer is the creator of the sculpture itself.’

That might be truer if there was any element of interactivity about it, but the doubt about the role of the plinth suggests a warding off rather than inclusion. We are assured that George’s work was chosen from a shortlist of three with the assistance of a public poll. Apparently we could vote at the Lagan Look-Out or via the Streets Ahead website, hardly the basis for a mass franchise. Curiously we are not told how many voted, though the 46% who voted for George’s proposal hardly represents an overwhelming mandate.

The corporate players probably got what they wanted in an undeniably modern and presentable work of art which is sufficiently oblique that it can offend nobody. Certainly we should all encourage the development of public art, but maybe we should demand more of it.

Leading artist Rita Duffy, when asked about the piece on BBC Radio Ulster’s Saturday Miscellany, said that she was ‘reserving judgement’. If that is all that the ‘Spirit of Belfast’ can achieve, it has failed. Public art should arouse stronger emotions and a more immediate reaction. We are entitled to a ‘wow’ factor which is still painfully absent in Cornmarket.

In the meantime one Belfast wit has already christened the new work ‘the onion rings’.