Redmond Entwistle's Belfast exhibition contrasts a gritty past with the glossy aspirations of an imagined future. But which is closer to the truth?
The war-torn backwater of the 1970s has been transformed: burning buses and bomb scares have given way to a new body politic and latte-supping inhabitants; a thorough topographical facelift has almost been perfected. The harder Ian and Martin chuckled on the hill, the plusher the shop fronts became and foreign investment soon guaranteed the people of Northern Ireland an airbrushed, cosmopolitan image.
Today we’re a holiday destination un-ironically feted in brochures that don’t also include Iraq, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, outer Mongolia or the Siberian steppes. And as the story goes, we’re shinier, happier, more productive and definitely not like a pig in a cage on antibiotics; this is a solemn, blessed, expensive repackaging.
Redmond Entwistle’s Red Light exhibition at Belfast Exposed is sceptical about the legitimacy of this transformation and, by implication, asks if Ulster is perennially doomed by its troubled history. This is a question many of us are wearied by, but it recurs in the arts and will eternally return as surely as violence will flare in Ardoyne on the Twelfth of July.
Red Light features a selection of archive photographs from the early 1990s of unionist and nationalist demonstrations. One side of the room is lined with images of crowds holding placards screaming 'no!', the other side shows banners demanding the freedom of political prisoners. Teeming crowds demanding change or conservative stasis are ranged in front of the City Hall, the myriad protesting faces staring into the middle distance, confrontational and rapt.
The subtle face-off of orange and green demos is set in a red-lit room with a live feed of sound streaming in from the city centre. The louder the noise in Victoria Square becomes, the more intensely the red lighting floods the room.
Entwistle’s query seems obvious: this new society is built on bloodshed and the ostensible abolition of a sectarian divide – but how complete is this revolution of the body politic?
The photographic installation points up the precariousness of our contemporary calm: people in our revamped city centre are laughing and yammering away but history shows them fixed in division. How profound then is this rebirth? Are the old bigotries simmering away beneath the polished surfaces? Are the plate tectonics rumbling?
The suggestions of incipient emergency are of course ambiguous. The red lighting could equally suggest that this is in fact a dark room for developing images of a different Belfast, the sounds in Victoria Square showing how obsolete the relics of division have become.
Red Light also includes three short films, 'The Hollow Ball', 'Tea at 4 o’clock' and 'The Apprentice', the titles of which are based on fiction by Northern Irish writers Sam Hanna Bell, Janet McNeill and Joseph Tomelty respectively.
The filmic triptych again asks whether the north’s regeneration is as seismic and sustainable as the idealists suppose. Characters anxiously eyeball each other in executive suites; architects walk through decayed structures clutching plans for new projects; people open doors to mildewed rooms still painted in an awkward 70s palette. Voices and visuals are out of synch; we say one thing but the actions of the body politic say something else entirely.
It smacks of a nation riven with insecurity, ambitious and dying to flower but labouring unsteadily under the emotional and psychological burden of its past. So the pretty young actors who naively talk-up the prospect of landing work in Northern Ireland, while wistfully dreaming of escape to London or LA, still seem laughably gauche.
Snatched lines from marginal Ulster-based writers Bell, McNeill and Tomelty, which layer the jigsaw progression of frames, cement the overwhelming sense of Northern Irish marginality, reminding us that no, we don’t yet have big fish to fry.
Effective installation and conceptual art hinges on the wealth of interpretation it can generate. It should provoke thought, discussion or a visceral reaction. If it fails in this it is nothing but an esoteric exercise in elaborate futility, and it doesn’t matter how many wordy art junkies line up to vainly insist on the profundity of what the man on the street knows –- in his unpretentious heart - is a just a load of filmic or sonic tedium.
London-born Entwistle’s Red Light works because its visual and sonic strategies are used to address an important political question about the progressiveness of the new Northern Ireland.
But it perhaps doesn’t do the one thing we’ve been longing for after decades of ‘Troubles’ art that has obsessively ruminated on Ulster’s bloody history until it has seemed to glory and make profit out of the mire of semtex and sectarianism. It doesn’t seduce us to believe in a brave new Northern Ireland and we want and need to be seduced. We have dissident gunmen and inept politicians to shatter our illusions and ratchet up our cynicism quotas, until we long for chimeras and sugared pills.
Red Light by Redmond Entwistle runs at Belfast Exposed until September 25.