The Best Art Under Our Noses
Belfast is currently hosting Da Vinci, Steve McQueen and others, but it's the homegrown art that Fionola Meredith truly appreciates
If you're interested in big name artists, Belfast is spoilt for choice at the moment. There's the LS Lowry show – together with William Conor – at the recently opened MAC, pieces by visual artist turned film director Steve McQueen at the Golden Thread Gallery, and Tracey Emin at the Crescent Arts Centre.
And of course there is also the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Ulster Museum. The ten 500-year-old drawings reflect Leonardo's interest in anatomy, nature, sculpture and engineering, and it's the first time they have gone on display in Northern Ireland.
There's no doubt that modern household names and Renaissance masters draw people into art galleries who might otherwise never go there, and that's always a good thing. Art in general – and contemporary visual art in particular – can appear remote, elitist, difficult to grasp.
That negative effect is intensified if the art is accompanied by needlessly obscure and pretentious artist's statements, or by over-zealous gallery attendants who treat all visitors as though they're the type to put a knife through a canvas. So if there's already a little familiarity with the art in question, it helps. It can give potential gallery-goers the impetus and the confidence to actually step inside.
The Ulster Museum, particularly since its reopening, seems to have had a run of these populist, mini-blockbuster travelling shows. Last year's Street Art, which showcased over 30 urban artists, including Banksy, D*Face and Sickboy, was a case in point: a touring exhibition from the V&A in London, it aimed to draw in a younger, non-traditional audience who wouldn't have bothered dropping by to see the usual old Sir John Lavery paintings.
The aim was admirable. Yet I couldn't help feeling that the most vibrant part of the show was not the pieces by well-known street artists – which seemed weirdly defanged; tamed and drained of their subversive meaning – but the giant canvases by four local graffiti artists. They were not the most technically brilliant pieces, and they lacked the wit and brio of Banksy or Jamie Hewlett. But I liked them better because they were brash, exuberant and unmistakeably alive.
And this is the wider point: a big name is obviously not a guarantee of great art. Yes, it's exciting for Belfast to host artworks by world-famous artists, and it does wonders for our reputation as a growing cultural destination – it demonstrates that we can offer more than gable-end paramilitary murals anyway. And, because we now have the right controlled conditions to show valuable art, it's likely that we will continue to be a port of call for high-profile touring exhibitions.
But it would be facile to assume that all famous art is good art, offering some kind of aesthetically-enhanced experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite happens: because expectations are raised by the celebrity factor, disappointment at the reality can follow.
Sometimes well-known names do deliver, however. Steve McQueen's piece at the Golden Thread, 'Queen and Country' – part of a show curated in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum – is an extraordinarily powerful work of art. It takes the form of a large wooden box; inside there are numerous sliding trays of postage stamps, each bearing the face of a British soldier, identified by name, regiment, age and date of death.
It is a quiet, resonant statement of personal and collective loss. McQueen, who was appointed official war artist by the Imperial War Museum in 2006, is better known as the director of films like Hunger, a harrowing evocation of the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. Yet you don't need to know who Steve McQueen is to connect with 'Queen and Country'. It has a complex emotional impact all on its own.
So by all means, bring on the famous artists. Keep them coming. But it won't be the only art worth seeing. It may not even be the best. My favourite piece at the inaugural show at the MAC was not the noble Lowrys, or American artist Robert Therrien's giant table and chairs...
It was Belfast artist Nicholas Keogh's short film, 'A Removals Job', celebrating the unspoken camaraderie between a group of eccentric house-clearance workers working in the Holyland's area of Belfast. The film was an elegant, poignant work, crackling with anarchic humour. What's more, it belongs to us, to Northern Ireland. It shows that you don't always have to go far from home to find art that takes you somewhere else.