Downfall

Art has never been so tempting. Curator Liam Kelly walks Tammy Moore through Siobhan Hapaska's first Belfast exhibition

Downfall isn’t Siobhan Hapaska’s first exhibition. She has been consistent in her international exhibitions, but it is the first in her native Belfast. Although it could be said that she takes Belfast with her in her divided sculptures of dissonant hybrids.

‘Her work is multi-layered, challenging, probing and open ended,’ Liam Kelly, curator of the Ormeau Baths Gallery exhibition, says. ‘You might also sense that there is something in the work that relates to the fact she’s from here, which is a divided society in many ways, as we know.’

Hapaska’s work, however, is also vibrantly and stridently fun, almost aggressively so. It is as if she is denying the serious themes predominance in her work.

Downfall is a poignant exploration of territory, abundance and death – how they intermix and affect each other. Yet the first thing you notice when you approach it is the dry, loamy smell of dirt and tree that fills the space. The wasted roots at the arid end of a tree are balanced by the green, curving leaves and puckered, almost lime-green olives that still dangle from the branches.

In another room a root-like structure decorated with bright fake flowers twists itself into a mobius knot. A spiral antenna at one end suggests a head that, for some reason, gives the impression of being quizzical. It is beautiful and playful all at once, like something from a Dreamworks animation.

On another, polished brass stars dangle from a frame. The signs everywhere say ‘Do Not Touch’, but it’s almost as if Hapaska is daring the audience to ignore it. Everything is tactile, a draw for the eyes and the fingers.

The biggest challenge to the signs is ‘The Dog That Lost His Nose’ on the second floor of the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Polished to a high sheen steel balls, wrapped in fur, are strung from the ceilings on wires. It looks like nothing so much as an oversized, Newton’s cradle, an executive toy for giants.

A man who comes in to look at the exhibition seems to share the urge to touch, keeping both hands firmly
locked behind his back as he walks around the sculpture. ‘Each sphere can rotate on a different axis,’ Kelly adds. ‘As such it continues an ongoing interest of the artist in movement, dislocation, collision, travel and change.’ And temptation.

Perhaps it is a cunning bit of artistic manipulation on Hapaska’s part. It is impossible not to linger, breathing in the tree or resisting the urge to give a little nudge, and once you do it’s impossible not to think.

In 'Downfall' the lush abundance of the tree, dripping with ripe green fruit, led to it being uprooted, killing it. ‘The Dog That Lost His Nose’ conjures up thoughts of that ‘knock-on’ effect in real life, how a small act can cascade into something much larger.

The Ormeau Baths Gallery has collaborated with other arts venues in Belfast to encourage those trains of thought, sponsoring a series of talks and workshops inspired by the exhibition. On September 30, Caoimhin Mac Golla Leith, a critic and academic, will give a talk about the artist. There will also be a creative writing workshop with Miriam Gamble on October 9 and a Belfast Sculpture Journey with PLACE on November 6.

Kelly claims 'Downfall' as his favourite, praising the elegance of its construction, but all the sculptures are eye-catching and evocative. It has taken too long for Hapaska to have an exhibition here, hopefully it won’t be so long until the next one.

Downfall is on display at the Ormeau Baths Gallery until November 6 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens.