Substance by Andre Stitt

Take a walk through a performance artist's history at the Golden Thread with Belfast born artist Andre Stitt

Some artists say they put blood, sweat and tears into their art. Andre Stitt really did. Along with tar, nails and soap.

The tea he drank. ‘You should always have tea when talking about art,’ says the internationally renowned performance artist, who was born in Belfast in 1958.

Stitt looks like one of Belfast's stereotypical wee hard men with cropped silver hair and tattooed arms. His performance art is explosive, unrelenting and uncompromising. The man himself is polite and charming, articulate and measured when discussing the installation.

One part of Substance is a specially designed map of the city with the sites of Stitt’s early performances picked out on it. He left Belfast shortly after completing his degree at the Art College, finding Northern Ireland too restrictive culturally and politically.

A lot of his work was politically informed. The response to his artistic ‘forensic investigation’ into the Shankill Butchers and the tools of their trade included death threats from paramilitiaries.

London suited him better. The alternative art scene there welcomed him, squatting was cheap and his performances took him all over the world. To the Venice Biennale, New York, Sydney, Bangkok and finally to Wales where he became a Professor at the University of Cardiff. It was years before he came back to Northern Ireland.

Belfast was always with him though, an element that recurs over and over again in his work: tar and feathers, blood, punishment.

‘A lot of the work, although it’s taken place in different countries, all over the world,’ he says. ‘It does always seem to be anchored in my formative experience in Northern Ireland, it always relates back to that in some way.’

He’s back now and like any prodigal son he’s brought souvenirs back from his travels. A stained shirt spattered with feathers, sealed boxes from an installation he did in an art gallery, a couple of warty orange dildos.

‘What I’ve done is look at the artefacts I kept for myself,’ he says. ‘I wanted something that was almost anthropological but open. It wasn’t something that you’d keep in glass cases, so you had your own relationship to these materials. ‘

He doesn’t tell the audience what the objects, the residues, mean or where they come from. They have to develop the narrative for themselves. There are, however, a few clues around the gallery.

Posters from his various performances are hung on the walls and the blueprints are mounted and on display at the back of the gallery. Some of them plot out the action in detail. Some are less stringent, more conceptual.

‘Eight minutes footsteps. Three minutes laughter,’ says one. Another is a roughly drawn circle instructing you to just ‘go round and round.’

The ‘forensic investigation’ piece is on display here, but at the same time is hidden away. The a row of framed prints, photocopies of replicas of the Shankill Butchers' knives, is hung behind a wall, at knee height and illuminated.

To distance the art further from its bloody origins while still holding onto the evidence? Diminishing the importance of the Shankill Butchers in the grand scheme?

Stitt isn’t about to tell. The viewer has to make their own narrative about that as well.

A row of silver dogtags hang along the back wall of the gallery. Stitt engraved each with the date and the title of the piece, wearing them during the performance.

Some are still stained with blood.

Tammy Moore

Substance by Andre Stitt is at the Golden Thread Gallery from Jan 29 to March 6