Titanic Tragedy and Tradition

The curator of the Bigg Life Arts Centre wants to remember the working men who built the Titanic, not the tragedy that sunk her

Biggy Bigmore, curator of the new multi-disciplinary Bigg Life Arts Centre in the Cathedral Quarter, proudly states that he is ‘working class and from Belfast’. That is why his Titanic exhibition The Journey, the Tragedy, the Tradition focuses on the shipyards as well the ship.

‘People told me I’d given the exhibition the wrong title, that it should have been The Tradition, the Journey, the Tragedy’,’ he says. ‘That annoyed me, because I don’t want the focus to be on the devastation and tragedy. I want to remember the workforce.’

Not that Bigmore has told the artists producing work for the exhibition – Gary Shaw, Gerry Gleason, Barry Mullan and others – that is what he wants them to focus on. The brief they were given was the simple ‘Titanic and the shipyards’. Bigmore wants them to have the ‘freedom to create from the heart’.

Not all the art is there yet, Bigmore notes that he likes the excitement of uncovering an exhibition in bits and pieces. Quite a few of the pieces that have been submitted, however, resonate with Bigmore’s vision.

Gleason, a Belfast artist who has exhibited his work in Europe and America, has created a nine-piece eulogy to the Titanic. The mosaics of bright colour-blocks, models and metaphors focus on the lives lost in steerage and by the crew.

‘Most of the engineers went to the bottom,’ Gleason says. ‘And of 70-odd children in steerage, 50 of them were lost.’

The collection is abstract and occasionally surreal. Gleason uses stylized images of dinosaur bones, sourced from the Ulster Museum, to represent the ‘bones’ of the boat. A wooden, artist’s mannequin serves as a faceless stand-in for the dead. Gleason’s one departure from that, is the quietly disturbing ‘Structure’, which is a blend of Victorian memento mori and a Gigeresque scrapbook.

‘They’re not light,’ he says. ‘But they should move you.’

Mullan, the artist in residence at Bigg Life Arts Centre, also used bones in the piece he created for the exhibition. He credits Gleason for the idea. The other artist told him how the half-built Titanic could be seen behind the houses of the men working on her.

‘Backyard Bones’ (seen above) depicts a row of square red, blue and yellow houses. The smokestacks of the Titanic and a vast bony spine loom over them. Everything is mottled in muted shades of blue and green, foreshadowing the Titanic’s final resting place.

In addition to pieces created for the exhibition there will also be old photographs and a few pieces of Harland and Wolff memorabilia at the exhibition. Bigmore will also be screening a History Channel documentary called Building the Titanic.

‘This exhibition is a tribute to the men who built that ship,’ Bigmore explains. ‘It says, “You’re remembered and you always will be.”.’