A View From Napoleon's Nose

Curator of Northern Irish exhibition in Taiwan on the importance of promoting art on a global scale

A View from Napoleon’s Nose, an exhibition in the Kao Yuan Arts Centre, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, celebrates the work of a diverse group of ten artists from Northern Ireland. Curated by visual artist and writer Brian Kennedy, the exhibition features the work of Lisa Byrne, Ian Charlesworth, Phil Hession, Allan Hughes, Clodagh Lavelle, Susan MacWilliam, Justin McKeown, Philip Napier, Peter Richards and Victor Sloan. The exhibition is part of the touring programme of the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, and is funded by Culture Ireland and the Council for Cultural Affairs, Taiwan.

Lisa Byrne, 'Taxi III'My engagement with the art world, either as a curator, artist, or writer has always been about opening up opportunities for artists and audiences in as wide and varied a way as possible; giving new artists the chance to show their work; bringing international art to Ireland that would otherwise not get shown; showing Irish art on an international stage.

Throughout Northern Ireland’s troubled history, it was important to have cultural exchanges where people could learn to respect and understand different cultures, religions and ways of life. It was imperative to see beyond the political and geographical borders, to be aware of how large and diverse the world was outside our tiny shores.

My own practice was informed by moving away to create a space for reflection on concerns about the politics of place and to explore questions of identity, society and cultural convention. The more I travelled, the more I realised just how changeable borders are. The borders between high art and popular culture, between painting, television, dance and comedy are all being questioned.

In Europe, the borders between countries seemed arbitrary. I have created work in Poland - a country that has disappeared twice in history. I am writing this article in Italy, a country that did not become a nation until sometime between 1861 and 1870, depending on your view: yet it gave birth to and is home to some of history's greatest art.

Recently, I was in Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. It used to be part of Hungary and many people there consider themselves Hungarian. Others consider themselves German descended from Saxons. They still speak German, educate their children in German and use German in their Gothic churches. Then there are the gypsies who seem to be discriminated against by everyone in Romania.
Susan MacWilliam, 'Dermo Optics'
The concept of Western culture interested me. Ireland made virtually no contribution to the development of contemporary Western art until fairly recently, but seems intent on carving a role for itself in Western culture.

I travelled to countries outside Europe that seemed to want to be part of this Western culture. Australia is situated geographically in an exciting, developing part of the world. Its people and landscape are wonderful, yet I got the distinct impression that the whole damn island would be happier if they could tow it into the North Atlantic.

New Zealand is physically one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it is stagnating under a strange mixture of English snobbery and Scottish Puritanism. America is a great cultural mix of people from around the world, but few of them have passports.

My aim with A View from Napoleon's Nose was not to try to give a simple vision of art from the north of Ireland. Survey shows are redundant in today’s diverse world. Instead, I hoped to reflect the very diversity of art from the North, to show that work from here can travel anywhere and interact with other cultures, enriching both.

Napoleon’s Nose is a rocky outcrop near the summit of the Cave Hill, a hill overlooking Belfast with views across much of Northern Ireland. It is also known as McArt’s Fort, the meeting place in 1795 of a group of United Irishmen – a mainly Protestant group that had an alternative vision for Ireland. 

A View from Napoleon's Nose brings together a diverse group of artists with alternative views. Some of them are well established, having shown nationally and internationally for over 25 years. Others are Victor Sloan, photo from his 'Stop' seriesmaking names for themselves. Several have already represented Northern Ireland, for example, at the Venice Biennale and the Sao Paulo Biennale. Others are young artists emerging at the cutting edge of contemporary practice.

Political violence in Northern Ireland forms part of both Lisa Byrne’s and Victor Sloan’s work. Byrne uses film and photography to explore the trauma experienced by victims of sectarian violence. She also looks at the issues surrounding the death of one’s life partner and growing old alone.

For over 25 years, Sloan has been returning to imagery from the Troubles in his work. He is currently working on a new body of work entitled Stop that is based on photographs from a tour bus trip through Belfast’s troubled past.

The specific context of Northern Ireland is also used by Ian Charlesworth, who uses photography to re-work the documentary portrait. Charlesworth looks at how Belfast’s urban youth are portrayed in both the media and social documentary. Peter Richards also uses photography, but his primary concern is the process of constructing representations of existing representations. To do this he often uses the durational aspect of early photographic techniques.

Susan MacWilliam (who has exhibited at the Venice Biennale) uses photography, video and installation to explore the paranormal, the supernatural and perceptual phenomena. In Taiwan, she exhibited a work based on Dermo Optics, a process that is often referred to as eyeless sight or fingertip vision.

Video work and performances have formed part of Phil Hession’s work. Hession worked with three local people in Taiwan to produce an original piece of work. Allan Hughes, who explores the psychological relationships to the recorded voice, also uses sound. He focuses on the role of synchronisation and the Peter Richards, 'Photogeneric'meaning between image and sound.

The inter-relationship of art and politics in everyday life is Justin McKeown’s primary interest. His work for this exhibition is based on the projected childbirths for Taiwan in 2010. Politics, power and cultural identity are issues explored by Philip Napier. Napier often uses movement and sound in his work.

Clodagh Lavelle is interested in fleeting intimacy, curious moments and the unexpectedness of human behaviour. Her work in Taiwan invites the viewers to engage with the piece and at times, consequently, to interact with others.

The artists in this exhibition have all, in the past, demonstrated an interest to have their work seen in other cultures. The exhibition does not claim to represent some historical tradition. What is important is that the work from one part of the world travels to another and through the interaction of artist and audience new cultural understandings and respect will develop.

The Taiwanese audience was fascinated by the exhibition because their country, like ours, is politically divided, with some of its people showing an allegiance with China while others want to be autonomous.

They were intrigued that the younger artists in the exhibition made work that showed little influence of the Troubles while the work of older artists was often informed by our troubled past. This political reading of the exhibition allowed for an engagement between both cultures, which had been one of the motivating forces behind the exhibition.

Taiwan has an indigenous population who pride themselves on their creativity. Contact was made with some indigenous artists at the exhibition opening and this led to a meeting on the wild and beautiful east coast of the island with some aboriginal artists who have studios in an old sugar factory. This cultural exchange ended with me giving a talk about the exhibition while artist Phil Hession exchanged songs with aboriginal artists who seemed to see making art, furniture, singing and dancing as all just part of culture.

A View from Napoleon's Nose runs in the Kao Yuan Arts Centre, Kaohsiung until April 3.