A Visual Force

Joanne Savage gets payback for life's finer moments at Belfast's Golden Thread Gallery

Art - at least visual art - is still perceived as a closed coterie, a highbrow milieu ‘ordinary people’ are somehow unqualified to appreciate or comment on.

This powerful illusion is created by pompously florid art critics who read byzantine narratives about, say, the Austro-Hungarian empire, feminist emancipation or existentialist epiphanies onto block swathes of colour, installations involving upside down trees in a dark room or gammy light bulbs blinking off and on above cardboard latrines.

Such critics invariably turn up at exhibition launches, brows furrowed in front of abstract scribbles that could have been bettered by any old junkie with a shotgun and, hand on chin, mutter a lot of overblown hogwash about how the artist has captured the isolation of the individual or the ambiguity of human nature by using cerulean in the foreground instead of royal blue.

But don’t be put off by the annoying aura of pretentiousness that hangs over modern art. Art is there to be interpreted in whatever way the viewer chooses. It is there to be enjoyed (for want of a better word) by whoever glances across its surfaces to be variously thrilled, appalled, piqued, or at worst, bored.

The latest exhibition at Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery, A Visual Force: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art, is heavy in modern conceptualism, filmic installations that do little but bewilder and abstract/expressionist paintings that call for academic explanation.

But amid the self-important mediocrity there are triumphant pieces in this exhibition which do exactly what good art should, stimulating the mind to think about a theme or situation differently, making you emote or engage.

The sixth instalment in the Collective Histories series, the pieces were chosen by art critic Slavka Sverakova and together give a broad view of Ulster art from 1974 to the present.

 John Aiken, documentation of Belfast Installation 1977, Glass Moulded Sand, 2m unit lengths, 550 x 250 cms, Courtesy of the Artist   John Carson’s Timelines (2009) is one of the collection’s most captivating contributions. An hour-long film interweaves the memories, thoughts and anecdotes of a cross-section of Northern Irish society. What emerges are universal themes and concerns: parental pride at the achievements of children; the elderly remembering those they have lost and the idealism of youth; questions of marriage, motivation, ambition and mortality.

There are reminders that this collage of voices and faces offers a Northern Irish window on the world. People recall the heroism/insane idealism of the hunger strikers and the 30 years of ‘hiding behind doors’. But the overweening vision is one common to all of humanity. Across all cultural, ethnic or religious divides the bonds of family and the messy process of moving towards that ultimate exit are exactly the same.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s the failure to understand the universality of human nature that is the root of bigotry, division and ultimately, war. And it’s a point Northern Ireland has been particularly slow to learn. Belfast confetti – bullets and bombs – was the refusal to see the common ground between the communities, an inability to grasp that we are made of the same sinews and drives.

Accompanying the film is 'Friend Map' (1976). The faces of the artist’s friends are placed on a map of the province, a web of social connection spanning the geographic space. The result is like a visual testimony to EM Forster’s dictum, 'only connect'. Carson’s work here beautifully reinforces this life-affirming mantra.

Elsewhere in the collection Moira McIver’s Awaken (1985) manages to conjure sexuality and death in a four-screen installation which shows the body of a woman twisting and turning in water, alternately draped in fine lace or splashed with petals, the whole surface like restless gossamer. Faint humming is set to the gentle motions of the body sliding in the water, the head out of shot. The feminine imagery - lithe, liquid, delicate, semi-erotic - suggests the Sargasso of the subconscious and the mysteries of what might lie beyond the veil.

Sharon Kelly’s Attachment (1990) is an interesting drawing suggesting the iron bind of emotional ties. The figure’s wrists are manacled, perhaps to the ball-and-chain weight of a lover, spouse, child or relative. It points to the entrapment that love or attachment entails, the ways it invariably infringes on the self’s sovereignty and will.

But the exhibition’s most pointedly humorous contribution is Fiona Larkin’s The Sandbagged Arse (1998). Apart from showing a pile of ‘sandbagged arses’ – like leather pouches worn around the waist, positioned at the ass, presumably adding weight to your physical and emotional load – the piece shows photos of a woman wearing said appendage at various locations in Belfast city centre.

Could there possibly be a better way of artistically showing the dead weight of worry and obligation we all labour under? Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up and down the eternal hill or Bill Murray shouldering on with the same set of anxieties in Groundhog Day, we’ve all got that sandbagged arse to drag about with us as the payback for life’s finer moments.

A Visual Force: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art will run at The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast until November 7. For more information visit www.gtgallery.org.uk.