Wanted: Opinions About Art

Want to win £300 for having an opinion? Maybe the Ormeau Baths Gallery Critical Writing Competition is for you

Ormeau Baths Gallery want people to enter their Critical Writing Competition and tell them what they think of the Philip Napier exhibition Expecting the Terror. The competition is open to all emerging art critics in Northern Ireland, all you have to do is go and see the exhibition and write a 1000 word review.

‘It made sense,’ Ciara Hickey of OBG says. ‘This is the largest exhibition that Napier has had in Northern Ireland and it has a lot of layers and a lot of different ways of reading. So it seemed the perfect exhibition to start with and see what people thought.’

Hickey insists that, even though Expecting the Terror is an OBG exhibition, she doesn’t expect to only see positive reviews.

‘Having an opinion in art writing is the most important thing,’ she says earnestly. ‘Even a negative review – as long as it is informed – is a way to get a debate going. That’s what we need more of in Belfast.’

Hickey feels that there are so many ‘exciting things’ happening in Belfast – things like Station by Platform – that need to be ‘recorded, written about, reviewed and looked at critically’ and simply not enough reviewers at the moment to do it. Since OBG is one of the leading galleries in Belfast, they feel that it falls to them to ‘build a visual arts hub’ that encourages critical thought and review.

‘I think people get put off,’ Hickey says. ‘They feel that art in general is inaccessible and it’s not for them.’

That is why, as part of the competition, the OBG is running two lectures about art criticism. The first was the impudently named ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Arts Bollocks’ by Jason Oakley, editor of the Visual Artists News Sheet and Printed Project and the OBG’s partner is this project.

‘It was great to have that talk. To say, on one hand, that it is important to know that language – the “terms of the trade” – but that sometimes people do use that terminology in place of having an opinion. They use it as a barrier, making references to an arts exhibition in the 1960s that no-one has been to.’

So what does Hickey – herself a frequent critical contributor to the VAI News Sheet – look for in a review?

More than just a response to the art itself, is the answer. A critical review of an exhibition shouldn’t just respond to the art, but to the space itself. Not just the artist, but the gallery as well.

‘You have to think about the creation of the show. How have things been placed, how are you led around the gallery, what is the lighting like and do you feel you have enough space to move? What is the first thing you see and why? What is the connection or argument between the pieces in the exhibition? There should have been a conversation between the curator and the artist about all those things.’

The responsibility of the gallery, to the artist and the viewer, is obviously something that Hickey feels passionate about. She points out, proudly, that any visitor to the OBG can ask the staff about the exhibition and get an informed answer.

In return, especially with a critic, she expects them to think about the exhibition. ‘Everything is so fast-paced now, people come in and look, absorbing what they see but not thinking about it.’

It is a vicious circle where people are intimidated because they don’t understand the art, but they don’t understand the art because they are intimidated. Hickey points out some of the best responses to exhibitions that she has gotten came from school children.

‘From secondary school on everyone is scared to say what they think in case they are wrong, but the very young kids have this freedom about they think. They will just say “it looks like a melted ice-cream” or “it looks like a summer day”. And sometimes it is just such a perfect response I use it in other tours.’

The Critical Writing Competition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery runs until March 19. CultureNorthernIreland will be publishing the winning entry, which will also be printed in the VAI News Sheet.

For more ideas on how to write a review of the Visual Arts check out CultureNorthernIreland’s own archive of reviews of Northern Irish exhibitions. No arts bollocks - or at least, not too much - there.

Expecting the Terror is at the Ormeau Baths Gallery until March 19.