Watch This R-Space
Co-director Robert Martin on how the personable Lisburn gallery came to be and carrying forward the city's linen-based legacy
Housed in a Georgian building, the former rectory to Lisburn Cathedral, the R-Space gallery in Castle Street is an extraordinary space, the gallery itself taking up only the first floor. The remainder of the building is a warren of rooms in various states of repair and disrepair, many of them said to be haunted, and ultimately leading out onto a courtyard that appears to have been transported, flag stone by flag stone, from Montmartre.
The gallery is now in its seventh year and co-director Robert Martin, originally from Carlisle, talks to me about how he came to be running an art gallery in Lisburn. It’s a picaresque journey taking him from jazz funk DJing, drumming in a punk band, teaching in prison, living in Japan and Farnham and joining the Arts Council! It was all down to the co-director Anthea McWilliams it seems...
'I told her a bit of my life story and about how I was trying to set up a gallery,' Martin claims, 'and she said "Well, I've got this place!" And she told me the story of the building.'
Originally from Lisburn, McWilliams inherited the once family home where she lived as a child. The building is undergoing major refurbishment of which R-Space is a completed part; the remainder holds memories, history, potential, and hopefully a space to live in again.
'One of the best galleries that I knew about was a place called the New Ashgate Gallery in Farnham, where I was living,' says Martin, 'The gallery is in a similar old building to this and it has a very intimate atmosphere, because they're such small rooms. I'd seen what they’d done and that's what I tried to bring here: I wanted to create, not a white cube, but that intimate atmosphere. People say when they come in here now that, because it has the original wooden floor, that it gives it a kind of warmth. We could have stripped it out - put a concrete floor in, but...'
Well it has a smell, it has a texture. That's something you don't often get in a gallery, beyond the whiff of drying white emulsion.
'Right. One of the things I like is that it’s a small enough space that if we put a painting on a wall you could think "Well that would actually fit on my wall in my house". If you haven't got big houses or big white spaces to put art in...'
Did you know what it was going to be like before you arrived?
Martin thinks long and hard about this. His reply, like all of his others, is considered and precise.
'I had an idea in my head of what I wanted. I came here knowing I'd want to show craft-based, or materials-based work, and that evolved into Materials, Meaning and Messages – I like people who work with their hands and who talk with their hands. Most artists, most crafts people find it difficult to express themselves in words – the work has to stand alone whatever kind of work you do.'
Yeah, you're not going to be in the room to explain away what you've done. It has to speak for itself.
The next exhibition, opening on Saturday September 16 from 2-4pm is by Japanese artist Shiro Masuyama, entitled Identity. Shiro will be developing new work from his use of flax and shamrocks as materials, bringing these two symbolic plants to the former centre of Ulster’s linen industry. Linen is integral to the story of Lisburn. By combining the flax with shamrock, Masuyama is responding to his environment; taking these two plants as separate identities and binding them into a cohesive whole. Plants represent, for the artist, the psyche of a place, the natural furniture that makes you identify with where you are: that roots you to the earth, at home or abroad.
'I don’t know what Shiro is going to bring,' says Martin, 'but that’s what I like about him. Shiro is one of those people that I like dealing with because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do. And its work I’ve never seen before and that’s really what I want to show in R-Space: work that you’ve never seen before. The best bit of having this job is hanging the show with the artist. I’m here in this space and I’m just an assistant, running around, fetching screwdrivers and painting walls, but the conversations we have are where I really get to know the work, the stories.'
The gallery’s big project for next year is Northern Ireland’s Linen Biennale, celebrating the past, present and future landscape of linen through an extended arts festival. It is something that has been a labour of love for some time, as Martin explains:
'As soon as I came to Lisburn and saw the Irish Linen Centre it was a no brainer to think about something around linen. The first exhibition I had here was by Anna Demetriou and it was called Normal Flora: The Art and Science of Linen. So that idea of linen has remained constant and the idea of the Linen Biennale was there from the beginning because a couple of my friends were invited to set up the British Ceramics Biennale in Stoke on Trent, because Stoke on Trent has had the same problem as here: the pottery industry was dead, so they’ve got a history.'
The Arts Council gave Robert and Anthea money to do a feasibility study in 2015 and then the British Council came on board and gave them more money to develop the idea: the ball is rolling and it's gaining momentum. So watch this R-Space.