Art in the Eastside

John Higgins buys an expensive bus ticket to explore the billboards of east Belfast

Well, it’s raining, but then it would have to be. The only real way to look at the alfresco art of Creative Exchange Artist Studio's Art in the Eastside billboard project in east Belfast is through a thin, attractive mizzle, like a smear of Vaseline over the lens – the old girl is ready for her close up.

I climb aboard the 4A having purchased an all day ticket which, mysteriously, is more expensive the less of the day there is (the loathing is mutual, Translink) and head off down the Newtownards Road on this joyous voyage of discovery.

I don’t really know where I’m going – the map on the blog is a dead link – but I like a bit of blundering about, hoping that some surprising art will come leaping out at me. I like my art unexpected, stumbled upon.

And lo, on the corner of Evelyn Avenue I encounter my first billboard: Colin Davis’ 'Blueturk', a galloping horse rising up out of the acid wash spume, as though Guinness’ longstanding advertisers had got the Lenor contract.

Art in the Eastside


I double back and head down Beersbridge Road to be confronted by another edifying edifice, bringing art to the masses. It’s Clinton Kirkpatrick’s 'Boxed', a livid foetus, curling like an ouroborus in a lead-lined womb, his huge green eyes staring fearfully into the on-coming traffic, as though frozen under the headlights.

On the corner of Avoniel Road, in front of an empty house, its windows and doors gouged out by cement, I find Patricia Vallely’s 'Pants'. Oh, the mileage I could get out of that if I were in the mood...

But I’m not – the rain is getting worse and the wind cuts viciously through these wide streets, constantly threatening to whip the notebook from my hand. I quite like Vallely’s 'Pants', jigging animatedly in the breeze, like a chorus of can-can dancers framed against the spider’s web geometry of the washing line.

Against the back drop of the abandoned house, and the Deaf Christian Fellowship building that flanks it, the image is incongruously bright and cheerful, and looks like a fine advert, however ephemeral, for public art.

Then again, just writing that sentence seems to proffer the question: are these images any livelier, intriguing or beautiful than the advertisements they are pasted over? Certainly the image resolution would have been better with advertising funding rather than arts funding. Up close, 'Pants' is a jaggedly-pixilated blur.

Upon being confronted by Susan McWilliams’ 'Out of This World' – literally a load of balls rubbing together like an over-subscribed solar system, jostling for space – my heart sinks. I’m briefly blinded by an eddy of dust from an abandoned trench outside the bookie’s on Castlereagh Street and I think, 'Who is going to see this art?'

The notion of 'taking the family for a picnic' while touring the art trail, as suggested on the East Belfast Arts Festival website, is frankly laughable – tucking into sandwiches in the rain, in the cross-winds, along these congested arterial roads, sandwiches slowly filling with sand, eyes with tears...

Art in the Eastside


By Central Station I sit down and weep. Not really, I just have a bit of grit in my eye from the giant earthworks at the bottom of Ravenhill Road. There is supposed to be a poster here – Gemma Lalor’s 'Nanny News' – but I can’t find it, so I head over to the empty Waterfront to see if there’s anything going on there. There isn’t, so I head up the Newtownards Road again.

On the corner of the Albertbridge Road, Alice Maher’s 'Graffiti' (above) is at least a subversion of what public art might mean. Her scored and tattooed wooden school desk, with its shout out to Iron Maiden and David Bowie, is box fresh nostalgia. Scored through the picture are the rather censorious lines 'The girl is a fool, she broke the rule', which clearly do not apply to the artist.

Next to this is Colin McGookin’s 'Dyptich' (main image), a lovely Chagallesque confection filled with deeply allegorical lambs and sickles under a lightning sky, a bewildered-looking Jesus sticking his head out of a nebulous green fuse like a bearded peeping Tom.

Of course, this is the part of the city in which the Department of Social Development recently scored a PR own goal by painting over the well-loved 'Teenage Dreams' graffiti, sending the twitterati into paroxysms of indignation. And it’s down at the end of the Newtownards Road that I encounter my final picture.

On the corner of Tower Street is Lesley Cherry’s 'Saddle Back Mare with Soldiers' (below), a photo of a pottery horse surrounded by the titular army types. It’s right next to a mural of a little girl waving a huge union flag, illustrated by black and white vignettes of HMS Belfast.

The little girl’s mouth is open and, given the vagaries of folk art, it’s possible to read her expression as a scream. But it’s clearly intended to be joyous – a rare note of the sublime in this locale – and has a sense of permanence, of solidity. The posters fade from view next to the muscular vivaciousness of the mural.

I feel as if I’ve been unfair. I’ve been walking for two and a half hours and I’ve only seen a fraction of the art available. But perhaps that’s how it should be. This work shouldn’t be something you follow; it should be something that leaps out at you as you round a corner, something inexplicable, something that stops you in your tracks. I didn’t see anything that did that for me, but then there’s a lot more of it out there, waiting.

Art in the Eastside runs until September 8.

Art in the Eastside