MAC International

Joanne Savage appreciates flashes of brilliance at The MAC but hopes for greater thrills in future

With entries from across the globe, one would have hoped that the MAC International exhibition – the work of 24 shortlisted artists working across a variety of media – would produce a provocative, engaging art experience, but the truth is that much of this collection is banal, reliant on the kind of self-important mediocrity that remains so apparently central to modern art practice.

There are flashes of brilliance, though. Swiss artist Zimon’s sound sculpture (pictured above) is baffling and intriguing, a source of wonderment comprised of stacked cardboard boxes arranged in a circular space with mechanical components attached, so that the sound of a relentless pattering and vibration emerges, the viewer cocooned in a surreal, immersively sonic and kinetic box-room.

Charbel Samuel Aoun’s 'Whispering Taps' are inspired, freaky and superbly unexpected, while Harri Pälviranta has produced four portraits of young men who have been responsible for horrific gun rampages made out of photography and collaged newspaper cuttings; their faces stare out at us, conundrums raising pertinent questions about good and evil.


The winning entry – a video art piece entitled 'No More' by Tyrone-born, London-based artist Mairéad McClean – is moving and incisive, with its implicit critique of British state power in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Here footage of former Northern Irish prime minister, Brian Faulkner’s speech introducing internment is spliced with the free and unfettered movement of a male dancer, the closed minds of Ulster contrasted with the freedom that prevailed elsewhere in Europe at the time.

While this work is haunting and beautifully produced, however, it feels minor and certainly says nothing that we have not heard before in the analysis of our troubled history, making it something of an unexpected choice for a major art prize. Accomplished, certainly, but provocative or ground-breaking? Arguably not.

Some of the pieces here are infuriatingly reliant on pretension – the pretence of meaning more than they appear to, of having some esoteric, deeply elusive conceptual secret that only those who have studied postmodern theory and/or hung out at obscure art galleries talking to the right people will understand.

Lenz Geerk’s hand sewn doll-like puppets in provocative poses are risible to this philistine. Dougal McKenzie’s contributions here ditto, and Euyoung Hong’s 'House Project' – like an interior of a home only placed inside steel frames – feels like a half-hearted rehash of Tracey Emin’s 'My Bed'. Paintings by Andrew Cranston are slight and a ream of video art pieces are mostly tedious and self-important.


Maria McKinney’s 'Abyssals' are intriguingly repugnant and feature high columns made from expanding foam, fruit and vegetable netting, metal rods and cement. Like something from an alien universe, or a grotesque manifestation of fungus, they repel and make interesting use of form, detritus appearing reef-like, but ultimately to no real purpose.

Nevertheless, the MAC International art prize – worth £20,000 to the winner – has drawn entrants from as far afield as Finland, Israel and South Korea, putting the Belfast multi-arts venue firmly on the international map.

While the inaugural exhibition proffers only moments of sparkle, this annual prize is bringing rarely seen art to Belfast and over time may evolve to become one of the most prestigious art awards on this island.

Curated this year by the MAC’s own Hugh Mulholland, Italian writer Francesco Bonami and the Tate’s Judith Nesbitt, it is more than a little disappointing that these 24 shortlisted artists are deemed to have produced the most compelling work out of the thousand-plus entrants.

Next time the curators should perhaps edit out the empty posturing and sedate banality masquerading as cool esotericism and bring us art that really challenges, provokes and thrills. Unfortunately, too many pieces here elicit only indifference.

MAC International runs in The MAC, Belfast until January 18, 2015.