A Sense of Place

Craft exhibition is a 'love song to Northern Ireland', but does it give a real sense of place?

A self-described 'love song to Northern Ireland’, the A Sense of Place exhibition at SpaceCRAFT in Belfast is deliberately, and with that mission statement perhaps unavoidably, charming. A few pieces take a more critical view of the theme, but predominantly it is upbeat, positive and joyful.

There are a variety of artforms on display in the exhibition, including jewellery, abstract sculpture, prints, pottery and embroidery. The quality is high throughout, but some of the pieces resonate more than others.

Perhaps the most effective piece, delighting in its concept and execution, is ‘Closed Circuitry’ by Garvan Traynor. It consists of three sterling silver brooches designed to look like closed circuit cameras. Mounted on a white block they peer down – watchfully, accusatorily, protectively? – at a single silver car placed in front of them.

Traynor explains the piece as a reflection of ‘the harder realities of city life’, pointing out the difficulty of a ‘sense of place’ that includes constant monitoring. It is a mindful response to the theme, one of the few that embrace the darker side of Belfast as well as the beauty, and is exquisitely rendered.

Although they are functional brooches, described as jewellery in the catalogue, it is hard to imagine the brooches being used as simple adornment. Separated, and outside of the context of the exhibition, they would lack the impact the simple statement gives them here.

By contrast Julie Bell’s textile 'Mark X', is an effervescent celebration of the people of Belfast. A ball of thick, tawny wool floats in the air, a tail of yarn trailing on the ground below, and a needle-felted figure of merino wool with a head of ginger strands dangles. It is hard to tell if the head is ascending or descending, but either way there is something of folklore about him.

It isn’t the most complex, interpretative piece in the world, but it draws a smile. Sometimes it is enough for a piece of art to make the viewer happy.

Sue Cathcart’s Hellman’s mayonnaise jar dioramas, constructed of newspaper clippings and entitled ‘Mr Papers’ favourite places in Belfast’, does that too. It celebrates the everyday places in Belfast, like Winemark and Cash-Converters. It is quirky and charming, a side-long look at the tendency to create a tourist-generated façade for a city.

Of course, it is also a tiny pig/cat/thing trapped in a mayo jar. So there is a slightly sinister edge to it, if you linger too long.

Another pieces that encourage the viewer to linger are Karen Gibson’s ‘10 NI milk bottles’, which recreates old-style milk bottles in porcelain, complete with warnings about ‘poison’ or directions to ‘drink me’; and Karen Nickell’s Narnian-inspired magical reality box, ‘When Wardrobes Crunched with Snow’, which uses ink on silk, mirrors and cherry wood to create a shifting Narnian forest.

And mention must be made of Jill Graham’s ‘What’s the Craic?’, a set of jewellery decorated with hand pierced and textured cracks. It was designed to represent Belfast, but for the sci-fi fans amongst us, it is hard not to think of the Doctor.

Although the majority of pieces work well, there are a few that don’t quite fit. Mary Pearson’s ‘Castle Espie Series 2’ is designed to reflect the brickwork history of Castle Espie, and how man influences landscape. The hand built terracotta sculpture containing a refired piece of brick, however, looks a lot like a stone a dog has done its business on. Once seen, that idea is hard to unsee.

And there is also Jim Parish’s ‘Breeze’, consisting of eight small propellers on the ends of piano wire and controlled by a programme that makes them buzz and ripple like a breeze.

Although a wonderful and engaging bit of artifice, adding a subtle element of soundscaping to the exhibition, it doesn’t connect with the theme. It reflects not one place, but many, and lacks a distinct Northern Irish element.

It is interesting that the majority of artists represented here are predominantly women. Did only a few men submit their work? Or were the female artists on this occasion simply better?

On the whole this is an engaging, if perhaps somewhat slight, exhibition. Perhaps it would have been nice to see a few more bitter-sweet ‘love songs’ like Garvan Traynor’s, something to leaven the sentiment, something to touch on the real Northern Ireland, rather than symbolise the generic tourist board spiel.

A Sense of Place runs at SpaceCRAFT until August 27 and is part of August Craft Month. 'From foundered to roastin' (and back)' by Alison Lowry is pictured above.