Substance

John Gray delves into artist Andre Stitt's troubled back catalogue

André Stitt’s first ‘akshun’ (Belfastese for ‘action’) was to burn all his student paintings in front of the College of Art in 1978. He was almost expelled, but, let it be said, was defended by an inspired teacher.

Inner rage stemming from a dissident working-class background and the impossibility of conventional practice at the height of the Troubles could no longer be contained on canvas. Instead it found expression in his own extraordinary take on performance art.

This has focussed on often traumatic themes including issues of oppression, freedom, coercion, exploitation, alienation, appropriation of cultures, and communal conflict. The destructive effects of capitalism, imperialism, and globalisation are never far away.

To achieve any form of redemption Stitt himself ‘reached below zero’, and his audiences too faced dark, uncomfortable, and occasionally violent journeys.

Although one can view ‘Imation’, one of these performances here, this exhibition transforms them into something else. There are Stitt’s own published posters, outline plans for earlier performances, and later more visual wall charts serving the same purpose.

But there is a more specific archival impetus, most evidently reflected by a stack of archive boxes containing the residues of particular akshuns. Akshuns are also now memorialised in identity tags struck for each event. These now hang on the wall in a serried and rather sinister row, reminiscent of some oppressive institution.

Most revealing is the display on museum style racking of items which either sparked aspects of performance or were used in them.

This is a conscious reflection of ‘pre-modern cabinets of curiosities and collections of objects’. Many of us have fond memories of museums like that, but not like this.

Here we find army or prison blankets, enamel cups and plates, a half eaten curry, scrubbing brushes, birds wings, Coca-Cola bottles and others containing urine and other nameless fluids, a dog bowl with UVF written on it containing plastic chattering teeth (from ‘Romper Room, 1993'), a ‘Proud to be a Baby Prod’ bib, a baton marked 666, chains and locks, underpants, and dildos, including one which is the barrel of a plastic gun.

All of this is irredeemably begrimed, and some of it as though blood or excrement stained. It is reminiscent of a house clearance from a damaged home afflicted by every kind of violence and poverty, and although Stitt has travelled far, this detritus has the mark of here.

As Stitt himself says ‘wherever I go those [Belfast] issues were transposed’ and became ones of universal application. Stitt is originally from Seymour Hill in Dunmurry, and sure enough here is a sign saying ‘Seymour Hill Estate built and managed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’ on which is scrawled ‘Ceasefire burnt ta fuck’, and the sign is burnt at one corner.

There is one most moving and stark juxtaposition. A photograph of the Quinn brothers burnt to death during Loyalist protests in 1998 together with three childrens’ toothbrushes (as begrimed as everything else).

A poster of a red mask, with two inscriptions under it: the first reads, ‘I was a victim too. Please let our next generation live normal lives. Tell them of our mistakes and admit to them our regrets. I’ve decided to bring this to an end now. I’m tired’: then a postscript tells us that Billy Giles, a long term prisoner in the Maze hanged himself soon after release.

In his cabinet of curiosities there is a sort of manifesto, but also a self mocking one. A ragged piece of plasterboard is inscribed, ‘History as a catastrophe recounted as a story of stylish connections’. But Stitt is not about stylish connections. The raw hurt in earlier akshuns is evident even in their brief plans, where the sacrosanct is deconstructed in a welter of vomiting and sodomy.

The later more visual wall charts also contain potent verbal points of reference. The nightmarish circularity of ethnic conflict is captured in the statement: ‘I believe the ethnic group he belonged to stole the house of the man who stole the house of the man who bombed them, who stole the house of the people he bombed’. And as for ourselves, ever inundated with our own news, ‘We know everything and nothing’.

Ever present is Stitt’s sense that ‘I find devastating what is actually happening’. His affinity with ‘post-left anarchism’ cannot provide any prescriptive top down route to resolution but the ‘search for understanding, love and compassion’ goes on.

One ashkun is entitled ‘Conspiracy’. The poster for it copies a full dictionary definition and of course one of its requirements is ‘silence’. Stitt’s conspiracy is to break the silence.

All credit to the Golden Thread Gallery for its complicity in this. Join the conspiracy yourself, and if you wish to explore further an extensive illustrated catalogue complete with interviews and assessments is available.