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Look, And Look Again

Rosie Lavan

Belfast Exposed and The MAC
Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography
10th May to 7th July 2013

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Anyone who has any familiarity with Belfast will know that the compass points in that city have traditionally exerted more than a directional pull. Republican West Belfast, Loyalist East Belfast, and even leafy South Belfast all hold their own associations. One feature of post-Good Friday redevelopment has been the re-designation of Belfast as a city of quarters. The old shipyards have given way to the Titanic Quarter; the university stands at the heart of the Queen’s Quarter; and the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht Quarter can be found on the Falls Road. The Cathedral Quarter is the heart of the old city and here the Enlightenment, industry, 1960s urban planning, the Troubles, and more recently the recession have all left their marks. The area has always been a centre of artistic and intellectual energy and this summer, as the whole city celebrates its 400th anniversary, two Cathedral Quarter venues are focusing on one important art form—photography—in a major exhibition of images of Northern Ireland from the past 30 years.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography marks time in interesting ways. It is co-hosted by the photography gallery Belfast Exposed, and the MAC, a new arts venue which opened last year. The images are taken from the extraordinary community archive that Belfast Exposed has built up since it was founded in 1983, and it is this thirtieth anniversary which sets the time frame for the exhibition. The curators stress that it does not constitute “a comprehensive survey of photography from the region”. What it offers instead, brilliantly and significantly, is an account of the developments in art documentary photography in the North. Partly these emerged in response and resistance to the photographic representation of Northern Ireland in the media during the first decade of the Troubles—those news images from the 1970s which bestowed an unhappy notoriety on the place. But the work of these photographers also emerged as photography itself was gaining a new artistic legitimacy, migrating to the gallery and attracting the attention of theorists like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.

Many of the images on display in Belfast Exposed betray a postmodern tricksiness, engaging with the manifestations of sectarian conflict in ironic ways. You have to look at Paul Graham’s “Union Jack Flag in Tree” (1985) for a while before you see what the title tells you is there. Otherwise it might just be a picture of a tree, of undetermined ownership, like the car in Paul Muldoon’s poem “Ireland”:

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

In Graham’s “Graffiti, Ballysillan Estate, Belfast” (1986) our attention wanders immediately to what we can’t see in the image: whatever it is, on this empty grey estate, that the luminous orange message BEWARE is warning us about. Victor Sloan, a leading photographer from the North who came to prominence in the 1980s, developed a technique for literally inscribing meaning on to his images, scratching into and painting on to the photographic surface. The impression this creates in “Market Street, Derry” (1989) is that we might be witnessing an explosion in the photographed scene: the distortions are reassembled by the seeing eye as the fragments of a bomb blast, the kind we were trained by the media to expect during the Troubles. Sloan’s image becomes a two-dimensional precursor to the simulated explosions which the Cuban artists Los Carpinteros construct in the three dimensions of gallery spaces.

The short walk down Donegall Street to the MAC makes the city itself part of the exhibition space, and space has been a recurrent preoccupation for photographers working in the North, particularly from the mid-late 1990s. Willie Doherty’s At the Border (1995) series, which came after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, turns, like much of his work, on the relationship between text and image and plays with our investments in the visible. An apparently straightforward photograph of rolling hills and a sunset sky is titled “At the Border III (Trying to Forget the Past)”. Donovan Wylie’s series The Maze (2003), and Maze II (2007-08) meticulously document the dismantling of the Maze/Long Kesh, the prison which held paramilitaries during the Troubles. The exhibition offers a sequence of 26 images titled “Inertias”, each frame inching closer along the outside edge of the prison’s infamous H Blocks towards the central panoptic structure (for a sense of the progress through the inertias: “Inertia Stage 6”; “Inertia Stage 7”; “Inertia Stage 24”). Inside the H Blocks in the 1970s and 1980s Republican prisoners staged protests which generated their own iconography: the Blanket Protest, the Dirty Protest, and the fatal Hunger Strike of 1981 all took place here. But Wylie’s relentlessly repetitive pictures are instead expressive of banality and tedium which the Maze must surely also have played host to in its contested 30-year history, because banality and tedium are what ensue when you give a mind nothing but four walls and time.

Wylie’s images are displayed in a room titled “Archive”. It should be remembered that the second half of the time period covered by the exhibition belongs to post-conflict Northern Ireland—it is now 15 years since the peace process culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The Troubles have left a heavy burden of material history and with it the questions of what to forget and what to remember. These questions have inevitably provoked photographers, who work in a medium which seems to generate visual memory. An especially eloquent photograph in this section comes from Claudio Hils’s series Archive_Belfast (2004). Hils captures CCTV screens in a Belfast police station reflected in a memorial poster for the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary killed during the Troubles: events and the visual records of them are caught in a feedback loop.

In the excellent book which accompanies the exhibition, Colin Graham suggests that, “In photographing Northern Ireland, art photography summons the ghost of publicity […] into every image.” There are certainly images here which seem to prompt recognition of returning ghosts. Sean McKernan’s “Riot (L. Clegg) Falls Road” (1995, above), for example, shows one of the disturbances which broke out in nationalist areas following the early release of Lee Clegg, a British soldier who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two Catholic teenagers. But what this image tells us most clearly is that a milk lorry must have got caught up in the trouble that day: spilt milk is dashed across the tarmac foreground, and a commonplace four-pint bottle is suspended in the air. The photographs in this exhibition make you work for your interpretations, and together they voice a double imperative: look, and look again.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Editor in Chief at the Oxonian Review.