Sunday, August 30, 2009

Originally published: Sunday, 5 April 2009 in the Creative Collective Blog

“Passion, Love and Revolution” at the Grand Opera House, Belfast

In the evening of 1st May, I went to opening of a group art show in the Grand Opera House. Two large, dramatic paintings on paper (plus one smaller one) should have set the opening mood for the exhibition but, unfortunately, these could only be displayed on the walls of the restaurant at the back of the foyer, so they were easily missed on the initial entry into the building (I only discovered them on the way out).

It’s a long time since I have been in the Opera House but, on inquiry, I was directed up the stairs to the second floor. There I was greeted by a young lady who marked me as attending the exhibition by tying a strip of red cloth around my arm and I received a red stamp on the back of my hand, all very suitable for an exhibition entitled, “Passion, Love and Revolution”! I was then shown through a black curtain into a large darkened room, where a short, grainy black and white film was endlessly repeating. Shortly after this, the show was duly opened by the curator of the show, Liam Brendan de Frinse with a few, well-chosen words and his reading of a short poem written by another member of Kult Pulp Productions, the group behind the show.

Kult Pulp Productions is a bunch of professional artists, some well-established, some just emerging, coming from a wide range of different specialities. They desire, and I quote, to demystify art by “making it more accessible, beautiful, affordable, exciting, fun, different, and above all radical.” One nice little idea, which certainly made it more fun, was the availability of badges, all different, which were available for purchase. The badges were sometimes witty, always decorative, and generally unusual. I liked the badges which, at only £2 each, allowed one to pick up a small, but meaningful souvenir of the exhibition.

The main group of pictures are exhibited in the Phoenix Gallery in the Opera House, so to get there I had to leave the darkened room, cross the landing and into a small corridor towards the front of the building. In the corridor outside the gallery were another couple of quirky touches. To the left, a small bag invited one to take a small piece of folded paper from it and to follow the instructions contained within. To the right, another bag, containing a small nest with some strange looking eggs, hung from a red ribbon.

In the Phoenix gallery itself hung about ten pictures, some figurative, some non-figurative. Several pieces appeal to me because of their references to Constructivist art, at the time of the Russian Revolution (before the communists hijacked it). Constructivist art broke new boundaries with regard to graphics and typology. The fact that the paintings were anonymously priced at £500 meant that the paintings were affordable as well as potentially a good investment (work by some of the participating artists normally sell at well above this price).
I enjoyed the exhibition. I enjoyed the quirkiness and inventiveness, the unusualness of a number of the things that were done. My worst problem with this exhibition is that it left me feeling hungry for more. Perhaps the only thing that would have satisfied me is something like the Frieze art fair in London, something capable of attracting large crowds of people for its entire duration. One where this show would only have been one of many and, as a result, have attracted an even more diverse audience. The feeling of excitement could be continuous and sustained. At the moment, if you want to get the “buzz” at an art exhibition, you really have to attend the opening night, full of people and chat (although not necessarily with the best view of the actual paintings!) However, this is when most art exhibitions are most truly “events”. Perhaps, someday, something like this will happen in N. Ireland.

At this stage I am going to digress somewhat. I am going to live dangerously and venture in some detail into one of the pictures that I particularly liked (which is not to say that my understanding of the painting is at all the same as that intended by the artist).
After Ché Guevara’s violent death in Bolivia, in 1967, he became something of a cult figure for students in particular (who were suitably distanced from the reality of violence and death in South America). The reference to “dissidents” gives the painting – possibly – a reference to modern day politics in N. Ireland. The word “questionmark” written out in full, rather than as a conventional question mark symbol, adds another little element, indicating – perhaps – that the statement has to be read visually, rather than literally. The use of stencil for the lettering, plus the deliberate distressing of the writing and of the surface – which makes it look ancient – gives another little twist, distancing the statement in time, even when other aspects touch it with a sense of the immediate. The little red star, like a signature, is the only element of bright colour, dragging the view down to the bottom right. Finally, a shiny black border, like the black border around an old-fashion funeral notice. What does it all mean? I suspect that you are being invited to weigh the elements for yourself, before you decide if it really means anything or if it is simply meant to puzzle you and to make you think! In any case, I found it an interesting piece.

In a blog I wrote some time ago I said that I thought that the language of much modern art is constructed the same way as most jokes, from statements which seem familiar and even banal – and which are then twisted to give a shock value. We laugh with surprise because we have been lead in one direction and yet suddenly find ourselves understanding the words as conveying a totally different meaning from the one we understood at first. I don’t mean by this that art is necessarily meant to be funny or should not be taken seriously, but it works in a similar way. Individual visual elements frequently appear familiar, straight-forward, even uninteresting – but are given new meaning and a “shock” value by being combined in unusual ways. You, the viewer, are invited to puzzle out the meaning, which may be subject to personal interpretation and is rarely obvious.

Does the artist, in this case, approve of Ché Guevara? Does he approve of dissidents in general or in particular? We don’t actually know. Is it meant to force the viewer into forming an opinion of their own? Again, we don’t know. That is the thing about much art, it doesn’t set out to give precise answers, but it may be designed to provoke discussion and to give an opportunity to form opinions and to exercise taste and judgment – to like or dislike! Is this piece in any way about real politics or revolution? Or is it just tongue in cheek, making you wonder if it is about real politics or revolution and it is about nothing at all to do with either? Perhaps it is only about the qualities of paint and surfaces and the purely visual? I don’t know. You must form your own opinion!

No comments: