Before it ever looked across national boundaries, Artist
Exchange International was created as a way for NY artists
to articulate their complex responses to 9/11. In the wake
of the World Trade Center’s destruction, many local
artists experienced an expansive conversation in our studio
visits, during which we found that while history may define
art, art is also a profound comment on history. These conversations
began in the studio and have continued on into the wider community.
Rather than positioning ourselves as unique and ultimately
local, AEI invited international artists to add their voices
and their experiences to our own. Given Belfast’s history
of conflict, its political uncertainty and the current range
of arts initiatives promoting inclusion, good relations and
reconciliation, Belfast is a powerful place to begin the conversation.
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Belfast and New York are also ports, each with a different
past and an uncertain future. “Through Our Eyes: Belfast/New
York” opens up a fresh dialogue about the world through
its artists who are its “surveyors”. The value
of these multiple perspectives is inherently linked to community
through the artists who can visually articulate what often
cannot be spoken aloud. A single image may encompass the thoughts
of many and provide a framework for contemplation where events
may render us speechless.
The Northern Irish artists are a range of practitioners including
those whose work spanned and evolved during the period of
the Troubles, and continued post ceasefire (Duncan, Pakenham,
Duffy); those who are not native to Northern Ireland but now
live and work there (Pico, Pound, Artizone, Richards, Connolly)
and those who were born into and grew up with the Troubles
(Ritchie, McCullough, Artt, Whitten, Trouton). Together, these
thirteen artists show work which is strong in its evocation
of memorial, ritual and emblem and offers a fresh insight
into a transitional period of time in Irish History.
As an overview of motif, common strands weave their way through
the works of all the artists. Hence we have work that is fractured
and reconstructed, makes direct interventions with the body,
distort and blurs, manipulates and observes. A number of exhibitors
use organic or natural forms, explore ephemera, take a nomadic
stance and sift through cultural or personal detritus. For
some, positioning themselves in time and place means an examination
of the physical and social landscape. Some markers recognize
the distant past and all the elements are acknowledged from
fire to snow.
Most of these artists have never met and yet already, the
work has begun to converse.
Claire Whitten paints the roads, which run throughout Belfast,
passing dereliction and new builds, a contrast of rebirth
and neglect. She sees these roads and avenues as neutral ground,
which underpins the transitional period in Belfast’s
development - physical, political, and cultural. These streetscapes
reflect the changing history of the city through its buildings,
old and new, where the former is demolished and the latter
sprouts on top.
Michael Zwack engages with layers of landscape, superimposing
objects and areas from different places and time to create
environments which seem familiar, yet are not places, which
exist outside of the artist’s mind. Transferring projected
images onto the canvas in skeins, water, landscape, architecture,
and writing are like mythologies eroded away and reappearing.
His surfaces are great neutralizers; presence and absence
are evoked through memory, structure and direct experience.
Currently Rita Duffy, in her painting, has documented a series
of watchtowers, now mainly disused, which are located along
the borderline of North and Southern Ireland. In Irish mythology,
Cuchullain patrolled this border, the men of Ulster having
been cursed so long ago. Duffy has been both observer and
observed and her paintings offer a perspective through the
eyes of a hawk. They miss nothing. They leave nothing out.
In Romantic Landscape nostalgic notions of the ‘auld
sod’ are quietly dispelled. Ireland, seen from above,
a lush patchwork quilt, is overlain by the cool steel of a
gun in sharp focus.
Barbara Friedman’s paintings are pieces of narrative
that move across our field of vision. Where we are going and
where we come from teeter physically on the verge of eventuality.
Through the windshields in Wiper and Passenger we are metaphorically
catapulted through space. The blurred spaces the wipers clear
in the face of rain are intuitive moments of realization,
Gail Ritchie makes work, which is underpinned by archaeology
and self-excavation. For From the sky the artist collected
kitsch ‘snow globes’ from various tourist destinations.
Belfast has received world attention because of its troubled
past and not because of its possibilities as a tourist destination
and therefore no snow globe of the city exists. The artist
commissioned her own and used as the image the famous cranes
of Harland and Wolff Shipyard, builders of the Titanic. The
simple gesture of shaking the globe is all at once political,
terrifying and beautiful.
In contrast to these snowstorms, Acitore Z Artizone, has
made a video work about ‘bonfires’. Traditionally
lit on the 11th July, after months of collecting wood, rubbish,
tyres, and anything that will burn, these fires precede the
marches of 12th July. Taken out of context, with just the
image of the bonfire looped, the effect is mesmeric and awesome.
We are transported away from the political present to the
primitive past where fire was a lifeline and not a triumphant
pyre, where shamans not politicians were our guides.
Robert Janz is a storyteller and has been known to make drawings
that appear when torched or evaporate when dry. In the installation
Melt Lament, caribou made from sticks suspend over a bowl
of ice. His ephemeral work has much to say about construction
as it does consumption. The precarious balance of the natural
world is as environmental as it is political. In the past,
Janz’ graffiti-like clandestine drawings, (an unfolding
fist on the Berlin wall) are a step ahead of the governments
who could pull them down.
Ross Neher paints fortresses. The way in is formidable—the
mind slows down the light through the structure of the painting,
always filtering. In the absence of daylight we see regions
of deep space. There is beauty and tension in what is timeless
and what can be contained. Neher’s midnight light is
an intuitive force within Blue Clarion where black structures
confine portals. Here one-point perspective can be seen as
Western art’s last stand.
William Artt uses purely digital methods to fuse manmade
symbols and signs with images of natural phenomena to explore
how we navigate through contemporary society. Geometric abstractions
are layered with diffused organic forms to create works which
cross media and blend digital manipulation. Despite signs,
way markers and directions we can still lose our way.
Northern Irish artist Jack Pakenham’s paintings are
populated with invented figures, which can be masked, hooded,
blindfold, gagged. A reoccurring motif is that of a red haired
marionette, or ventriloquist’s doll, symbolic of a world
where people cannot speak, or if they do, it is as puppets
with an unseen hand at the controls. Another motif is that
of a kite, inscribed with the word ‘peace’, flying
overhead, brick anchored, questioning the ability to sustain
peace in a world that is so complex and cleaved.
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