Monday, July 7, 2014

Belfast: Acoustical Public Art

Quay near the docks. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
I am staying in Belfast for three days, mostly drawn to its rich history of conflict murals, but also pleased to be in a smaller-sized city with slower rhythms and less density. It is a beautiful city, on the water but also close to some green mountains. Even though we are well into July it is cool in the mornings, and more so in the evenings. Like most of western Europe, it is subject to, as the Galway tour guide noted, "over eleven different kinds of rain," ranging from "dry rain," to "almost dry," to "pissing rain," and so forth. But despite the constant threat of dampness, unlike in Paris, Ireland's rain is periodic and often lasts less than two hours, so inhabitants must greedily snatch up bits of sunlight as it arises, and constantly be armed with an umbrella.
Intermittent sun in Belfast. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Arriving on Sunday afternoon, I first visited the MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art), a center that boasts live events, three galleries, educational spaces, event spaces, and a canteen. The galleries are free and open to the public and offer a constantly changing selection. On view during July are the corpus of two artists. The first is that of Richard Gorman and his block color paintings and dyed-paper works which seek to be only surface, exhibiting the essence of painting, which is, in his sensibility, an engagement with color and shape, creating a harmonious and orderly dynamic among colors and shapes. The painted works, titled, "Kin," offer three blocks of color in various dynamic relation.
Richard Gorman, "Kin." The MAC, Belfast. Image from:

The second is that of Graham Gingles, titled "At Times like These Men were Wishing Themselves All Kinds of Insects."
"At Times like these..." MAC, Belfast. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

A critical engagement with the legacy of WWI, the installation work seeks to offer a new kind of visual (and sensorial field) to engage with dominant public memory and visual culture surrounding WWI. In contrast to the spectacular images of men at the front, the installation uses architectural references to ruins of Cloth Hall at Ypres to encounter trace objects that are linked to the war. In a darkly lit room the visitor encounters a ghostly white structure that offers a series of doors, curved (and broken) archways, and small ladders and winding miniature stairs.
Ruins of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) and St Martin's Cathedral in Ypres, 23 January 1916. © IWM
Inside the structure there are a series of cabinets that show teddy bears covered in plaster; doll faces also of white plaster eerily peeking out of a drawer, glass crosses and tins that held Queen Mary's 1914 Christmas gifts to the troops, behind glass and making up an uncanny cabinet of curiosities. A series of windows that are framed by reflective material create different picture frames for the opposite side of the structure: approaching from the entryway one looks through a waist-high window onto an enormous vase of white lilies, symbolic of death, and the scent of which infuses the gallery space. Moreover, one of the small ladders leads up to a window onto which dead flies and bees and other insects are attached.

The insects draw reference to the raison d'ĂȘtre for the exhibit title, drawn from Robert McGookin's war diaries, where he recounts that being at the front men "were wishing themselves all kinds of insects."

I then wandered to Sunflower public house, and listened to an hour of a Sunday night session, where musicians, largely in their twenties, many with dreds, slowly gathered in a corner of a pub and played brought instruments while chatting and drinking. The session, a cultural institution in Ireland, is a space for conviviality but also public memory and oral culture, a key transmission site for folk lore, musical repertoires, and cultivating a sense of the local.

Folk music in Ireland, as in many other places, is not pure entertainment. It is a kind of acoustical public art that constitutes a sense of collective memory, identity, and works through the ordinary difficulties of living. At Belfast's Black Box art center, I was able to see this role enacted in a wonderful way by George Murphy and his band. The show took place in the Green Room, a cozy music venue with mismatched chairs and tables, leather couches and open sided leather booths, and a bar boasting pizza and an array of ales and cider.
The Green Room. Black Box, Belfast. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Upon entering the room one is confronted with a little free library. The building, warehouse shaped, has large beautiful gothic style windows that enable one to look out onto the street behind the stage. Black Box has existed in its current form for eight years, the barman informed me.
The black Box. 18 Hill Street, Belfast. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The performance was an intimate affair. It being a Sunday, and Belfast residents perhaps in hibernation in preparation for next week's festival, George joked that he could do "a song for every person here." George's two band mates played a variety of instruments. They sang about failed love; a goat that wished to be a drum; shifts in industry in Derry such that a railroad worker was fired after 40 years, left "only with his coat," and without a sense of self;  and  a lament about where the "folk'n'ballad" (pronounced, "fook-in ballad" singers) singers have gone. Frank sang about nostalgia for the 1960s folk revival in County Clare, mapping a history of the folk scene for the audience. After each song, or before each song, the musicians offered a short explanation of what was to come. "This is about a Scott who sees [a city in Ireland]...and never comes back," or "this is about love and gone one ever sings about love and happily ever after do they?" Other songs mark the everyday difficulties (and simple folly of human existence), for instance, one about a man who hated his neighbor so that, when he had to ask her for help, he turned it over in his mind so much so that when he arrived at her door, he simply told her to "Shove it!.." Some songs are wordless, or "sung" by the plaintive keening of the uilleann pipes. George's bodhran (goat skin drum) is decorated with a large "I Love New York" sticker. The music is intense, raw, the sounds that emerged from different spaces throughout Ireland that are a testament to the continuity but also evolution of an oral culture that is a critical site for public memory. The opening song, about a farmer, and the difficulty of farm life, including the inability to have a wife, marks the small but no less important terrains of love, loss, and meaning making that take place outside the spectacular hubbub of the city. It is with intense gratitude that I had the chance to witness this lovely combination of story telling, comedy, tragic rendering, and deft engagement with string, wood wind, and drum from three musicians who have grown up in the folk tradition and made it their own.

It also marks an interesting point of commonality and difference with the kind of folk revival that also took place in the U.S. in the 1960s, largely mobilized by Bob Dylan. As an American, George's profile with guitar and harmonica in the dim bar had immediate resonance for me. I told him of this connection and he said that indeed, Dylan has played a role in Ireland, but also Ireland played a role for Dylan, who found the Clancy Brothers to be major influences. "Though the Clancy Brothers...left Ireland" to become famous and then come back. "We try to be relevant," George remarked, after I told him about how his songs seemed to resonate about the fate that confronts former working class cities like Belfast. It also offers a reminder of the multiple meanings that the aesthetic takes in public art. While my own work focuses largely on the visual, it also seeks to understand how the visual is part of a more complex scene that is also tactile and auditory.* Behind and around the murals that decorate modern day Belfast is the aural texture of language, conversation, idioms, and musical expression.

The group has a series of shows coming up, so those in the UK should try to find them out. They offer a beautiful acoustical tapestry that commemorates but also marks evolution in modern day Ireland.
A final song. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

* Emily Winderman reminds me that Teresa Brennan meditates on this question when thinking about the affective and the olfactory

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