"Halloween in Belfast" by Cliff Eyland with excerpts from "My Experience Whilst in Ireland Fighting the Sinn Fieners or Rebels" by Pte. John Jameson (1916)
[First published in the Plug In Gallery compilation "Tea and Sympathy Plug In Cahier, 1998-1999," 140-145.]
April 25th 1916There was some commotion on our flight to Belfast. An Air Canada flight attendant asked my colleague Alison Norlen if she could borrow her blanket to cover up the woman two rows up who, while screaming, was ripping off her clothes and throwing them in the aisle. A psychiatrist was found among the passengers, and he calmed everyone down. The naked woman--most of the rest of us, too--eventually fell into an uneven sleep somewhere over Greenland.
Alison, an artist, Jennifer Woodbury, a Winnipeg curator, and I, along with thirteen other artists and curators from North America, were on our way to participate in the first British Council funded "Northern Irish Study Tour" of contemporary art.
I dreamt about guns and famine as the naked in-flight woman moaned. I had brought along a copy of my great uncle's account of his experiences during the 1916 Irish uprising, but to be scrupulously non-partisan--a true Canadian--I also made an effort to remember the potato famine yarns passed down through the Cork-based Catholic side of the family. I wanted to maintain a professional distance but a personal intimacy toward my own genealogy and artistic interests during this trip, and so I tinted one lens green, and the other orange.
The British Council, an official agency, sponsored the trip. This funding body appears to support Northern Ireland's contemporary visual art in an equitable way, although one cannot imagine the difficulties of such a task. Every detail of the tour was perfectly organized by British Council staff--no complaints.
The art of Northern Ireland is roughly like art elsewhere in the West, except that it is made amidst sectarian conflict, and so political content is either explicitly or implicitly read into work. Northern Ireland has its international set, artists such as Philip Napier and Willie Doherty who do the kind of photo/text and installation art demanded by today's international Biennial committees. We saw plenty of figurative and expressionistic painting, too, by artists such as Rita Duffy and Jack Pakenham. Much smart young neo-conceptual and performance art exists in Northern Ireland, and abstract pictures are put to all sorts of uses by artists young and old. Mixed media works were common, and an unusual abundance of sound art was noted.
Thankfully, not much turd-in-the-plaza abstract sculpture seemed to be being made. Nor were we shown any street photography. In fact, it was only after I had spent Halloween night snapping Polaroids that the senior artist and guru-to-neo-conceptual-young-Turks Alistair MacLennan informed us that street photography has no history in in Belfast because it has been too dangerous to do. We were also surprised to see almost no work which dealt with sexuality, pornography or gay and lesbian themes--strange, given the ubiquity of such art in the wider art world. The obvious conservatism of Northern Irish society outside the art world must have had its influence here.
...we halted outside a [sic] agricultural show , made another meal, the people were very good to us, gave us cigs, something to eat and drink, the order fall in was passed down the line and we advanced towards Northumberland Rd and Mount St bridge in extended order, snipers having a shot or two, when in Northumberland Rd we fell in a death trap a charge was made and it was there that we had the most casualties...Several artists asserted their right not to make art about the "Troubles." They are courageous to avoid overt sectarian content. After all, outsiders hunger for the sensationalism of Belfast war art, and it seems the surest route to an international career. Canadians amongst us noted that several of the artists we met had had shows in Quebec. These artists must understand how their work is used as a metaphor for sectarian struggles elsewhere. An artist named Colin McGookin showed us a painting which contained unusual images of First Nations people whom he described as "American-Canadian Indians marching on an Orange Day parade." Huh? Ten days was too little time to get to the bottom of such multicultural tangles. Amidst the thousands of pounds of artists' catalogues and CVs which I smuggled past security as extra baggage I hope to find an answer.
Heavily armed police, outrageously fortified patrol vans, guard tower surveillance installations and hovering helicopters make for a tense atmosphere in Northern Ireland, and what we experienced was a vastly scaled down version of security since the IRA declared a cease-fire. What sort of thrill were we getting out of all this? In private chats some of us--we like to think of ourselves as seasoned veterans of the international art world, but most of us are just art nerds--became suspicious of our interest in Irish art: are we entertained by other people's horrors?
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of the security, the streets were perfectly safe. Nobody in Belfast seems to worry about ordinary crime. For the first time since the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s firecrackers were set off legally as part of Halloween celebrations in Belfast, and so we heard explosions every hour. However, nobody hit the dirt. Our British Council handler Maxine Boyd told us early on that Belfast folk do not fling themselves to the pavement even when real bombs go off, and on that advice we bravely offered, the way soldiers do, to die of shrapnel rather than embarrassment.
As I wandered alone in the late night Halloween streets looking for costumes, the majority of which were men in drag, with a significant minority of beautiful young women dressed as prostitutes, nuns, or First Nations girls, other curators and artists went to an old mansion outside of town to witness an event called "Splatter" which had been organized by young artists from the "Catalyst" and "Orchid" collectives. Later we learned that a local artist named Philip (not Philip Napier) had "gotten his ribs kicked in" in the wee hours afterward. We dubbed the Catalyst/Orchid crowd the most dangerous artist collective in the world, but not only because of "Splatter." We were told on good authority that these young folk had once managed to strand a famous American curator at the Giants' Causeway geological site such that she had to be airlifted out. (To give these kids the benefit of the doubt, the high heels the curator was wearing at the time were dubbed "inappropriate footwear" by the rescue team.)
We had a tour of Belfast's murals which, with exceptions, are made outside the discourse of contemporary art. Most are crudely propagandistic. Our tour guide, Bill Rolston, an academic who has written several books about the murals, was sympathetic to the Republican side, but gave us what seemed to me to be even-handed commentary. Several children approached us while we took photographs. Like everyone we met, they were friendly, cheerful, and completely oblivious or bored with the images of masked gunmen and hunger strikers which floated above them.
The most cowardly trick, that I saw done was dog [?] men, with a little girl, about 7 or 8 years old, the girl was in between them, but that was only a bluff for us not to fire well we got an order to fire and they deliberately [sic] put the little girl in the front of them it was a painfull [sic] sight, she got one in the leg, one of the men got killed and the other died of wonds [sic]...