I had the privilege of visiting Derry in late November – here are some thoughts.
Various road signs from Belfast point the direction to ‘Derry’, the ‘London’ part of the name obscured by white spray paint. The Peace Bridge is the first notable sight as you enter the city, physically connecting the banks of the River Foyle, and symbolically connecting the Catholic and Protestant populations. The frieze behind my hotel’s reception shows images relating to the city’s recent political history, and Martin McGuiness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister born and bred in Derry, makes one of the speeches at the opening reception to Lumiere, production company Artichoke’s latest event.
“Even the use of the name ‘Derry-Londonderry’ in the branding was a political compromise” says artist Damian Duffy. It is impossible to write about the visual arts in Derry-Londonderry’s UK City of Culture year without mentioning its history, and specifically, The Troubles. History permeates the architecture of the city, from its seventeenth century walled ramparts, and cathedral and churches, to the terraced houses of the Bogside area and the Ebrington Barracks looming over the Foyle river, previously home to the British Army and currently housing the Turner Prize exhibition.
All are associated with dramatic and often bloody narratives, the legacy of which still influence municipal politics up to and including the presentation of the city’s programme as UK City of Culture during 2013. As such, the programmers created two overarching themes for the year: the expected ‘joyful celebration’, complemented by a spirit of ‘purposeful enquiry’. The only whitewash I see is on the ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ wall, covering the still legible graffiti, ‘No Womens Abortion Rights Now’ – perhaps a new contested area in the town.
For some within the local visual arts community, the Ebrington Barracks site is symbolic of concerns regarding the legacy of 2013. The refurbishment to international gallery standards cost £2.4m but it seems likely that this new space will be rented to the digital sector after the Turner Prize closes. It will have been used as a visual arts venue for only 11 weeks. “They’ve over-developed the site as a short-term measure, to have the prestige project of hosting the Turner Prize,” reasons Duffy. “It’s robbed the indigenous art population of the opportunity of using the legacy of the Turner Prize in a positive way.”
Derry doesn’t have a well-developed visual arts infrastructure and the hope was that 2013 would enable growth. “Visual arts has been the success story of the year,” said Graeme Farrow, a senior programmer with the Culture Company and previously director of the Belfast Festival at Queens. Nevertheless, there has only been the creation of four studios in the city. “From the perspective of individual artists, in general they are poorly served infrastructurally, and the amount of money afforded to them has declined in the last few years,” says Farrow. “How do we increase wages for artists from £7000 to £10,000? That should be a target for ACNI and the Government, to do that in three years.”
Maoliosa Boyle is one of three Derry curators of the Turner Prize show and has shadowed Tate Britain curators since 2011. “I’ve gained skills from Tate Britain,” she says, “with an insight into researching the artists, and a week of writing in April.” So there is legacy in terms of the development of relationships and enhanced skills, but there is still a lot do in terms of infrastructure. Boyle, who is also director of artist-led gallery Void, explains: “There is no third level art course in Derry, meaning that we lose our creative population at 18. To help address this, we created an alternative art school at Void [in 2006] offering 12 places a year. We also have six studio spaces.” Void has consistently punched above its weight, bringing heavyweight artists like Mark Wallinger, Christian Boltanski and Jeremy Deller to the city.
Void has commissioned two new installations from Santiago Sierra: Veterans and Psychophonies. The former is most successful and uses a drone camera to explore the now derelict interior spaces of the former officers’ mess at Ebrington Barracks. The black and white film lingers on the peeling paint and shabby walls, the emptiness conjuring a vivid imagined presence of UK troops on active duty. There is a brief glimpse of the drone camera reflected in a hallway mirror, a man-made mosquito used for deadly purposes. Five British Army veterans were contracted to stand in the corner of rooms, backs to the audience, symbolic, perhaps of punishment and expected shame.
Recent history is reflected in other major art exhibitions as well. One of the ten new commissions for the four night Lumiere Festival, Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko recorded testimony from people affected by the violence of the 1970s and ‘80s. Edited into short narratives and projected rhythmically word-by-word onto the city’s Guildhall building, there is heartbreaking power in the individual voices sharing their experiences.
In the Shirt Factory, one of two additional spaces taken on by Void for the year, Jonathan Cummins (also a curator of Veterans) has made the large-scale installation, When I leave these Landings. Here are in-depth filmed interviews with people who wittingly or unwittingly became players in The Troubles, and in some cases have been in prison for their activities. Exploring experience and motivations, thoughtful reflections are made with hindsight, greater maturity and within a changed context. Anthropological and without judgement, some of these films make for uncomfortable viewing, revealing as they do our flawed humanity. There is a disturbing dark reality in what is presented.
Void is also hosting a retrospective of Willie Doherty’s photographs and video works curated by Matt’s Gallery with Pearse Moore. Doherty’s work is partly documentary in focus, made in Derry’s years of violence and drawing attention to acts of terror carried out in hidden but ordinary urban and suburban scapes. His video work is imbued with the emotional tension inherent in such an environment, particularly his Turner Prize nominated film, Re-run.
But most works exhibited in this final glow of 2013 are not so thematically site-specific. Many of the Lumiere works are charming, such as Neon Dogs, by Northern Ireland artist Deepa Mann-Kerr, one of five works realised as part of the Brilliant commissioning scheme for regional artists. Mann-Kerr also had another work in Lumiere, writ large against the skyline: “A teenage dream’s so hard to beat”, a line from Teenage Kicks by the city’s most famous pop act, The Undertones. Given 40% of Derry’s population is under 25, I hope this becomes a permanent inspirational landmark for the city – a possibility under discussion, along with much else.
There are other large-scale enjoyable Lumiere works, such as Voyage by Novak, a skilful light show making full use of the Edwardian façade of Austin’s department store, perfectly accompanied by a bespoke score by composer Ed Carter, excitingly audible for streets around. Change Your Stripes by Cleary Connolly, is a joyful interactive projection that incorporates the exuberant movements of its audience, impossible not to play with and a huge draw for children.
Although £4m has been made available as legacy funding for Derry, the Council appears to be focusing on large scale cultural tourism events, with 2014 designated a Year of Music, and 2015 Year of Maritime. It doesn’t bode well for infrastructure development. There is one real benefit of the City of Culture year though, says Duffy. “What it is has done is to provide licence to use culture as an instrument to deal with the politics and history.”
An Irish journalist asked me what was my favourite of the Lumiere artworks. I replied that I thought the Wodiczko piece was important. “Really?” she exclaimed. “I thought, not another piece exploring The Troubles. It’s history! Let’s move on already.” It’s an understandable view – but I’m not sure Derry is quite ready to do that yet.
A shorter version of this piece was first published on a-n artsnews.