With its history of civil unrest, Belfast is an appropriate city in which to confront the sensitive issue of loss from conflict. Co-curated with the Imperial War Museum, Loss is an exhibition that explores its theme through the work of four internationally renowned artists, Jananne Al-Ani, Annabel Dover, Rozanne Hawksley and Turner Prize recipient and BAFTA award winner, Steve McQueen.
In the first gallery McQueen’s sculptural installation entitled Queen and Country sits as a reverent memorial , a wooden tomb-like repository containing sheets of commemorative portrait stamps. Each set of stamps is held within a sliding case that can be manually pulled from the wooden encasement. Emblazoned with repeated portraits of service personnel, each sheet represents the fatalities of the Iraqi conflict. Emerging from a project initiated in 2006 as official war artist with the Imperial War Museum McQueen constructed the display in response the Royal Mail’s continued thwarting of his ambition to have the stamps published for public distribution. For McQueen an official set of Royal Mail stamps struck him, “…as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals. The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.” However, the resulting artwork does not feel in anyway a compromise. The repeated sliding in and out of youthful, jovial faces emote both a sense of dissipation and consideration of those families who agreed to their selected photographs being included. This work perfectly captures the difficulties in commemorating war dead without appearing jingoistic; raising the question, can people be patriotic without being nationalistic? By placing the portraits within the context of ‘lying in state’ McQueen’s memorial engenders the same respect and dignity that is afforded to an important figure head.
A traditional artefact that has come to symbolise Remembrance is deconstructed in Rozanne Hawksley’s Pale Armistice. The “wreath” represents a standard prop laid at the foot of unknown soldiers to mark Armistice Day. By exchanging the blood red poppies with white gloves the artist poignantly humanises the object and captures how ineffectual remembering has been in preventing further loss through acts of war. Associations between memento and event are also explored in Annabel Dover’s collection of cyanotypes, an enigmatic blue-hued record of personal belongings; each retaining “…a hidden expression for the breakdowns in human relationships and the memories and emotions that they reflect”. This assertion is evidenced in the image of a hat which we learn was worn byDover’s stepfather’s first wife when she received a ‘missing in action’ telegram regarding her husband.
Loss can be experienced even if the subject of that emotion is still alive. Jananne Al-Ani’s video installation A Loving Man features herself, her mother and her three sisters talking about the children’s absent father and their mother’s spouse. In this sense two roles are left unfulfilled multiplying the loss experienced. To counter the frustrations inherent in this circumstance the artist has filmed her family playing a memory game, each recounting a recollection of the absentee which the next must repeat and add to. The resulting, reiterated testimonies compound the group’s experience into a mantra of reminiscence and loss. The five testimonies are displayed on monitors within a hexagonal room and each of the participants is shot in a darkened studio with only their faces revealed. In each monitor we can see the reflection of the other heads observing, listening and then speaking. The piece is hypnotically compulsive for the viewer and captures the complex relationship between memory and reality.
With this exhibition gallery visitors get to see works by critically acclaimed artists with international reputations; it is a credit to The GTG in taking the lead in consistently presenting significant exhibitions within their diverse programme.
Loss, 31/05/2012 until 28/07/2012, Golden Thread Gallery, 84-94 Great Patrick Street, Belfast, BT1 2LU, Northern Ireland
Annabel Dover, 2011, Cyanotype on paper. Marshall & Snellgrove
Text: Angela Derby