Sandra Johnston: The Shadow of a Doubt, The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast

Over the past fortnight, in an extreme reaction to the Union Flag’s removal from Belfast City Hall, an outbreak of rioting and death threats to politicians has darkened the political climate in Northern Ireland. This dissonance is a testament to how easily local politics can revert back to the brutal years of civil unrest. En route to The Golden Thread Gallery the main road had been closed to facilitate a march by loyalist protesters. A cavalcade of white police jeeps formed a cordon along the path and the sound of a surveillance helicopter punctuated the tense atmosphere as it hovered over the throng of Union Jack flag bearers. I considered my experience of this uneasy situation in relation to the underpinning concerns of the current GT Gallery exhibition The Shadow of a Doubt by the artist Sandra Johnston.

The seven individual works distributed throughout the gallery spaces consist of video-installations, drawings, sculptures and performance documentation. Simultaneously their narrative offers a “diverse means of observing, reflecting and responding to the specifics of place and circumstances”. Over the past two decades, Johnston’s practice has concentrated on the reconstruction of the past in conjunction with historical artifacts, personal memories and investigations of trauma endured through acts of physical violence. The artist explores strategies for encapsulating the memory of a perpetrated act once it has ended. The physicality of a violent act once finished is ‘lost’, leaving scars and bruises as the only tangible indication that an assault has taken place. However the victim may agonizingly rewind and replay continually in their heads the memories of the attack. The psychological coping mechanism in the brain rationalises the pain and in editing the events the mind seeks solace in the comfort of forgetting.

Two monitors placed back-to-back display footage of the artist’s naked torso. Filmed from behind and from the front the artist wraps her arms around the vulnerable exposed flesh in an instinctive attempt to conceal, protect and comfort. In an adjoining room raw wool has been pressed between two thick panes of glass and a video of a farmer preparing fleece is projected onto this. The resulting piece casts a delicate haunting reflection on the wall behind it. The search for protection seems re-stated here, as bulletproof vests are padded with Para-aramid fibres and Merino wool. An audio recording of a Northern Irish news report seems to dislocate and interrupt the poignancy of both pieces. But perhaps this is intentional, as Johnston has stated that the exhibition retraces ‘the pivotal moments of the 1980’s through recollecting the mediatised versions of events and paralleling them with memories of a protected home life’.

Running through the artist’s practice is the narrative of the artist as a performer. Video footage of a documented methodical enactment by Johnston sits adjacent to the entrance of the first gallery. Enclosed within a black space the performer makes slow, deliberate movements – interacting with a chair. A cameraman who is in turn filmed as part of the documented performance stealthily mirrors and traces the artist’s controlled progression. A second monitor is placed strategically on the opposite side of the same wall at the exit of the second gallery. Two different viewpoints of the same performance are thus connected in a manner that makes the viewer conscious of their own movement within the spatial architecture of the building.

Positioned in the middle of the main gallery are three sets of visitors’ chairs salvaged from the notorious Maze Prison, which once housed paramilitary prisoners from 1971 to 2000. Although imbued with such a heavy political association the stained, vandalized and worn empty chairs seem to communicate a resonant silence, offering a quiet memorial to a brutalized past. The artist has flipped up three of the seats; perhaps in a gesture of non-compliance. On a small security monitor installed in the entrance to the first gallery the artist presents degraded footage of a surveillance tower. It is encumbered with multiple CCTV cameras and is positioned to enable total observation. Its presence serves not only as a record of the slippage of time but also as a reminder of continued state monitoring. An integral part of The Shadow of a Doubt is Johnston’s ability to re-contextualize personal memories with political historical narratives in a manner that make both relevant within the contemporary.

Text: Angela Darby

Sandra Johnston: The Shadow of a Doubt, 13 December 2012 until 2 February 2013, The Golden Thread Gallery, Switch Room, 84 Great Patrick Street, Belfast, BT1 2LU.