In a month that has seen Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s magnificent wrapping of L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the facade of one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings has also been the subject of an artistic intervention. Spanning over 25 metres across the cantilevered exterior of the Ulster Museum, Counterpart by Dublin-based street artist, Joe Caslin, is a visually striking and thought-provoking new exploration of life, culture, and society in Northern Ireland.
The work was commissioned through the Nerve Centre’s ‘Making the Future’ programme, delivered in partnership with National Museums NI, PRONI, and the Linen Hall Library, and supported by the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme. Through this project, Caslin worked with members of the public to explore the nature, purpose, and impact of street art, whilst also considering the work of artists who address political division within their work. Counterpart is the visual culmination of these illuminating workshops and conversations with the people of the city.
Political engagement is at the core of Caslin’s practice, with previous works exploring pressing societal issues such as suicide, drug addiction, marriage equality, mental health, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people. To residents of Belfast, he is perhaps best known for his five-storey mural of a married lesbian couple kissing, installed in the city’s Cathedral Quarter as part of the 2016 Pride celebrations. The artwork was a powerful statement about the country’s marriage equality legislation at the time, and Caslin’s return to Belfast is certainly a welcome one.
Rendered in the artist’s signature pencil sketch aesthetic, Counterpart depicts a young man facing forward; one hand in a clenched fist on his lap, another cradling a bird, and an inexplicable third arm outstretched to his side. A fourth arm – the only one appearing not to belong to the man – grips and pulls at the corner of his t-shirt.
Installed in the glass foyer of the museum is a smaller scale version of the image, which helpfully addresses much of the symbolism in the work. The aforementioned tugging arm represents the past, referencing how one can feel restricted by external pressures and one’s own heritage, whilst the clenched fist shows strength in challenging these forces. The two birds present in the work, rendered particularly beautifully, are in fact roseate terns – a rare and endangered seabird that migrates to Northern Ireland every year. One is in flight whilst the other nestles in the palm of the young man, simultaneously referencing the resilience of this small bird and the nurturing contemporary environment of Northern Ireland.
If the young man is resisting the pressures of the past and seemingly nurturing the present, one can determine that the outstretched arm is representative of the future, its palm empty in an optimistic embrace of the unknown, depicting a future which any viewer of the work can place themselves within.
With these themes in mind, the Ulster Museum is in many ways the ideal site for the mural, with its architecture (and indeed the collections within) blending the historic and the contemporary. Its brutalist-style architectural elements are unapologetically distinct from the Neoclassicism of the original building, yet they rely on the existing structure for support. One cannot exist without the other, and whilst by no means seamless, there is a harmony to the overall design.
The gravitas of Counterpart’s institutional setting is also interesting to consider. Street art has its roots in guerrilla methods of artmaking, often installed without prior notice or permission, and one may consider how the agency of such works is lost when artists are invited by institutions to make these interventions on their own walls. Conversely, having the work on such a prominent building undeniably gives it an unparalleled platform to spread an important intergenerational message to residents of the city that could otherwise risk being overlooked.
Now more than ever, and with COVID-19 restrictions denying access to so many of the city’s much-loved arts spaces over the past 18 months, projects like this are a vital way of bringing art – and the urgent issues it explores – into public conversation. However, like the majority of Caslin’s street art, Counterpart is only temporary, fabricated with a biodegradable material which will wash away in rainfall. This impermanence is part of the beauty of the work, and one can be confident that the message of Counterpart will have a lasting impact beyond its physical presence on the Ulster Museum’s exterior.
Ben Crothers is the Curator / Collections Manager at the Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast.