Alice Burns, Charissa Martin, Elaine McGinn, George Robb, Paula Clarke, Stephanie Harrison, Arts and Disability Forum, Belfast, 2 – 22 January 2017
The work of six recipients of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Individual Disabled/Deaf Artists (iDA) grant scheme comes together in ‘Guest 2’, a thought-provoking and challenging exhibition curated by artist Colin Darke at the Arts and Disability Forum Gallery. The exhibition space on Belfast’s Royal Avenue is modest but well-executed, benefitting from large windows and glass walls, which flood the space with natural daylight and create an attractive setting in which to consider the work of this diverse range of artists, whose practices encompass printmaking, photography, glasswork, video and performance.
Before entering the space, we are confronted with two large-scale sculptural works by Charissa Martin, which hang in the glass-walled entrance to the gallery. These three-dimensional textile works are said to express the realities of the artist’s own physical pain through the manipulation of fabric, which has been distressed, pierced, knotted and twisted. Their off-white colour and rigid form resemble surgical casts from which something has broken free following an unthinkable physical injury. We are left only to imagine the suffering that must have been endured.
The main exhibition space contains work by four of the six artists selected by Darke: Alice Burns, Paula Clarke, Stephanie Harrison and George Robb. Visually, Robb’s photographic work is dominant within the space, the deep blacks and fiery oranges of the Eleventh Night bonfires undoubtedly familiar to the majority of visitors. In contrast, Harrison adopts a softer colour palette, but similarly considers the social history of the city through her practice as a printmaker, with references to Belfast’s shipbuilding industry. As an artist diagnosed with inherited Multiple Sclerosis, Harrison’s work also contains a highly personal consideration of family and memory, which Darke has successfully grouped alongside Alice Burns’s Synapse (2016), a small glass-fused sculptural piece which explores the complex notions of memory: a visual representation of the neural networks in the human brain that are involved in memory and recall.
Paula Clarke’s Wild Horses (2013) – video documentation of a previous performance – is a particularly successful work – simultaneously frustrating, humorous and thought-provoking. Within her practice, Clarke uses performance and video to translate theatre, music and poetry through British Sign Language, in this case re-enacting Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle’s rendition of Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones. In the original performance, Clarke signed along to the music, but here we find a mute video with nothing but the title to assist us in our understanding of the piece. Unless, of course, one can read sign language. And there lies the crux of this work: we are frustrated by our inability to understand the piece with no audio or textual support, and as a result are struck by our privilege in a world which is not often so accommodating to those who are deaf. Accessibility has been reversed as we are confronted by our own limitations.
Two photographs by Elaine McGinn lead us out of the main exhibition space to the site of her two-hour performance piece, We Are Fluid (2017), a short part of which I was fortunate enough to see upon my first viewing of this exhibition. Within her performance, McGinn navigated the gallery and street outside with her mouth full of pins – almost to the point of choking – allowing them to spill from her mouth as she moved, falling to the floor and pushing them into the gallery walls. She also marked the walls by tapping and dragging a larger metal object, which filled the space with persistent clatters and tings as it came into contact with other surfaces in the gallery and entranceway. In such a vulnerable state, McGinn expressed a striking sense of control, composure and strength, enabling the audience to become absorbed within the piece, rather than feel tense or fear for her safety.
McGinn’s accompanying photographs document a previous version of the performance, and aid the audience in interpreting the physical remnants, which remained in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. On a repeat visit to the space, I found the gallery floor scattered with the fine metal pins once held within the artist’s mouth, along with an upturned chair and red sheet of fabric used within the original performance. Upon closer inspection when leaving the gallery I also noticed several pins on the windowsill and the street outside, debris from a beautiful work of performance, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of this exhibition.
‘Guest 2’ successfully calls attention to the important work that ADF is doing in the promotion of disabled and deaf artists in Northern Ireland, with the iDA grant scheme proving fundamental to their development and exposure.
Ben Crothers is Curator/Collections Manager at Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University, Belfast.
Images: George Robb, Fire, 2016; Elaine McGinn, We Are Fluid, 2017; Charris Martin, The Duality of Pain, 2015; images courtesy of ADF.