The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Made in Belfast (part 2)

After completing a full circuit on the Belfast City Sightseeing Bus, the next time round there were places I simply had to get off: the Botanic Gardens, the Ulster and Titanic Museums, and the Crumlin Road Gaol. 

Typically you get out of these things as much as you put in, so I found the experiences extremely rich.  First I alighted in the Botanic Gardens during a window of sunshine.  The timing was perfect for fresh air and the enjoyment of delightful spring flowers, and then the hot-house smelt so divine I could have happily closed my eyes and stayed in there forever.  Eventually, however, the Ulster Museum called to me across the neatly mown grass and generously bursting daffodils, and it was well worth the crossing.

The Ulster Museum has a series of wide mezzanines which wrap around a deep and open atrium.  It is beautifully laid out with lots of natural light and divided in a user-friendly, topic-delineated fashion.  Indeed you couldn’t be in a better place to walk through the key periods of Irish history, coming out with an enriched understanding and a hunger to know more.  I highly recommend it as an introduction to Northern Ireland, as this learning will put you in a good place for much of what’s to follow in Belfast.

Of the many rooms in the Ulster Museum devoted to artistic themes, I enjoyed a special exhibition called Revealed: Government Art Collection.  Many people were invited to take part as assistant curators in this project and hundreds of art works have been gathered temporarily from government offices and embassies across the globe.  Such logistics alone warrant special mention.  Yet it tickled me that one of the curators, Cornelia Parker, went left-field and set her measuring stick at the feet of… a rainbow.  That is, she arranged seventy-eight works according to the colour spectrum of Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.  

Having fallen in love with Mark Garry’s rainbow sculpture, The Permanent Present, in Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre (the MAC, as already reported in another blog post), how could I not enjoy this recognizable, if somewhat random, choice of theme? 

Amongst the ‘reds’ I especially liked the Portrait of Angelica Kauffmann by Daniel Gardner (circa 1773 and usually hung at 10 Downing Street).  On the ‘blue-indigo-violet’ spectrum it was a Boy with Parrot (circa 1720 by an unknown artist) which grabbed my attention, and a vibrant piece from Andy Warhol’s series on Queen Elizabeth II (circa 1985 and usually hung in the British Consul-General’s residence in New York).  It was interesting to see works ordinarily reserved for people of political and diplomatic distinction.  For unless I’m invited to dinner at these places, how else would I ever get to see them?!

Another stand-out in the Government Art Collection was found in the section called Commissions: Now and Then.  In 2012 a quite extraordinary piece (to eye and ear) was commissioned from Mel Brimfield to commemorate the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The work entitled 4’33’’ - Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister - tracks the 1952 race in the Helsinki Olympics in which so many world-records were broken and competition so fierce that even a great time couldn’t deliver Bannister a medal.  You can follow the flow and choreography of the race in a series of two-dimensional frames while listening to an automated pianola playing a piece of music reflecting the rhythm, tensions and timing of the race in real time.  Complete with bells, whistles and odd snippets of national anthems, people tended to stay and play it more than once in hopes of better following the detail.  Or they gave it up quickly because of its complexity.  Either way, this mixed-media work was extremely different and memorable. 

If the Ulster Museum is a good way to start any trip to Northern Ireland then a perfect book-end has to be the Titanic Museum.  Equally expansive, informative and original, it focuses on Belfast’s labour market and social scene around the shipyards and linen manufacturing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This new museum is also highly interactive and dynamic, bringing visitors piece by piece into the detail of the planning, construction, launch and ultimately tragic loss of the infamously ill-fated ship.  I never imagined engineering details could be so interesting.  And you don’t have to work hard to appreciate the subtleties. 

For example, if you’re energetic you can jump on a construction blue-print magnified onto the floor to see how many bolts or rivets you can ‘nail’ within a certain time-frame.  Of course I did that; dancing around from foot to foot, one adult amongst a sea of children.  You can also sit in a mobile car (of sorts) and be taken up and down, in and around, the bow of the ship, as they explain to you how hard these chaps had to work to bash in the thousands and thousands of rivets.  You can see too, without leaving your seat, the layers of steel in the Titanic as it is built up one layer at a time – every moment making you ever more incredulous that a ship built with such precision and care could come to such an end.  Then you can position yourself in a three-sided ‘room’ and watch a surround of images moving up and down as if you were actually standing in a glass elevator of the fully-fitted-out Titanic, admiring the different floors and cabins styled according to class of passage.  Again of course this leaves you wondering… how?… why?… your fascination with the voyage, and subsequent disaster, further provoked.

I felt quite melancholy by the time I got to the rooms telling the story of the sinking; impressed, but melancholy.  And it was as much for this reason, as other appointments, that after some hours in the Titanic Museum I left it for another day. 

Little did I know that after a couple of hours in the Crumlin Road Gaol I would be re-evaluating the whole concept of sad!  Knowing something of the political history of Ireland, and this prison in particular, adds significant weight to the experience.  However even the social story for most, if not all, of the prisoners who occupied this harsh prison until as recently as 1996 is so forlorn it gets increasingly hard to drag your legs around.  It is very cold in there too, which only adds to your sense of human suffering.  And that’s not to say some people didn’t deserve to be incarcerated… but there are ways and there are ways and the Crumlin Road Gaol put such a fear in me I’ll now think twice before tasting a naughty grape in Sainsburys.  (For since adolescence when stealing food from the Nun’s canteen was common, that’s the extent of my theft if you don’t count hotel toiletries.) 

The prison makes you sharply aware of all those people who have been driven to petty-crime by poverty and famine… families in the Troubles who suffered horrifically on both sides… all those nineteenth-century prisoners who must have thought deportation to Australia a relief after being cramped in freezing, tiny cells.  And what of those who were innocent?  Or justified?  Actors are trained to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and develop their empathy and imagination, so by the time our little group got to the execution chamber… and the chilling story of a ten year old boy who was waiting in a cell to be punished and upon hearing adjacent screams was so terrified of being placed on the rack that he took his own life… I had to ask to have the door unlocked so I could leave. 

Too cruel.  Too recent.  Too many ghosts.

But it was important to see.  And you won’t be surprised to hear I blessed myself all the way to the pub while saying “there but for the Grace of God go I”, before downing a G and T, quickly followed by a Guinness.

All in all though, my visit to Belfast was extremely educational and satisfying.  I stayed comfortably with a friend and his lovely family.  l listened to cracking yarns and musicians in an endless choice of classic pubs; some, like the Crown Liquor Saloon, with beautifully carved woodwork.  I even saw the headland which provided Jonathan Swift with inspiration for his giant in Gulliver’s Travels… reminding me, if ever I needed reminding, that the Irish have an unmatchable rich history of great artists, thinkers, travellers, battlers, jokers, story-tellers and people who have, in large and small ways, changed and enriched the world.

I love Ireland.  It’s in the ancestral blood of many Australians.  But it’s also fabulous just to spend time in a place where it’s normal to talk to strangers and no-one looks at you funny for being open or overtly curious.  And that’s the case whichever side of the border you’re on.

Bring it on Belfast.  I think you’re brilliant.  And there are few cities with an equal depth of history, culture, cheek and charm wrapped into such an intimate and accessible location. 

Well, except of course Dublin







No comments:

Post a Comment