An exhibition of McConnell’s work, The Brighter the Flowers, the Fiercer the Town, goes on show at Seen Fifteen in Peckham this Friday 13 May as part of Peckham 24
Although not an artist associated with floral imagery, flowers have long featured in Gareth McConnell’s photographs. From floral-patterned wallpaper and mournful, sun-bleached silk bouquets in The Undertakers (1998) to the lush sprays of blooms shot on nocturnal city walks against portentously dark skies in Night Flowers (2004-8). And the psychedelic posies that punctuate the cinematic panorama of youths who initially appear to be at a trippy rave but are also engaged in some communal act of naked devotion in The Dream Meadow (2019).
An exhibition of McConnell’s work, The Brighter the Flowers, the Fiercer the Town, goes on show at Seen Fifteen in Peckham this Friday 13 May as part of Peckham 24 and runs until 11 June. It is the second in a series of exhibitions at Seen Fifteen as part of the wider project, The Troubles Generation, and showcases new work that takes flowers solely as its focus. Under the headings, Dream Meadow and Dream Blossom, various arrangements of flowers in bright, saturated technicolour evoke emotions and feelings and induce intoxicating blissed-out sensations. Yet these are not exotic hothouse blooms, but modest, everyday flowers: apple blossoms and cherry blossoms, peonies, cow parsley and gerbera daisies, bluebells, buttercups, daffodils and carnations.
McConnell’s earliest images of flowers date back to the body of work he made in the late 1990s following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in his native Northern Ireland. This ensured inter-community co-operation across the social and political spectrum, enshrined demilitarisation, and established a new power-sharing executive that collectively signalled the Troubles might be finally drawing to a close. These early images of flowers were incidental, taken in an undertakers that McConnell’s father, a builder, was renovating in the family’s native Carrickfergus. Here dusty and discarded plastic funeral wreaths echo the endless procession of funerals on the streets and on television in which floral tributes bedecked coffins.
McConnell grew up in a typical small, working-class, Protestant town in the North. Many of such towns have become known for their exuberant floral displays as much as their markers of sectarian division (paramilitary flags, painted curbs, murals). The coastal and county towns of mid-east Antrim – Carrickfergus, Larne, Ballymena and Antrim; the heartlands of Ulster Unionism – have invested a great deal in their floral arrangements. The best-known town for this is Broughshane, the so-called ‘Garden Village of Ulster’, which has won countless accolades and attracts visitors specifically to see its hanging baskets. Here the prettifying role of the floral masking the ugly realities of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence reflects dialecticism inherent in the symbolic language of flowers. The ambiguous title of McConnell’s show refers to this, and is drawn from a comment made by Susan McKay in 2001 in a review of McConnell’s Portraits & Interiors from the Albert Bar (1999): “Sometimes it seems in Northern Ireland, that the fiercer the town, the more flamboyant the hanging baskets of flower”’.
McConnell recalls that growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Northern Ireland, he was affected not just by the all-consuming politics but also by its burgeoning youth culture and especially the emerging rave scene. The region already had a flourishing, underground club movement and embraced the so-called ‘Second Summer of Love’ with its music and drugs, its psychedelic projections and fashions, its all-night parties in isolated fields and abandoned warehouses, which offered local youth a means to escape the banalities of poverty and the ubiquity of violence. Northern Irish rave culture, the tail-end of which can be glimpsed in the documentary Dancing on Narrow Ground (1995), took to heart the movement’s wider utopian and pantheistic politics, nowhere better embodied than in its ‘flower power’ aesthetics, traces of which entered McConnell’s evolving artistic sensibility.
There is no shortage of contemporary art deploying flora and fauna in the tradition of the nature morte with cut flowers operating as a sign of temporality and mortality. But, for McConnell, flowers also reflect the mysticism and transcendentalism of life, and he has long pointed to the hopefulness inherent in their very existence. His garlands bring to mind the chorus of a Jeff Buckley song from the 1990s: ‘all flowers in time bend towards the sun’.
Joseph McBrinn is an Irish art and design historian. He is Reader in Art and Design History at Belfast School of Art, Ulster University in Northern Ireland. He has published and lectured widely on Irish art and design history as well as on the intersecting histories of gender identity, sexuality and disability. He is currently writing a biography of the Irish painter and stained glass designer Evie Hone (1894-1955).