Despite the boldness of its statement, many of the exhibition subjects are absent from the work, given NI’s fraught record with LGBTQ rights
A woman stands pale and shivering in the dark, flowing waters of a stream. The camera watches detachedly as she contorts her body, willing her shaking limbs upon the rocks or into the cold water to lie suspended in the flow. Disquieting harmonics amplify the otherworldly atmosphere of this chilly and unwelcoming waterscape. Yet although the action takes place in a decontextualised rural space, by placing this film alongside other works exploring the theme of ‘home’ it becomes a powerful meditation on discomfort, alienation and displacement.
The 15 lens-based artworks included in the exhibition titled A Bigger Picture, on show at the Golden Thread Gallery as part of Belfast Photo Festival, broadly form an enquiry into what it means to live or make one’s home in 21st century Northern Ireland. The show includes work by Aisling Kane, Maria Przybylska, Joanne Mullin, Richard Gosnold, Emma Campbell, Sarah Tehan, Shannon Ritchie, Gareth Sweeney, Sophie Riddell, Molly Martin, Ryan Allen, Shane O’Neill, Adela Puterkova, Evie Williamson and Charlie Beare. Organised by Clare Gallagher, Clare Gormley and Anna Liesching, and drawn from the work of Belfast School of Art graduates, the exhibition seeks to foreground feminist and queer approaches to a photographic canon that has traditionally been associated with masculinity and the mediation of conflict.
Exhibition curator Clare Gallagher describes the show as a “countertext to the omissions in representation engendered by the dominant straight white male voice”. And, in addition to the theme of home, the works are grouped around the subjects of conflict (with a small ‘c’) and queer subjectivities.
Another watery landscape. The tide recedes and a woman in a bright red dress moves across the sedimented sandflats, her footsteps slapping loudly in the claggy, sucking shoreline. Here the camera is uncomfortably close, all gasping breath and rising waters and disorientating visceral noises. Throughout this scene of abject embodiment it remains unclear whether the figure has emerged from the water or is returning, whether the sequence signals a drowning, an emergence or a rebirth.
In a final moving-image work, an unnamed man recounts the isolation of growing up closeted in Northern Ireland. His body remains absent from the screen while the bluntly honest monologue describes secrecy, disguise, the fear of small acts or quirks of speech that would mark him as gay. This direct voice, disembodied from a visual referent, powerfully evokes absences and visibilities, social codes and private agony. Dust-motes glimmer across the screen and night-time lights fracture upon water, glittering and sparkling and hopeful.
Given Northern Ireland’s track-record in LGBTQ and reproductive health rights, perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of the subjects represented in this exhibition are alienated, agonised or absent. Scorched prints of a housing estate by Shannon Richie evoke violence, anger, and memory; layered text-images in an installation by Richard Gosnold inventory the psychic and economic costs of abortion legislation; coolly composed portraits of shared domestic spaces speak of transience and refuge in the works of Joanne Mullin; tightly framed photographs by Adela Puterkova tenderly document puckered, fleshy skin; and Maria Przybylska’s everyday household objects are rendered uncanny, defamiliarized through playfully surreal framing.
If photography has been an especially fraught form of visual representation in the Northern Irish context, A Bigger Picture expansively visualises subjects and perspectives relevant to a post-conflict generation. It remains to be seen to what extent this new generation of artists will forge new languages, formal concerns and ways of working with lens-based media. The exhibition signals the immediacy and urgency of repositioning historically under-represented voices in NI’s photographic tradition.