Troubled Images at the Linenhall Library September 1, 2010Posted by Garibaldy in Art, Culture, The North.
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The Linen Hall Library, Belfast, is currently showing a selection of its collection of political posters from the 30 years of conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland. Troubled Images showed briefly in 2001 and has since been a traveling exhibition, in the United States and elsewhere. Having begun with a civil rights flyer given to librarian Jimmy Vitty in the 1960s, the Linen Hall’s collection of political material is an invaluable historical archive of the ‘Troubles’. It is also, however, a record of the way in which politics spawned varieties of visual polemic, as the conflict’s escalation occasioned more visceral means of persuasion and politicization than subtle argument. Belfast is depressingly famous for its murals, graffiti and use of graphics in expressing varieties of tribal politics, and given recent attempts to repackage the city’s history of violence as a kind of kitsch, the exhibition might seem a somewhat more respectable supplement to bus tours of the Falls, Shankill and ‘Peace Line’. A few tourists were indeed browsing the exhibit with a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension when I visited, though not too many given recent events as reflected in Australia’s recommendations to tourists.
The 70 posters hung in the narrow stairwell of the Library’s Fountain Street entrance certainly provide an interesting cross-section of the politics of Northern Ireland. The exhibition is wide-ranging, with posters from a range of parties, including the Alliance Party, UDP, IRSP, UUP, RSF, SDLP, and Women’s Coalition. Some posters rely on their image to do the talking. Sean O’Toole’s Remember Derry (1974), for instance, uses the stark white of 13 skulls on a pure black background to recall Bloody Sunday. In one 1960s poster Ian Paisley looks every bit the charismatic preacher, orating under the holy cross of a Union Jack bearing the legend ‘For God and Ulster’. Image and politics merge in such figures. The exhibition nicely represents the overlap between murals and poster politics in Danny Devenny’s iconic outline of a gun-toting, faceless RUC officer wearing an orange sash. Originally a mural in South Derry, Sinn Féin quickly redeployed the image in their campaign to have the RUC disbanded. There are some audaciously inventive images here. Robert Ballagh’s 1989 poster for the Irish National Congress celebrates the centenary of the French Revolution by reworking Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with a tricolor, and an Easter Lily – thus linking the Irish republican movement to the European tradition of democratic struggle. Cedric Wilson’s Unionist Solidarity (1986) poster brazenly mimics the Polish mass movement, with interesting (and weird and not entirely clear) political parallels resulting. A Workers’ Party poster (The Workers’ Party Says No to Mass Unemployment, 1986) echoes the mass protest against the Anti-Anglo Irish Agreement outside Belfast City Hall (where Paisley delivered the Never, Never, Never, Never speech) but with a hell of a lot less people!
Photographs are also deployed, mostly to make graphic statements about the human cost of the conflict. Most horrifying is a 1978 Northern Ireland Office poster following the La Mon House Hotel bombing. Accompanying a photograph of charred, limbless remains the word ‘murder’ is repeated 12 times, once for each fatality. The poster does not request information. Instead, the image asserts the criminality of the offence and its horror, refusing any ideological content. This is, of course, a deliberate, artful strategy. The exhibition allows the viewer to see images such as these in context with other, competing political images; each side’s accusations of atrocity out on show. In this way, Troubled Images confirms that brutality has been a near constant in much of the visual and verbal rhetoric of Northern Irish politics. On the first floor of the Linen Hall show is a militarily precise heraldic illustration of Long Kesh, with Orange lodge-style blazons and bunting, celebrating the UFF loyalist ‘POWs’ held there. Easily overlooked, this piece is by loyalist murderer Michael Stone. That chilling fact, if nothing else, shows how politicized images have underpinned much of the politics of the last thirty years. Whatever your individual political convictions, these posters show the way in which polemical images intervened in the daily mental life of people, shaping (or warping) language and perspective for good and ill.