Belfast’s murals

Last weekend was my first visit to Belfast, and I spent some time looking at the city’s famous murals. I wasn’t there for nearly long enough – there are hundreds of murals scattered throughout the city and I only managed to walk around the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas for a short while. But what little I saw I know will stay with me for a long time.

A section of the International Wall, which addresses global struggles

I wouldn’t presume to even try and talk in detail about the context here, but the murals are deeply embedded in years of complicated and violent political history. Public art is always a reflection of power struggles: who is represented and who is left out is a political issue. This is even more true in the case of the murals, which have sprung up over decades, and are for the most part created by people who live in these communities, rather than by artists brought in from outside and commissioned to make work.

The subjects of the murals vary hugely, but many of them commemorate the victims of The Troubles. In a conflict fought at such close quarters, even the smallest of exposed façades becomes a canvas for stating the allegiances of the area.

Signs and symbols: the crown dotting the ‘i’ of Shankill denotes the area’s allegiances

I was shocked to learn that thousands of lives were lost in the violence, and perhaps just as surprising was that neither me, nor any of the people I was with (Scottish and English) had learned anything about the conflict in school, even though it is very much in living memory and an important part of both British and Irish history.

The Bobby Sands mural is the most photographed in Belfast.

It’s a moving and hard-hitting experience, but walking the streets and engaging with the murals as a tourist is one of the ways we can learn about the city’s difficult past in an accessible way. It’s also an important reminder that images, signs and symbols are always laced with countless different meanings, and it is worth taking some time to try and decipher them.

Images of solidarity using the colours of the Irish and Palestinian flags, situated on the International Wall

‘Cut and paste: 400 years of collage’, National Galleries Scotland

There’s so much packed into this exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which connects radically different works of art by artists as diverse as Pietro da Cortona (Italian Baroque painter and architect, 1596-1669) and Linder (British radical feminist artist, b.1954) it’s difficult to know where to begin.

The exhibition is a chronological survey of just about everything connected to the act of cutting one thing and sticking/stitching it on to another, including the digital techniques used today by brilliant artists like Cold War Steve. So there’s a lot to get through.

It might sound as a though the whole concept is a bit broad (it’s true that the exhibition has so many works it almost falls into the ‘overwhelming’ category), but in the very act of broadening out the understanding of collage as art, the show opens up the narrative possibilities around the medium. By including works by amateur and anonymous artists, we see the informal side of collage, which became hugely popular in the nineteenth century, particularly among women. I’m glad of that because it exposes some of the many weird and wonderful constructions that resulted from the pastime of sticking one thing to another, one of my favourites being this monstrously ugly baby from 1890.

Anonymous, Baby, (about 1890)

By placing objects like this one alongside Picasso’s Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), the exhibition stressed some of the continuities of collage throughout the centuries. Yet though the wall text explained how the meanings of collage changed in the twentieth century, I still feel that more could have been made of how utterly radical it was when avant garde artists started to incorporate fragments of newspaper and other ephemera on to the canvas. It was a gesture that intended to break the mould and redefine painting altogether, which had huge repercussions on what later constituted art. It was for this reason that collage went on to be one of the go-to visual languages of satire, protest and activism.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913

For me, the political artworks were some of the best in the show. John Heartfield’s series of satirical photomontages for the left-wing German publication AIZ really fascinated me. One, depicting a Hitler with coins for a skeleton alongside the caption “Adolf the Superman: swallows gold and spouts rubbish” (1932) felt particularly apt to our current political climate. I just wish the series was placed somewhere more prominent, rather than in a walkway. The exhibition has so much to say, but there wasn’t enough space to say it. Better to cut down on the numbers of works and give ones like this the position they deserve.

John Heartfield, rotogravure, published in AIZ 17 July 1932

It seems that with works in collage, there’s a strong urge towards the uncanny, things that disturb and make the viewer take a second look. That was true of the works exploring the body by feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s, in one of the best rooms of the exhibition. I hadn’t heard of Annegret Soltau (b.1946) before, and her works made with black thread suturing together different photographs of her naked body were really striking.

Annegret Soltau, Schwanger II (Pregnant II), 1978

There are so many fascinating things to see at this exhibition and it throws a light on some of the challenges of dealing with such a broad theme. It is said too often, Qbut there really is something for everyone here, and I would really recommend you go and see it before it closes on 27 October.

Grayson Perry, Dovecot Studios

Grayson Perry, with his numerous books, TV documentaries and lectures, is probably one of the few genuinely famous contemporary artists in Britain today. He is perhaps better known for talking about art than for the art he produces, though the bright colours and recurring cast of characters in his ceramics, tapestries and prints, once seen, are not easily forgotten. He is a chronicler, a satirist, a kind of psychedelic William Hogarth of our times, chewing up the world and spitting it back out at us in a way that both gloriously kitsch and raucously ugly.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, 1751

Perry is fundamentally a storyteller artist. He creates narratives in his artworks which help us to think about the world around us, and our multiple identities as individuals within society. That is what he has done for this show at Dovecot Studios, Julie Cope’s Grand Tour: The Story of a Life by Grayson Perry. The exhibition follows his fictional character Julie through what Perry calls ‘the trails, tribulations, celebrations and mistakes of an average life’, using a series of brightly-coloured Jacquard tapestries.

Don’t be fooled by the bright colours, though. The story behind the works is one that is full of tragedy, examining the mundane reality of life, the pervasive banality even of its most dramatic moments. Alongside the tapestries, The Ballad of Julie Cope, a poem written by Perry bleakly sets the context for Julie’s life. I sometimes find looped audio tracks in exhibition spaces quite distracting, but here, the poem read aloud by Perry in his slight Essex accent gave the tale of Julie Cope, an Essex girl, a kind of timeless authenticity.

Detail from the first tapestry in the series, A Perfect Match

The tapestries themselves are immense and impressive. Packed with details, they are a fascinating maze of signs and symbols, clashing colours and patterns for the viewer to decipher. Clever tricks are used that are barely noticeable at first, but make the images all the more convincing, like the shadows used around the feet in the picture above, giving the work a sense of depth and the cartoon-esque characters more solidity.

As with much of Grayson Perry’s work, class is the central theme underlying the show, and his observations about life in modern Britain are as bittersweet and tinged with nostalgia as they are acerbic. The tapestries, when they are not on tour, usually decorate another of Perry’s fascinating projects, A House For Essex, a whacky Wendy house construction which is part folly, part shrine, to Julie Cope. Seen divorced from this context, in the exhibition space, I think the works have probably lost some of their whimsical quality, and we are left with a documentation of the sad predictability of life. For me, the overriding feeling of the exhibition was not uplifting, but in that way, Perry, the Bard, creates a perfect mirror of the country in turmoil around us.

A House For Essex