Thursday, 28 August 2014

ART REVIEW: From The North To The Republic

Belfast's Linenhall Library hosts a quietly powerful and gently symbolic photography exhibition

Sparkling colours are rare but sharp symbolism is plentiful in Valentina Culley-Foster's From The North To The Republic. This grim, gloomy but gripping sea of sights takes inspiration from local stories and local history on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic Of Ireland, serving up a stark smorgasbord of mildly moving moments in the form of a photographic narrative. It could easily be titled The Hitherto Unseen Borderland.

Culley-Foster, born in the United States but based in Derry-Londonderry, has created and collated a collection of images chronicling views of a sectarian divide that are regularly noticed but rarely examined.

What catches the eye? Plenty. Stare at an image of a bilingual road sign (pictured) and you will see the whites of the sign submerged in oranges and greens, not coincidentally the three colours in the Irish flag. Tie this in with the capture of a painted tricolour on the backboard of a basketball hoop, where the middle of the "flag" is crossed out. It is the centre of the divide, the symbols of equality, both aesthetically and linguistically, that are being covered from the naked eye, a sign that the quest for a "middle ground" is a difficult one.

Such strong signals are clearly of great interest to Culley-Foster. The rusting roof of a border petrol station casts it in red and white, a schizophrenic reflection of not really knowing which side to be on. Elsewhere, we see little trees grow on one side of a Buncrana Road bus stop while weeds grow on the other, expressive of bitter perceptions and unnecessary hatred. It's a "with us or against us" vibe, a dominant theme in From The North To The Republic. At least two more images, one of a fork in the road in the country, the other of a fallen, Y-shaped tree crossing a stream, reflect uncertainty, while other images define divisions through colourful, religious and even corporate symbolism. The image of a BT booth on one side of an image is difficult to ignore.

But it is something much, much simpler that resonates most strikingly of all: a shot of Magilligan and Greencastle, two attractive seaside towns connected by a ferry service but separated by a border. It quietly, gently expresses that both sides really are more alike than certain divisive aspects of history, culture and mindsets would suggest, even more so than a photograph of Muff's Borderland and a picture of two houses separated only by a parking line, a gate, and the colours of their clothing.

The wear and tear of torrid troubles, and the confusion, fear, doubt, division and identity brought about and created by them, are quietly and succintly brought to life in Culley-Foster's work. It all comes to a head in one particularly prominent image at, of all places, the foot of the Foyle Bridge, where half of a painted message has been obscured by graffiti. "Imagine waking tomorrow and all..." And all what? And all our troubles will be gone? The neutral observer will never know the answer, but may well feel cheated at being robbed of a conclusion to this message through cowardly masking. Then again, perhaps any kind of "conclusion" is wishful thinking in these times; the entire image, like the exhibition as a whole, is reflective of timely and timeless turbulence.

From The North To The Republic runs until tomorrow, Friday August 29, in Belfast's Linenhall Library.