You can imagine various visual art reactions to Partition, but Niamh McCann has created a surprising and strange, maybe terrible beauty in her new show at The MAC. Titled ‘someone decides, the hawk or the dove’, it provides beautiful landscapes but also a bestiary with blinded, fiery dogs staring at a changed landscape. The title comes from a line in a poem by Ciaran Carson, Hairline Crack, which stresses the randomness of history. The split or crack leads to a palette dominated by green and orangey red, gathered from the two cultures within Northern Ireland, the new province. In the Upper Gallery are handsome landscapes, real as photos, the green with the quintessential Belfast cityscape with Samson and Goliath, the red showing the pugnacious dog in the foreground. There is an elegant structure, a gate and fence or large divide threaded with rope. On one side, it’s green, the other orange. Although the piece, titled Turn Again along with a questioning booth looking like a confessional and a bench, suggests separation, it also hints at the importance of equal status for the two communities.
Mapping territory suggests control and the artist has in a sense mapped the story of Ireland, north and south, and come up with some artistic questioning. McCann makes you think. Just as Northern Ireland was a reimagined slice of Ireland after date, so she has reimagined symbols of unionism and conflict. The big Lambeg drum now has cute motifs of animals and pretty colours on it, not the colours of the Union flag. There is of course, a flag, a companion piece titled Revised Version, with the birds and small hippos happily moving across the linen. The bricks used as weapons in arguments between those fighting on both sides in downtown Belfast and elsewhere are silvered and displayed individually on the wall. The name of the piece is Confetti, again echoing Carson and the title of his collection, Belfast Confetti. They are attractive but the meaning’s changed. In artspeak, it marks the duality of “celebration and projectile weaponry”, freezing “act and consequence inside time”.
The animals are interesting, the mutant child god, Ru-ta, that greets us with a tree growing from its back is unsettling. A pigmy hippo appears, without natural growth, next to a seagull one floor down in a piece called Ambition Bronze, maybe showing we haven’t got full integration, just the desire for it. It’s maybe significant the beautyiful music playing on the upper floor by Grammy-nominated Iarla O’Lionaird is called The Gloaming, in other words between light and dark.
Compared to the Ulster Museum’s at times savage, clever show on the Troubles a few years ago, this may seem gentler and more playful yet the narrative still has the power to shock. The dogs are, after all, blind, often with flames appearing from their eyes.
The exhibition runs at The MAC until April 7 2024 and is curated by Belinda Quirke.