Horsing about with Art

Iirish News Column
Irish News november 2000

If you regularly walk in the Waterworks, as I do, you will notice that some silly, meaningless scrawls have been painted on the tarmacadam paths. As you might imagine, this is graffiti, the work of thoughtless, talent-less vandals, who, as the saying goes, “know no better”.
The concrete steps which lead from the lower pond to the upper pond had survived intact for over a hundred years until August last year, when they were covered with a mess of blue paint and a spattering of crudely, lettered doggerel; to compound the felony zigzag patterns were destructively gouged out of the grassy slopes on either side of the steps and filled with a white powdery substance. This was art, created by people who should know better. Every time I pass this unsightly mess I marvel that this vandalism was sponsored by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, The Belfast City Council and Laganside Corporation. Let me explain; its now over a year since Horsehead International organized 37 site-specific temporary sculptures throughout Belfast . In the past, Horsehead had restricted its activities to Seattle where it organized an annual sculptural event. Last year, Seattle Times art critic Robin Updike announced that;
“Horsehead is going international, taking its spirit of adventuresome, site-specific, ephemeral artmaking to Belfast”. Lucky old Belfast.
Its curator was Matthew Lennon, a Seattle man with Irish roots and a Belfast wife called Maxine.
“ We like the dialogue”, said Maxine, “that occurs when artists from around the world get together and get involved in communities”
Councillor Tom Hartley at the time said that the Belfast City Council was “delighted” to support the Horsehead project and hoped “ that everyone will enjoy discovering these wonderful art works around the city”.
Laganside Chairman, Tony Hopkins felt that Horsehead added “ a splash of colour to the streets of Belfast” and that Laganside was happy to be “associated with this thought provoking project”. “Enjoy the experience”, he exhorted us.
The Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Dr. Brian Walker said that the Council was pleased to fund the Horsehead Project which would “engage local communities and introduce the people of Northern Ireland to...ground breaking new work”.
What was this wonderful, groundbreaking new work which splashed its colour about the streets of Belfast in 1999? Hands up anyone who remembers seeing any of those 37 sculptural events.
Perhaps you were one of those people who walked past the Albert Clock and thought that the rope dangling from its top was just a rope dangling from its top and not something charged with meaning. These events, after all were of a temporary nature; “ephemeral artmaking”. It is quite likely that either you missed them, or, you were unaware that art was taking place. “Wisdom cried out on the streets” and you were impervious to its pleading.
What puzzled me was that Horsehead and its sponsors seemed to emphasize the necessity of engaging the audience and artists in meaningful dialogue. Perhaps I am being obtuse, but can an art work be said to have had dialogue with an audience who didn’t see it, or when they did see it, didn’t know that they were seeing it?
I have no doubt that the intentions of all concerned were totally honourable. Anything which encourages young art must be looked at positively but some common sense ought to be applied when assessing the feasibility of projects. Idealists, like horseheads, are safer when reins are employed. Matthew Lennon is an idealist. An interview he gave last year might have indicated possible problems;
“None of us knows what’s going to happen, I don’t know what all the artists are doing and I won’t know till I actually see the pieces,”
Well, if he didn’t know my assumption has to be that the sponsors didn’t know either. In other words the artists whose temporary art left a permanent blot on the Waterworks’ steps could just as easily have applied their decorative skills to painting the Portico of the City Hall green, white and orange.
“ There have been two fundamental ingredients in the making of Horsehead;” continued Matthew, “ action and generosity”.
The action came from Horsehead and the generosity....? Well, in a sense it came from us, in so far as the Arts Council’s Lottery Fund contributed £40,000 towards these ephemeral projects. Add to that the support from the City Council and the Laganside Corporation and our generosity is complete.
I think it is only fair to point out to these sponsoring bodies, that there is more to funding art projects than photo-calls and publicity handouts.

Joseph Mc Williams November 2000©