Art, Real Life and Transcendence

Ben Eastop, Bruce Allan and Magda Guruli at the opening of Difference Screen at Artisterium VI in Tbilisi, Georgia in October, 2013
Ben Eastop, Bruce Allan and Magda Guruli at the opening of Difference Screen at Artisterium VI in Tbilisi, Georgia in October, 2013

For me, one of the highlights of Artisterium VI in Tbilisi, Georgia was the 3 day programme of artists’ films entitled “Difference Screen”. About 30 different films, from Ireland to Iran, from Norway to New Zealand, it broadened my horizons and opened my eyes to all sorts of different stories from the far corners of the world.

There was an interesting panel discussion at the end of each day with the curators Bruce Allan and Ben Eastop, mediated by Gareth Evans of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. One of those discussions led to the question of ‘Art and Politics’ – a thorny subject, or at least a thorny subject where I come from – so it’s this subject that I would like to tease out a little, if I may.

I grew up in Dublin in the 1970s, a time when the ‘Troubles’ in the North of Ireland were festering and boiling over. Although Dublin escaped most of the violence, it was always on the news, always on my mind and, looking back, I realise that it affected me profoundly. I believed that we in the South had a responsibilty to try to find a solution to the situation in the North but instead of that, successive governments ‘washed their hands’ of it and allowed it to continue and worsen. Basically they didn’t want to know and, in general, people in the South followed their lead, they shrugged their shoulders and disowned their brethren in the North.

I was an idealistic young artist. This perceived injustice bristled out of every artwork that I produced back then. But I soon discovered that this didn’t inspire the reaction that I had imagined. No, we don’t want to talk about that. No, you must be one of them! So gradually I came to realise that I would be better off if I kept my political views to myself.

I suppose I did that for a while but, well, I’m older now and not as concerned about what other people think anymore. I try to make art that is honest and ‘straight from the heart’. Which brings me back to the films… That was exactly what made the films so engaging – they clearly came ‘straight from the heart’.

One film in particular has stayed with me and that is Desert Rose by Cordelia Swann. It is a black and white film about Las Vegas – the casinos, the hotels, the glittering neon lights – but gradually we realise that it is telling a much more sinister story, as the voiceover describes the effects of atomic bomb tests in the Nevada desert in the 1950s.

During the panel discussion it emerged that this film had been funded by the British rather than the American arts council. Indeed, someone suggested that it wouldn’t have got American funding. Who knows? Politics or ideology is often an issue when it comes to funding. ( He who pays the piper calls the tune.) Can an artist be truly autonomous if she/he is depending on others for funding? Then there’s also the danger that the art might get ‘hijacked’ by one group or another, that it becomes mere propaganda.

So what’s an artist to do? In Ireland in particular, the answer was to avoid the issue, to make art ‘about art’ rather than deal with real life issues. During the Postmodern era, this was easy – nothing was certain, everything was ambiguous, everything was a joke. Is Postmodernism over? I certainly hope so. I know that it takes all sorts. I realise that there are as many artists as there are ‘isms’ but for me, art rises out of ordinary life, art tries to understand and tackle real life issues, and art reaches for transformation and transcendence.

It was wonderful to sit there in the dark at Difference Screen and be transported around the world, to gain insights into other people’s joys and struggles, and to be uplifted and inspired by the work of such diverse and talented artists. What more can I say but “Thank you”.

Eoin Mac Lochlainn

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