Adrian Ghenie, Pieter Hugo, Olaf Brzeski
‘I will go there, take me home’
Curated by Gregory McCartney
8 May – 26 July 2015
The MAC, Belfast
‘I will go there, take me home’ marks the second installment of the MAC’s guest curator programme, which offers independent curators the opportunity to develop exhibitions in the MAC’s three impressive gallery spaces. This year’s recipient is Gregory McCartney, a Derry-based curator who has devised a rich and multi-faceted exhibition which forces audiences to consider violence, failure, destruction and – quite bleakly – “the end of things…[from the] end of personal and social empires…[to the] failure of philosophies; the failure of systems; [and] the failure of people”.
The exhibition includes major works by three artists of international acclaim – Adrian Ghenie (Romania), Pieter Hugo (South Africa) and Olaf Brzeski (Poland) – none of whom have exhibited before in Ireland. Despite their geographical separation, each artist is no stranger to violence and all of their works are sobering, visceral and thought provoking, albeit in varying ways. Whilst no works here are rooted in or directly reference Northern Ireland’s contentious political history, the presentation of these works in Belfast nonetheless enables the country’s own troubles to bubble under the surface of the exhibition.
Beginning in the MAC’s most impressive and largest exhibition space, the work of Adrian Ghenie is meticulously presented, featuring a range of both large and intimately-scaled gestural paintings and collages which confidently dominate the walls of the gallery. The abstract works depict aerial warfare and scenes of destruction, while blurred portraits of featureless faces simultaneously provide and deny a human presence. Largely reflecting the traumatic history of dictatorship in his native Romania, the works are multi-layered both physically and conceptually, also referencing news media, state archives and cinema.
Similarly confident in its ability to fully command the MAC’s smaller Sunken Gallery, Olaf Brzeski’s single work in the exhibition, Dream – Spontaneous Combustion (2008), is a more quiet, contemplative piece. A black cloud of billowing smoke has been masterfully sculpted in soot and resin, marking the spot of spontaneous combustion, where only a pair of ashen feet remain. This is the site of a terrifying, tragic occurrence, but we are only witness to its aftermath, deathly silent and still, peaceful yet haunting.
Pieter Hugo’s large-scale photographs arguably pack the exhibition’s strongest punch, replacing the relative subtlety and quiet of the works by Ghenie and Brzeski with pieces a little more high-impact and unapologetic in their depiction of violence and destruction. Hugo’s work engages with both documentary and art traditions, focusing on African communities post-apartheid, depicting real people in terrifyingly hostile environments who meet and confront the viewer’s gaze. A room dedicated to a selection of works from Hugo’s The Hyena and Other Men series is particularly arresting. While these images are perhaps already familiar to audiences (they were even recently appropriated in a Beyoncé music video), their dominant scale and positioning in the triangular gallery space makes for a threatening, almost claustrophobic experience, as audiences are flanked on all sides by the hard stares of these men and their muzzled beasts.
A potential problem with the exhibition is that it perhaps reads more like three solo exhibitions under an umbrella theme, rather than a group exhibition in which the works are more obviously juxtaposed against one another. To a large extent, the curatorial decision to use a separate gallery for each of the three artists has been dictated by the layout of the MAC, but the lack of a seamless transition between the spaces is unfortunate and prevents cohesion. The works on display are highly provocative, almost brutal in their impact, but as one navigates through a bustling cafe and concrete stairwells between the galleries, the exhibition ultimately feels a little disjointed, its flow interrupted by the building’s architecture, which denies a fully immersive experience.
One of the beauties of curating group exhibitions is the opportunity to forge relationships between different artists, exhibiting their work in new contexts alongside works with which they have never been shown. ‘I will go there, take me home’ is a little static in this regard, as the three separate spaces do not allow for a visual interplay between works which could potentially have provided a more unique visitor experience.
Nonetheless, McCartney has undeniably delivered one of the highlights of the MAC’s recent exhibition programme, demonstrating sophisticated vision and originality. His choice to exhibit the work of these three artists in Northern Ireland for the first time is certainly very welcome, and this is a refreshing and culturally important exhibition for the city. Whilst presenting works made in various locations around the world, the exhibition is still highly relevant in a Northern Irish context, providing new perspectives on post-conflict and troubled societies, and possesses a provocative charge certain to prompt fruitful conversation and debate.
Ben Crothers is a Belfast-based curator and writer.