VAN Critique March/April 2015: Sabina Mac Mahon at Belfast Exposed Photography and Queen Street Studios & Gallery

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Maimie Campbell, The Death of Cuchulainn, 1929, tempera on board 67 x 55 cm

Sabina Mac Mahon
‘An Ulaid – South Down Society of Modern Art’
Belfast Exposed and Queen Street Studios, Belfast
16 January – 28 February

Sabina Mac Mahon’s research project, An Ulaid – South Down Society of Modern Art, is displayed in two different venues in Belfast: Belfast Exposed Photography and Queen Street Studios & Gallery.

Belfast Exposed’s downstairs gallery bears all the familiar hallmarks of a museum-based show, in which factual information and a collection of artefacts are utilised to construct characters and tell a story. The open layout – vitrines, free-standing and wall-mounted display cases, framed archival photographs and an abundance of wall panels – provides detailed information on a group of seven artists: Maimie Campbell, Pauline Doyle, Edward Hollywood, Sarah Leonard, Iris McAragh, Heber O’Neill and Thomas Pettit, who co-founded the South Down Society of Modern Art in rural Northern Ireland in 1927.

Mac Mahon has included an incredible amount of detail in the texts incorporated in the exhibition, which appear to be thoroughly researched and chart the formation of the group, their inspirations, travels, influences, styles, output and eventual decline in 1930. Hand-written postcards, aged and frayed, contain correspondence between the members whilst abroad. Black and white photographs show a group of smiling young artists and the spaces and places where they grew up and in which their meetings and art making took place. Even the biscuit tin in which Mac Mahon found the memorabilia that initiated her research project sits on a plinth under a protective case.

None of the actual artworks made by the Society are displayed at Belfast Exposed, but are presented separately at Queen Street Studios: paintings and drawings inspired by Fauvism, Cubism, Pointillism and other styles that the group’s members encountered when travelling and studying on the continent. In Mac Mahon’s own words, “[their work] generally speaking, approaches the standard of enthusiastic amateurs rather than that of professional artists”. The works produced in the three-year lifespan of the group are unexceptional and their story, though well-illustrated, is largely uneventful – no doubt mirroring the trajectory of so many other groups that didn’t quite make art history: wealthy middle class artists who, after a grand tour, became inspired to replicate the famous works and styles they so admired, but never quite managed to surpass them.

Mac Mahon has faithfully recounted their tale and the layout of the show at Belfast Exposed guides you clearly around the displays and objects as she they unfold from beginning to end. The gallery’s printed material, however, subtly hints at a different story. It does not present a standard archive show of a group of Northern Irish artists that nobody (remarkably, really) has ever heard of, but also states that the exhibition is “a speculative exercise, which playfully explores photography’s relationship to truth and its role in the illustration and imagining of history”. Alarm bells may be triggered by these words in the average viewer. In fact, none of it is real.

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Sabina Mac Mahon, ‘An Ulaid – South Down Society of Modern Art’ installation view, QSS Gallery, photo by Tony Corey

What happens after the ‘unveiling’, when fact turns into fiction, and when the curtain is drawn back and the wizard behind it is revealed? Some will view it and leave without discovering the truth. Others will feel deceived, or forced to ask the exasperating question: “So what now?” Some, like me, may have already realised in their initial experience of the show that something was amiss (before it had even opened, in fact, when those ‘warning bell’ words stood out in the press release and triggered a suspicious feeling of construct).

If you like being fooled, and enjoy the deftness of Mac Mahon’s writing and replication, you will have found the unveiling amusing and clever. If you are interested in how galleries and other arts institutions present history, fact and truth, then Mac Mahon’s thorough knowledge of museum and gallery displays (she is currently undertaking an MA in Museum Studies) evidenced in this show will impress.

For me, this exhibition really started to function as a result of the conversations I had with others about it. These included: questions surrounding belief systems present in the everyday, and how we are sometimes convinced by ‘evidence’ that supports them. The power of museums when presenting history as entertainment and the responsibility that galleries have when knowingly ‘misleading’ their viewers (something that Belfast Exposed have been careful about: all the clues are presented clearly, and the gallery invigilators have been advised to discuss the fictional elements of the show when engaging with visitors).

Mac Mahon is no doubt acutely aware of the specific context of Northern Ireland, and its plural histories. After all, this is a place where, in 2010, the then culture minister Nelson McCausland publicly urged the Ulster Museum to put on exhibits acknowledging that the world was made only several thousand years ago, in order to “reflect the views of all the people in Northern Ireland in all its richness and diversity”. ¹

Take from it what you will, but Sabina Mac Mahon’s research project ‘An Ulaid – South Down Society of Modern Art’, above demonstrating the careful fabrication of an imagined history of art, has also provided sufficient food for thought.

Alissa Kleist is a Belfast-based curator.

1. Henry McDonald, ‘Northern Ireland minister calls on Ulster Museum to promote creationism’, The Guardian, Wednesday 26 May 2010

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