Branding peace: Public art in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland #ESRCfestival

RISE (Balls on the Falls) statue. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Branding peace: Public art in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland
by Bárbara Orozco DIAZ for Northern Ireland Foundation
6 November 2016

As part of the Festival of Social Science, the event “Branding peace: Public art in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland” took place at the Black Box (Green Room).

The speaker, Dr Bree Hocking, is a researcher associated with The Open University in Belfast, and is currently working on a Belfast development project.

She started by reading an extract of her book, The Great Reimagining: Public Art, Urban Space, and the Symbolic Landscapes of a ‘New’ Northern Ireland

In that research, she asked: “What is the potential for art to reconstruct spaces of urban conflict and create place identities un-tethered to historical hatreds?”

The extract took us to 2011 when the sculpture Rise, by Wolgang Buttress, was unveiled.

The 37.5 feet spherical metal sculpture is located at the Broadway roundabout, at the junction of the Westlink, connecting the M1 to M2 and M3 motorways.

Rise was defined by the author as “a representation of a new sun rising to celebrate a new chapter in the history of Belfast”.

Hocking continued with an explanation of a framework, “The Civic Identikit of Flows”:

The argument is that the official discourses shape and regulate ways of life and identities determining what is allowed to do in public space.

Those official discourses are globalisation, consumption, community, troubled history/reconciliation and culture.

As she argued in her book: “Public art is being used to create new post-conflict, post-nationalist civic identities (with the imperatives of reconciliation politics and economic strategies), aimed at promoting the city brand to a global audience.”

She demonstrated this with five cases studies, five artworks:

  1. Rise represents an aperture to the world, the south is linking with north, the globalisation of the Northern Ireland, the space of everybody.
  2. Spirit of Belfast, alongside Victoria Square shopping centre, attempts to make Belfast a contemporary city, a shared space of consumption.
  3. Hewitt in the Frame represents a community project to provide positive images and identity building in working-class West Belfast.
  4. Diamond War Memorial in Derry-Londonderry proposes to redeploy history in the service of reconciliation.
  5. Mute Meadows, located at an army barracks, is a giant effort to redevelop the area via innovative engagements with local culture, by opening a city’s civic centre.

Other pieces of public art were mentioned: numerous murals, the Millie sculpture, Titanic Memorial Gardens, Beacon of Hope and Shankill Memorial Gardens.

Hocking provided some popular reactions to our public art, to show its effect as symbols of change:

  • Nicknaming The Rise as “The Balls on the Falls”
  • Tourists more interested in graffiti and marking their own notes at some murals
  • Seeing Mute Meadows as unfinished
  • Using the public space around Spirit of Belfast for performances, meetings and riots

Hocking concluded that shared space appears to have more to do with creating neutral, symbolic public spaces, than in any actual mixing of existing cultural baggage.

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