One of Project Arts Centre’s latest exhibitions explores the repetitive nature of the patterns that shake the world: oil wars and mass displacement, censorship and capitalist booms and busts.
But it takes as its inspiration an unusual starting point: the story of how twenty-four Orthodox icons came to be housed in the National Gallery of Ireland.
The exhibition is “trying to look at how things repeat themselves and those patterns and cycles and what can be learned from those”, says the curator, David Upton.
The 24 Icons
While researching icons, Upton travelled to Greece, Russia, and Turkey, and found that in each country the artwork held a different meaning.
“In Russia, iconic paintings are still venerated, they are seen as embodying something of the saint,” he says. “They are more than just representations, but are seen as being an uplink to a higher power.”
There, the paintings were hung on the walls of cities when they were under siege to protect them. In Turkey, they were often destroyed or sold, while in Greece they are seen as interesting historical artefacts, he says.
As Upton sees it, this reveals “how the exact same object changes use, as social and political situations change. Their use value just fluctuated depending on how people saw them.”
That can be seen in the story of W.E.D. Allen, a British reporter, diplomat, and writer who worked as a correspondent in Istanbul in the 1920s.
He was there during a time of war between Turkey and Greece, which resulted in mass displacement of people, and with them, artworks, says Upton
Allen bought around 100 icons and sent them back to England, says Upton. “At one stage, one of them was used as firewood by builders working in his house.”
In the 1960s, Allen sold what remained of the collection to the National Gallery of Ireland, but it was much-reduced at this stage. “In the intervening years, he would have given some away as wedding presents,” says Upton.
The National Gallery is currently being renovated, so the icons are not on display, but they will be once it fully reopens on 12 June. Upton hopes to organise some crossover events between the two exhibitions.
“Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously”
The exhibition at Project Arts Centre takes the story of these uprooted and displaced paintings as its inspiration through five different art practices, says Upton.
The artists whose works are displayed include Erik Bulatov, Ida Lennartsson, gerlach en koop, Raqs Media Collective, and Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck, and Media Farzin.
One videography work – Chronoscope, 1951, 11pm by Balteo-Yazbeck and Farzin – draws together a collection of clips from topical debate programmes in 1951 that looked at what was happening in Iran, says Upton.
Britain had major investment in Iranian oil and in 1951 the Iranian government voted to nationalise its oil industry. The question that hangs over the piece is should the West go to war to secure oil in the Middle East, he says.
This relates to the icons, as well. “Looking at the history of these icons in that area, and how we see the Middle East, and how that has continued to create these conflicts and mass displacements of populations,” says Upton.
There are also works in the exhibition by Bulatov, an 83-year-old painter who lives in Paris. He grew up in the Soviet Union, where his work was considered counter-revolutionary, says Upton.
In the 1930s and 1940s, many artists who failed to follow the doctrine of socialist realism favoured by the regime were disappeared. But Bulatov found some who had survived and learned from them, said Upton.
“Every time he did a show, it would be closed down. Not that his work was overtly political,” says Upton. “But he just wasn’t following the accepted style.”
It was not until the 1980s that Bulatov was able to start selling work abroad, but even then it would be marked by customs officials with a stamp that said “of no artistic value”, says Upton.
Another video, made by Raqs Media Collective, might be mistaken for a photograph because it moves so slowly, says Upton.
Made in 2013, it explores the economic crash that happened in China in the 1940s, during the civil war between nationalists and communists, he says. “They are looking at capitalist systems, and how the booms and busts are essential and unavoidable.”
There’s a story behind the title of the exhibition: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.
First dreamt up by the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, it is a grammatically perfect sentence that means absolutely nothing. “That sentence has been stuck in my head for quite some time,” says Upton.
His exhibition is “about the journey of the collection, but also how we find ourselves today, with populations being displaced, and language manipulated and there doesn’t seem to be any consequence for that”, he says.
In the last couple of years, language has been brutalised and reduced, he says. “Now we live in this post-truth era and it is more about how you say it, and who you say it to, rather than whether it’s a fact.”
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” at Project Arts Centre runs until 17 June 2017.