Winter 2003 – Lisbon: Veneer/Folheado at Zé dos Bois

Circa 106 review

The renovated Zé dos Bois gallery in Lisbon, together with Belfast's Catalyst Arts, has put together Veneer I Folheado , an exchange between Lisbon and Belfast.

More than a single exhibition (it includes two group shows, public art, music, films and football) the project, informed by contemporary Anglo-American cultural studies, tries to develop a sociological perspective on two capitals which do not have much in common beside being port cities with a vast historical background of political disturbance.

The presupposition behind such undertakings has been well known for some time: since the '90s issues of memory, historical trauma and temporality have emerged as key to understanding our cultural and political present. From public to private memory, from the social to the personal archive, many artists are working with growing awareness of the history that lies behind them, creating micronarratives which have replaced the great projects of the past. Their output replaces the classical notion of an artwork with the idea of practice, of process, of participation, of the critical exploration of the clash between the individual, locally based and the globalized and imposed.

Read as such, the Veneer I Folheado enterprise fails in (almost) every aspect, except for the role of ZDB as producer.

But, let's go back to the show, which is part of a wider programme. It is described by one of it curators as an attempt to "act as an honest and positive ambassador for Northern Ireland, a country overexposed in the world of media and consequently stereotyped as a troubled, battered and dangerous land." The general impression we get is that of a highly depressed and historically repressed society, despite all attempts to be positive. Reinforcing this idea, even the most interesting works do not escape reflecting a lost society looking for a new identity post-'Troubles', Troubles which fixed that society as a divided community.

Miriam de Búrca: Dogs have no religion , installation shot; photo Carlos Cristovão; courtesy Zé dos Bois

Exemplifying this we have the videos Dogs have no religion by Miriam de Búrca and Holylands by Seamus Harahan. The first presents a survey of the Irish condition through the direct speech of three men who describe what it is like to be a man in Belfast in a present overshadowed by political divisions and religious conservatism. The second is a subjective documentary on the inner life of the Holyland (a region of Belfast), once again a portrait of a society divided between permanent inhabitants and the rotating student community, often a source of tension and disjunction in the way they relate with the city. This impression is amplified in Veneer by Robin Carson, a video less interesting than the previous two; it is too literal and tautological on the bipolar urbanism of Belfast. Literal also is the second work shown in Lisbon by the same artist: Transient , a series of tiles painted in collaboration with the Portuguese community in Dungannon, which tries to report the difficulties inherent in the integration of 'strangers' in a 'transcultural' Europe. Political statements by community members operate here in a naïve and visually poor manner; we already have more useful examples from K.O.S. or in some proposals by Mary Jane Jacobs on community involvement and public art.

Robin Carson: Veneer ; installation shot; photo Carlos Cristovão; courtesy Catalyst Arts/Zé dos Bois

In this respect, a mention must be made of Paddy Bloomer and Nicholas Keogh, devotees of the dérive and détournement within urban 'situations', with their body of work mainly developed in inhospitable locations. The effectiveness of their work is directly related with its own failure. The intervention they undertook together was in a sewer next to ZDB. It acted as an attraction for casual audiences during the opening, but it led a more 'conscientious' citizen, in the present times of terrorist phobia, to call in the fire department, who in the end removed the generator the artists were using. It shows there's life after death for some art projects.

A special remark is owed to the musical selection, which was attentive to the international scene and was finely selected amongst the most contemporary currents of electro- and (new) no-wave rock. First we had the opening concert by the Olympic Lifts (from Belfast) and then the first release by the producer ZDBmüzique of the Loosers LP. The Loosers also took part in Veneer I Folheado , in 7' vinyl , curated by John Mathews (with sleeve design by Duncan Ross, who also participated in the show in a very discreet way).

The show, too dated, worn out by the critical fashion of the '90s, and with varying levels of final quality, doesn't achieve critical mass. Kudos for the show is due to ZDB for operating as interface or platform for this kind of undertaking. Lack of resources, but a strong commitment and diplomacy get you there... Let us wait for the second part of the programme, now in Northern Ireland

Hernani Marcelino

Veneer/Folheado: Zé dos Bois, Lisbon, September/October, 2003; facilitated by Dosensos, London

Article reproduced from CIRCA 106, Winter 2003, pp. 92-93.