“Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain.” (Dave Hickey)1

CONCRETE PUMMELS GRAVITY as the main gallery of Belfast’s The MAC hangs above the ground-floor stairwell like a colossal breeze block. Closed rooms, like prison cells, deck the liminal areas, what the philistine in us refer to as ‘wasted space’. You have to scan for windows. The MAC is like Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery pumped up on steroids (a big compliment!). Amid this architectural warren Mark Garry’s commissioned artwork The Permanent Present – an installation of 400 metal lines that form a fugitive spectrum – darts forever through the foyer to find an escape from this dark side of the moon, suggesting a metaphorical prism within the prison reality. 

The three artists currently showing in all three galleries of The MAC bring their own black clouds to Belfast. Derry-based curator Gregory McCartney has managed to assemble an impressive trio of male international artists in a triple whammy of apocalyptic excess: Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, South African photographer Pieter Hugo and Polish multimedia artist Olaf Brzeski. Potential is not being proffered in McCartney’s exhibition title ‘I will go there, take me home’, outright abandonment of ideology and hope is, found in Ghenie’s paintings, Hugo’s photography and Brzeski’s puff of smoke. 

Starting in the basement Olaf Brzeski hits us with the sculptural illusion of a black plume of volcanic ash that billows out from the gallery wall. Up close the plume concretizes into a charred anthill (a disgusting thought when you think about it). The immediate wall and floor is smudged with soot. The black against white, the dirty against clean, the equivalent of charcoal on paper in relief. The plume stands still, a still life; spectacular for that split moment you enter the gallery, and then the effect recedes as you walk towards it – the smoke and mirrors lifted. 

We are told in the press release that Brzeski was inspired to make Dream – Spontaneous Combustion by a workaday moment in which the artist was unblocking the chimney and his apartment ended up covered in soot. This echoes the sentiments of other artists who imbue the banality and repetition of household chores with creative impulse: for Anselm Kiefer it’s washing the dishes; for Miroslaw Balka sweeping the floor of his family home. True stories!

That said, Brzeski’s plume in the gallery would fade into a boring spectacle if not for his placement of a sculpted pair of feet, floor- and soot-bound, with little piggies intact. Smooth on one side, strata on the other, as if a nugget of coal was wind-chiseled over an eternity by one relentless gust. This little remnant, puzzle, symbol, transforms what was shock spectacle into abject ordinariness. Everything now reads as corporeal, human, statuesque. The plume no longer bellows outward from the gallery wall on pause. I am tempted to consider an alternative: ash is being vacuumed into the wall – a charnel house being erased from memory, from history.

Upstairs the charnel house of Eastern European communism is painter Adrian Ghenie’s canvas; or, more specifically, the “dynastic socialism” of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator who brutally ruled the artist’s homeland between 1965 and 1989. It’s lazy to typecast the now middle-aged generation of artists from the isolated Eastern Bloc as damaged children of communism. Painters from the Bloc such as Ghenie and Czech Daniel Pitín borrow as much, if not more, from their exposure to American cinema and the internet as they do from their personal or country’s historical demons. Without such Westernised influences – Ghenie names Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Francis Bacon – painters who were trained in a post-social realism in conservative art academies would not be artworld palatable. Sure, such academic painters can paint a good olive trench coat and Russian MIG, but how does such skilled figuration translate in the contemporary artworld? It doesn’t! Not in isolation anyway. 

This was Ghenie’s experience, who went through long periods of artistic discontent and reevaluation in his twenties before being exposed to art on his itinerant travels through Europe after graduating from Cluj art academy. However, he returned to his hometown of Cluj in his own words “a loser”: “My generation, we were all losers historically, economically. There was no culture of winning. Winning under a dictatorship is to make a deal with the power, which is a moral dead end. A black hole.”2 The repeated use of “loser” is key here because his peer-group’s drive to ‘not be losers’ led to a series of formative events, including the formation of a gallery in 2005, Plan B, which helped propel him and his mates – known now as the Cluj School – into the sights of the global art market, which does a bit of its own colonising of art from off-the-beaten-track-territories from time-to-time. 

That said, the clichéd diagnosis that artists who were born into communism are “allergic to utopia” (Mihnea Mircan) is somehow reductive. Yes, what Ghenie describes as the “texture of history” (and a traumatised one at that) does float beneath the surface of his paintings, but it is partly revealed and obscured by his necessary distancing from it. Who would intentionally inhabit the mire of their own country’s socially and ethically bankrupt history?  No. They move on. Wipe the slate clean. Even joke about it to upend its power. Our emotional survival automatically obscures the past wherein trauma reigns. Living depends on it. Great art does too.

The selection of Ghenie’s paintings presented at The MAC prove my point. Painted between 2006 and 2010, they represent not only the artist’s coming of age in the eyes of the contemporary artworld, from his moody monochromes (Stalin’s Tomb, 2006) to the emergence of a nuanced colourist (Nougat II, 2010), but also his pie-in-the-face-of-his-past paintings. Sometimes Ghenie’s paintings look like pure dystopian cliché, like a scrunched-up 2000 AD mag. But, for me, Ghenie’s art is based on metabolising clichés and giving them right back a little battered and bruised, but beautiful. 

It’s not all nuclear mushroom clouds either. We can read Ghenie’s humour too at The MAC in the title of a painting from 2007, History is always horny II, in which a throbbing zeppelin pokes an aircraft shelter. With the suggestion of a threesome of sex and death and humour playing out on the canvas all at once we could go all Freudian here and say that Ghenie is reenacting and revisiting a traumatic memory from his past, or empathising with Europe’s traumatic history, what psychoanalysis refers to as the death instinct. And if so, then it would be fair to say also that the life instinct wins over in the way Ghenie joyfully jizzes all over the canvas in the climactic sweeping additions and painterly mutations with rags not paint brushes. 

It’s like Eros (sex) and Thantos (death) are wrestling on the canvas, hence the exquisite mess. Ghenie leaves the libidinal lying there on the canvas, exposed in thick impasto. There is a swashbuckling storm of ‘greys’ around the edges of his canvases too, in which the white primer is left to peek through. Ghenie is a pure showoff – a strip of masking tape is left to soak up a flamboyant slash of paint in one of his Pie Fight series. The thing that surprises the most is the artist’s disclaimer that no paintbrush was used in the making of these paintings. But when you think about it it makes perfect sense. If obstacles define Ghenie’s biography it’s obvious that obstacles would define how he paints. 

Ghenie’s Cluj, the unofficial capital to the historical province of Transylvania, is just the right segue to introduce Pieter Hugo, who caught a few vampires of his own on camera in a series of photographs titled ‘Nollywood’ (2008-09) – Nollywood being the Nigerian film industry. At The MAC we get a taste of Hugo’s ‘Nollywood’ in the costumed, staged and confrontational portrait of a masked man (a mask that mixes Mister Potato Head with Jason from Friday the 13th) wearing a trench coat and holding a hatchet, and standing dead still against a blur of traffic in Lagos, the home of the Nigerian film industry. 

The Nollywood flavour continues with a putrefying zombie family; then, a suited man holding aloft the viscera of a dead and bloodied cow which he claims with a bare foot. It all reads like a B-Movie, but in Hugo’s sumptuous high-def. It feels unhygienic and brute. But the glossy and clean surface of Hugo’s photographs seals it all in: waterproof, airtight, no contamination here. The terrible threesome of sex and death and humour evidenced on Ghenie’s paintings wrestle in rather than on Hugo’s sealed-in photographs of the third world. It’s like we are transported back in time, couch-potatoes, looking at the media-theatricised face of Africa through clumsy analogue technology as empathetic strangers, with our Trócaire boxes collecting dust not coin on the kitchen dresser. And that’s the thing that jolts, Hugo’s images are physically and ethically confrontational, but at a safe distance. Shock value is quickly followed by catharsis ... a ‘whoah’ followed by an ‘aaah’. 

Hugo did not attend art college; he learned his trade as a rapid-fire photojournalist. It shows (in a good way). His photographs are both no bull shit and full of shit. Instinct over intellect. He seems to gravitate towards Mad Max country where giant-mawed Hyenas have mohawks and give jockey-backs to young girls wearing braids and pretty dresses. Or this is just Hugo’s backyard – no need for theatrics. No matter, it’s wonderful on the eye and pulse. 

If Hugo’s Nollywood humours our gaze, and his posturing Hyena Men set pulses racing, his series ‘Permanent Error’, of which there are only three in the gallery, are more ethically fragile than theatrical. Photographed in Agbogbloshie, a digital waste dump found in the suburbs of Accra, Ghana, this place is Beyond Thunderdome. One young man awkwardly poses with a Tina Turner afro of electric wires above his head. His outline smolders against the smoldering wasteland as if spray painted on.

But it is the portrait of Abdulai Yahaya that, alone, changes the tone in the gallery. The teenager with black-black skin crouches amidst the soot and fire of Agbogbloshie. His eyes bloodshot, his face drenched in sweat. Abdulai Yahaya’s micro-expressions are half-way between confusion and fear. We are back in the safari. For the first time at The MAC Hugo kicks-up ethical questions in the African soil, and they hang. How do we feel about looking at these young men rummaging in this hell on earth? How do we feel about Hugo paying these vulnerable people to pose for the camera for his art? I’m not sure how I feel. What I am certain of is – I feel. Hugo’s Nollywood and Hyena Men are sealed in, safe. Abdulai Yahaya’s gaze is not.

I left The MAC, however, not ethically tormented. The combination of Ghenie’s painterly brio, Hugo’s conflicted Africa and Brzeski’s smoke and mirrors monument to something about nothing, is still hemorrhaging thoughts and feelings somewhere down around my lizard brain. [James Merrigan]


1    Interview with Dave Hickey by Sheila Heiti for Believer Mag, November 2007: Available http://www.believermag.com/issues/200711/?read=interview_hickey [accessed 26 May, 2015].

2    Interview with Adrian Ghenie by Rachel Wolff for Blouinartinfo, March, 2013. Available from: http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/874084/in-the-studio-romanian-painter-adrian-ghenies-sinister?qt-article_detail_popular=2# [accessed 22 May, 2015].

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Life’s Good on the Dark Side of the Moon.

IMAGE CREDITS: © Adrian Ghenie, Pieter Hugo, Olaf Brzeski and  The MAC, Belfast.

Thank you to Hugh Mulholland for images and additional information.




‘I will go there, take me home’

(Curated by Gregory McCartney)

The MAC, Belfast

8 May 2015 - 26 Jul 2015

Images courtesy of the artists and The MAC, Belfast

Photo credit: Simon Mills.


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