On May 31st “The Past is Unpredictable”exhibition opened in F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, with one noted exception. The work After Frans Van Bloeman – Arcadian Landscape by Ursula Burke was removed from the three-person show the previous week, at the decision of the Borough Council who deemed the work inappropriate for a “family-friendly” venue.
Burke’s work is often rooted in the re-presentation of materials and images with a rich artistic history and cross-referencing them with a Northern Irish context. For example, her work currently on display at the Ulster Museum’s landmark “Art of The Troubles” exhibition is a porcelain representation of the wooden pallets stacked high for 12th July celebrations; limbs and leafy adornment make the work disturbing and decorative, playing with a contrast between local and worldly tradition.
The work removed from the F. E. McWilliam gallery is one image in a nine-part series, each placing contemporary figures and references within the classical Arcadian landscapes that were popular in 18th and 19th Century art. This particular image showed two men in a sexual embrace, watched by a female voyeur.
With the successful completion of Kara Walker’s solo exhibition at Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre earlier this year, the sexual nature of artwork has recently been proved as an untenable reason for censorship. With family rooms and frequent workshops for children, it is a venue that attracts many people with young children, and the lack of public complaint about Walker’s sexually explicit paper cutouts proved that all that is needed is an appropriate warning for parents when it comes to explicit work.
What we are instead experiencing with this action is the policing of what the wider public sees; a wish to avoid the controversy of such work placed in a Northern Irish town, and by that token, a place with the residual values of traditional religious society. The cause was adopted by Visual Artist’s Ireland, whose online petition to reinstate the work gained 520 signatures but to no practical outcome.
This is not simply a case of the attitudes toward art in a capital city contrasts to those within smaller towns. The implications are much wider. Instead of pushing the boundaries of what people will observe and think about, as an art gallery should, the space has found a diluting force in one of its funders. When governing bodies dictate whether we have a choice to see an artwork, it is harmful to not only the artist, but also the artistic community as a whole. The F. E. McWilliam gallery, a well-known and respected gallery within Northern Ireland, has found itself making a sacrifice. In doing so, it aids the setting a precedent in publicly funded exhibitions and permits a negative knock-on effect in visual arts culture in the region. When funding councils override curatorial decisions, the collective worth of visual art is diminished in Northern Ireland’s already widely undervalued arts scene.
F. E. McWilliam’s own work in “Art of the Troubles”, Woman in Bomb Blast from the ‘Women in Belfast’ series, presents the erotic aesthetic typically seem in female form sculpture within the context of a terrorist attack. How ironic that Burke’s work playing with inverted ideas of the gaze and viewer came to be censored under those that are so parochial.