Attending the annual Royal Ulster Academy exhibition can be a very overwhelming experience. There is just so much art. Everywhere. Mixed media, sculpture, photography, painting, video installation. It takes over a pretty decent chunk of the fifth floor in the Ulster Museum and if, like me, you visit at the weekend, it is busy.
That is not necessarily a problem as such. Can it ever be a bad thing that so many people want to come and look at and experience art? Especially those with their families in tow. The hum and babble of noise in a way reflects and even adds to the experience of this snapshot into modern northern art, which in itself, is, to a degree, a snapshot into modern northern life.
Everything you would expect to be there, is there. Earnest yet beautiful paintings of tranquil nature and seascapes. A bemusing portrait of well known poet Paul Muldoon holding a cauliflower, which, I guess, is reference to his poem of the same name. So far, so RUA.
There is the fourth wall breaking meta-entries, such as ‘Laura’ from the series Portrait of an Atheist by Linda Conroy, in which a striking young woman with long ash blonde hair has been asked to consider her mortality and transience in comparison to the great works of art housed in the Ulster Museum, most notably Sir John Lavery’s Under the Cherry Tree. Yes, and then you can pop across the hall into the John Lavery exhibition and sit on the same bench and grab a quick – and probably not permitted – selfie. Truly meta indeed.
There are the, to my mind, 1970s-flavoured pieces by Brian Ferran, of which Inishtrahull, with its eye catching gold accents is probably the finest example, and has been awarded this year’s RUA Perpetual Gold Medal Prize for a work by a member of the Academy.
A favourite of mine is the ephemeral, surrealist yet politically direct map-based work of Cathy Prendergast, whose piece Cotopaxi is on display in a kind of blink and you miss it sort of way.
RUA is an association in which it is hard to see anything but a socially ambitious trajectory. It started out as The Belfast Rambler’s Sketching Club in 1879, became the Ulster Academy of Arts in 1930, and finally the Royal Ulster Academy in 1956. Its patron is the Duke of Abercorn. Its president, Colin Davidson, is perhaps best known for his 2013 portrait series ‘Between the Words’, which features portraits of most of the contemporary NI’s arts scene’s public figures, everyone from Seamus Heaney to Gary Lightbody is in there. This year’s 133rd annual exhibition is sponsored by KPMG.
A radical movement of art by the people for the people I think it’s probably fair to say it’s not.
Yet, even in its lofty, patrician ideals, there are plenty of visual depictions of the increasing diversity and multiculturalism, which is becoming so much more the norm across the north. This is significant as you probably won’t see it reflected in our political representation, nor in much of our local media, yet is increasingly an integral part and parcel of day to day existence here, forcing us to confront our insularism and it is fascinating to see it becoming not just visually represented and explored through the arts but done so in a way that just accepts and integrates this as the new status quo. Eddie Rafferty’s The Wedding Party is perhaps a stand out example.
I exited the exhibition not through the gift shop but following signs for the accessible route to the Nature Zone on the third floor, stopping off with my sons at the evolution exhibit. While they looked at hedgehog skeletons and bits of dinosaurs, I considered the kinds of cultural and creative and social revolutions we have undergone and are continually undergoing in the shifting sands of our sometimes post conflict and sometimes very much intra conflict society. We walked round the corner and found the accessible route was no longer accessible due to both a lack of ramps and malfunctioning wheelchair lift. It seems the evolution might be in progress but it is not yet complete.
The 133rd RUA annual exhibition is on display at the Ulster Museum from now until 4th Janaury 2015. Entrance is free, opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm (last admission 4.30pm)