Exploring what’s really in the national interest

Works on the Cork Art Trail don’t only deal with Irish issues. There’s also an exhibition on the Bosnian war, says Carl Dixon

THE title of Art Trail 2011, Cork’s festival of contemporary art, is National Interest. It seeks to explore the notion of national identity. What elements define modern Ireland: its ferocious cycle of boom and bust, its acceptance of bland consumerism and rejection of church and politics, its fascination with celebrity, its multi-ethnicity, its amazing literary, musical and sporting traditions, its people, its corporate tax rate, its aspiration to be a tourist playground, or the long shadow of its history?

Is Ireland defined by our view of ourselves or by the way other countries view us? Perhaps this is a question that is particularly relevant at this present moment, as the financial crisis and actions of certain leaders threaten to sever the slender bonds which hold the EU together.

While the question of national identity may now be a subject for debate on late night television, not too long ago nationhood was the burning ambition of the Irish people, and the war in Bosnia is a reminder that, within living memory, that questions of national identity can lead to awful conflict.

Goran Galic and Gian-Reto Gredig are two Swiss artists whose work explores the residual impact of the Bosnian conflict on the land and its people. Their exhibition, entitled Ma Bice Bolje (It’ll Get Better), at the former P&D Furnishings Store on Perry Street, uses photography, video and text to explore not only the current relationship between the communities, but also how images can be used and manipulated to create a particular perception.

One of the curators of the exhibition is Pamela Condell, a professional photographer and one of the founding members of Stag & Deer. This group has established a formidable reputation for itself by staging a number of exhibitions with a specific emphasis on guerrilla galleries within slack spaces or site-specific locations.

“What attracted me to Goran Galic and Gian-Reto Gredig’s work initially was the lovely quality within their images,” says Condell.

“Aesthetically they are just gorgeous. But I was also very interested in the idea that the images on their own are not enough. For something this sensitive, video and text were also required.

“There is an ongoing debate about digital manipulation of images, even though it could be argued that photographs have always been modified in the dark room,” she says. “This show looks not so much at the manipulation of the information within an image, but rather how images themselves can be used to create a certain perception or narrative.”

One of the aims of the artists was to look at whether or not it was the Serbs who were solely responsible for the war, as is often portrayed, while remaining as objective as possible.

What is certain is that even today the echoes of the conflict are evident in all aspects of Bosnian society, and Galic believes that the gap between the perceptions of the different communities is as wide as ever.

“One of the photographs in the exhibition shows blue ribbons hanging from the branches of a tree in the distance,” Condell says.

“It is a very beautiful image, until you realise that it is actually denotes a mine field. In one of the videos, a tour guide points out a mass grave and then points out the location of the local supermarket with equal nonchalance. There is a dark undertone and it can be quite chilling.”

War photography has a long tradition of iconic images, from American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima, through the picture of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc running naked from a napalm attack in Vietnam, to more recent photos of a dead Muammar Gadaffi surrounded by his triumphant captors.

“This exhibition is not about the pornography of war,” says Condell. “It is all about the aftermath, about how the echoes of the conflict remain within the society and affect everyone who still lives there.

“One of the specific requirements of the photographers is that the exhibition be hung in the St Petersburg style, which is slightly disjointed. As curators we have the freedom to present the exhibits as we wish so that the work is not edited to present a particular point of view.

“It is very ambiguous and open to different interpretation, but it isn’t aloof or highbrow.”

History, it is said, is written by the victors, and this may be as true here as anywhere else. For those delighting in the possible failure of the great European integration project, the exhibition may also be a salutary reminder that the history of Europe is one of conflict and pain.

* Ma Bice Bolje / It’ll Get Better by Goran Galic & Gian-Reto Gredig runs at the former P&D Furnishings Store, Perry Street, Cork until December 4

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