With all due respect to the people of counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, Derry-Londonderry must be the most westerly point on any art map of Britain.
In spaces such as Void, CCA and Gordon Gallery, the 110,000 local residents have more viewing opportunities than in many a comparable city on the UK mainland.
© Courtesy of CCA Derry-Londonderry
And yet, that’s not quite right; in terms of history, the mainland has nowhere to compare with Derry. Little more than 40 short years ago, the city was torn apart by conflict. Battles raged in the Catholic Bogside area, and a stalemate ensued between armed Republicans and the British army.
It is now less than a decade since the IRA brought an end to their armed campaign, and six years since British troops were pulled out. But peacetime Derry has hit the ground running with extensive regeneration, rebuilding and a successful bid to become UK City of Culture 2013.
Parts of the city which were once behind barricades are now opened up for tourism, though chances are that your guide will have lost a relative in the conflict.
And those famous - perhaps infamous - murals which adorn council houses in the most militant parts of the town can now be celebrated as vital pieces of folk art, rather than sectarian propaganda. But their urgency is not diminished; Derry is full of people who want to tell you stories from their recent history.
Meanwhile, on the east coast of the River Foyle, a disused army barracks is gearing up to host this year’s Turner Prize. Recruitment is already underway for the space in Ebrington Square.
With currency in all walks of life, this art event should find a warm welcome in a city where open minds have triumphed. This is the first time the Tate’s annual contest has been held outside of England; so it is a vote of confidence in the peace process and the art infrastructure, both conditions happily running in parallel.
But only one gallery in town predates the Troubles, and that is Gordon Gallery, where the emphasis is on fine art, albeit of a contemporary stripe. Most of the artists who show in this 2000 sq ft space are also Irish.
At the time of writing the walls are given over to octogenarian painter Basil Blackshaw. Horses, still lives and portraits abound including one beguiling likeness of local playwright Brian Friel. This is a reminder that, with additional links to Seamus Heaney, Derry’s cultural offering was once chiefly literary.
Not so far away is CCA, a Centre for Contemporary Art to do any town proud. The current show deals with the drudgery of everyday life, with pieces ranging from an empowering video by Dutch artist Matthijs de Bruijne to a playful sculptural drying rack by Korean Heague Yang. The space may be flush with the city’s four century-old city walls, but as you can tell it is anything but insular.
© Paola Bernardelli
I spoke to CCA Directors Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh about the opportunity presented by Derry’s newfound status as City of Culture. “It’s an opportunity to have higher visibility in the world, to make connections that institutions are building already between Derry and other places,” says Burns.
“We just opened our new facilities on the first of December 2012, and I think even just the title of City of Culture helped people to create space for themselves and to use the name as a catalyst for making steps the organisations wanted to make anyway,” she continues.
Lundh is a bit more circumspect. “I think it’s a big opportunity," he reflects.
"But I think the challenge is not to say this year it’s the City of Culture, so that next year people will go, 'oh, culture - that was last year, let’s move on and talk about something else’ - sport, for example.”
But the Scandinavian curator has clear views on the vitality of his adopted city: “There’s no denying that we’re in a very complex situation, which northern Ireland always has been in the recent past, but also especially Derry as a small place with a lot of tension.”
“That can sometimes be very interesting environment for art and artists. I don’t think art necessarily prospers in very good stable conditions where everything’s good and everyone’s happy.
"When there’s something at stake in a place, I think art can capture that and talk about that in a way.”
The directors also credit the once-famous Orchard Gallery with laying the groundwork for visual arts in this part of the world. Orchard closed in 2003, a victim of its own success which had outgrown its original remit in the region’s cultural strategy.
The gap it left has been filled by new space, Void. This ambitious eight-year old gallery fills another gap too, having moved into a deserted shirt factory.
© Courtesy http://www.derryvoid.com
Void is an artist-led gallery housing an art school, studio space and between five and seven shows a year. Within a year of opening, in 2005, the space had already exhibited solo shows by Gerard Byrne and Simon Starling. Starling won the Turner Prize that year, which must have augured well.
“I think that Void, through its last eight years, has got a name for itself in terms of taking on really big, challenging exhibitions," says Artist-Manager Maoliosa Boyle.
"We kind of pride ourselves on that - whatever idea an artist comes up with, we try to deliver on it."
This attitude has attracted the likes of Jeremy Deller, George Shaw and Phil Collins, although Boyle confirms the city’s other attractions.
© Courtesy http://www.derryvoid.com
"Derry’s a really unusual place because of its recent political history, and I think the people are quite unique as well.
"So the arts organisations here are grassroots organisations, started by people who are passionate about what they believe in and what they do.”
Art seems to be a huge part of the 2012 City of Culture Programme. “It’s massive,” says Boyle.
“It’s great for us in that we are taking things outside of the gallery space we have three Void Off-Site Projects which are happening in different parts of the city.”
These include a major show for local son and twice Turner nominee Willie Doherty, together with three artists’ gardens which should prove difficult to ignore.
Boyle promises these projects will have “huge accessibility”. “People are coming across these things in the street and you’re also challenging people’s views of what contemporary art can be," she adds.
Derry is set to also challenge a few perceptions in Venice this year. The city’s visual arts programme for 2013 is set for a glittering launch at the art Biennale.
This will give journalists a chance to sample the offerings of Void, CCA, Doherty, plus two other projects: the BT-sponsored Portrait of a City intends to compile one of the largest community archives ever; and Lumiere, a festival of light art, will this year take place in Derry, as well as its native Durham.
The launch of a new show at Void has drawn in some 30 or 40 people on a bitterly cold March evening. Emerging artists Laura Morrison and Maite Zabala star in a double header.
One of the most striking works is Zabala’s extravagant, architectural sculpture. With three tiers, seven sides and velvet cushions it looks workable but there is no way in or out, not to mention a lack of legroom.
Whether it was once hoped to be a pulpit or a debating chamber, the structure is now obsolete. And after visits to the Free Derry Museum and the Tower Museum during the course of my weekend here, Zabala’s piece now looks like a comment on a certain redundancy in religion and political dogma.
That could be Derry's message for the world.
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