“You have been sentenced to the Curfew Tower Dungeon. For being an un-baptised heathen!”
This latest exhibition by Manchester-based un-baptised heathen Richard Shields is the result of his recent IMPOSE|LIFT residency at the Curfew Tower in the town of Cushendall, Northern Ireland, curated by The Penthouse and hosted by Bill Drummond. Drawing inspiration from the socio-political situation in the surrounding area, the work is based on a re-imagining of Irish history, an ‘Alternative Ulster’ where art movements rather than religious factions are at the centre of the troubles.
Essential to this exhibition is the narrative of Shields’ feature length film ‘The Birth Of The EVF And The Initiation’ (2018) which documents the story of Shield’s semi-autobiographical character ‘The Founder’ who was sentenced to the Curfew Tower Dungeon for being neither catholic nor protestant – ‘an un-baptised heathen’. Whilst Shields does explore issues surrounding the fractious history of his country, he doesn’t do this in aid of any political message but rather uses references to history to convey a broader message about the value of art and the importance of resolution. Or in other words a progressive outlook through which regrets may be resolved.
One of the key objections to Catholicism during the reformation was the perceived opulence and excess of the renaissance art in which the Church was investing. The Protestants seeing themselves as progressive modernists were uninterested in such luxuries. The ‘Esoteric Volunteer Force’ was set up in order to reconcile these two conflicting points of view. A play on Irish paramilitary and masonic-style fraternities (perhaps taking its name from the Ulster Volunteer Force or U.V.F) the E.V.F is described by its founder as “A non-religious art organisation offering a progressive outlook with renaissance sympathies.” *
Initiation into the E.V.F involves writing a regret on a piece of slate which is then wiped clean. This clean slate emerges as the dominant metaphor of the exhibition, and the key element around which the work operates. In the film we see The Founder attempting to ceremonially resolve the regrets of those being initiated. His role becomes much like that of a priest, offering the clean slate as a kind of secular absolution.
The exhibition itself is a kind of museum of objects connected to the performance. There is a peat briquette ‘Imposto’ (2017) (used like coal on home fires in the local area) which is in fact sculpted out of clay and painted in acrylic, mirroring the false beach stone in ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Face’ (2017) which, on close inspection, is in fact a distorted portrait of The Founder mixed in with actual beach stones and driftwood. Elsewhere, an image of the mask worn by The Founder is painted onto a tiny piece of slate entitled ‘Face Yer Slate’ (2017). All of these objects were used as prompts in the making of the film to influence the audience’s thought process prior to initiation.
The resultant film works in a very similar way to induce reflective thinking on the part of the viewer. The several initiations shown allow ample time and stimulus for contemplation. On leaving the screening room the slate painted into the mural ‘Shrine On The Esoteric Volunteer Force’ (2018) (along with accompanying instructions) then invites the viewer to initiate themselves into the E.V.F. To join a (semi) fictional movement using art as a tool for the resolution of personal regrets.
In light of this, the outstanding feature of The Future Is Bright The Past Is Colourful is without a doubt the potential for imaginative engagement. It is of course debateable whether the definitive experience of this work would be the live performance in Cushendall (i.e. the making of the film) or its subsequent incarnation and film screening at Paradise Works. But in any case the concept of the clean slate, and a paramilitary arts organisation with a progressive outlook remain not only witty interpretations of Irish history but enduring ideas in their own right.
*quote taken from ‘Alternative Ulster’ (2018).
The Future Is Bright, The Past Is Colourful, Paradise Works, Salford.
12 July – 8 August 2018.
Robbie di Vito is an artist, writer and fully-fledged member of the E.V.F based in Lancashire.