August 23, 2017

Contemporary Art: Jonathan Cummins at Patrick Street, Derry-Londonderry

The Turner Prize is not the only contemporary art exhibition on in Derry-Londonderry at the moment. Void is an artist-led contemporary art space housing two gallery spaces and six studios. It shows established international and Irish artists. It is also cooperating with other spaces around the city to facilitate exhibitions for the Year of Culture.

When I visited the city Void was collaborating to show When I leave these landings, by Jonathan Cummins on Patrick Street. This project has evolved from the artist’s participation in the National College of Art and Design prison art programme and is a presentation in one room of long-form video monologues by political prisoners and their families.

These interviews are shown on large screens placed on the floor at different angles. Viewers wander between the screens, picking up headphones to watch each film. Only a few people can listen at any time. The camera in all the films focuses on one person, who speaks of their experiences and thoughts. The content could have been part of a TV documentary on The Troubles, but then they would have been cut down and edited, seen through the eyes of the production company. Cummins allows each prisoner to speak at length, the nuance and repetition remaining as they talk and we listen.

The first video interviews prisoners whilst they were still in Portlaoise prison. These were people who were against the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which aimed to bring peace to Northern Ireland. A later video interviews them when they have been released from jail, whilst a third speaks to their relatives who had to endure years without them.

To sit and watch all of the videos would take over five hours. Presumably Cummins does not envisage that many people will make that commitment. But the way that the works are laid out allows you to glance at the other screens, experiencing something of the I wonder what they’re talking about now that the families and prisoners must have felt during the incarcerations. Visitors might only dip in and out of the long monologues, but even snippets of the piece shows the lives of people who were committed to something they believed in and for which they were willing to sacrifice large parts of their lives. The viewer is forced to consider the cost to other people of ideological positions, whilst the artist’s return to the same people over a period of years gives a strong sense of the long-term price they have paid for their beliefs.

Previously shown in Paris, Marseille and Dublin it is a piece that has extra resonance when viewed in Derry/Londonderry, having a strong relevance to the city’s violent past. Cummins has produced something for Derry’s Year of Culture that is worth visiting.

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