This is an interesting month for Irish art and one that has been provocative for contemplating the larger movements in our economic, geopolitical, and societal circus. I have written about the unease with which people move between cultural and as such socio-economic, circles and also about the Northern Irish artist Colin Davidson, and the influence that his work has had on my appreciation of art in general.

As chance would have it, I had the good fortune to be invited by Sotheby’s to the opening of an exhibition of his new works in Dublin, before it moved to London. His exhibition has come at the same time that the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) is preparing for its most substantial exhibition opening.

As is the role of contemporary and modern cultural institutions, IMMA has undertaken the really enormous challenge of helping us to reflect on the wildly complex changes that we, individuals, communities, economies, and nation-states have undergone in the last hundred, and even thousand years, at the planetary scale. The exhibition is called “Self-Determination”, and states:

In the aftermath of the First World War, the idea of “self-determination” came to dominate political discourse. This was a profoundly unstable moment. A devastating war had resulted in the deaths of millions, displacing populations around the world. Four Empires had expired, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Russian- and these territories had to be reconfigured.

Several power struggles were taking place simultaneously, within and between nations, empires and peoples. The old and new powers sought to carve up and control the liberated territories. New nations endeavored to defend and define themselves. Radical anti-colonial and pacifist thought collided with the forces of ethno-nationalism.

“Ahead of the Paris Peace Talks in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson brought the term “self-determination” into official political discourse. It was in this dynamic global context that new nation-states began to take shape. Each of these states produced its own new cultural complexities, new narratives, new citizenships, new imaginations, new visions of the future. This was a period of disruptive and utopian thinking, for some.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. 

But I want to start by reflecting on Davidson’s latest exhibition, which offers us a look at some of the tensions of our contemporary world. It really made me think more deeply about some of the many facets of the idea of self-determination.

One: Self-determination and being still

Davidson has to be one of the most emotive and provocative speakers I’ve ever come across. 

There is no doubt that he is one of the more important philosophers of our time, and while his painting is how he communicates this most of the time, his speaking is a good second vehicle of the machinations of his mind. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, grab it with both hands.

One of the things that he discussed at his exhibition was the way in which his art has evolved throughout his career. He started by painting landscapes of Belfast, and later his fame escalated as he became one of the most prominent portrait artists of our time. The Queen, Seamus Heaney, Brad Pitt, Ed Sheeran, and most recently Senator George Mitchell, have all sat for him. While this is impressive, his work really comes to life through his collection of portraits which depict some of the many victims of The Troubles.

When he compares painting landscapes to portraits, he says that the difficulty in portraying them is one and the same. Both are incredibly complex, always changing and a product of changing and unpredictable environments.

Belfast from Black Mountain, 2020
Bill Clinton By Colin Davidson

For both portraits and landscapes, it’s hard to pick a single moment to paint something that is so dynamic. Because that moment will inevitably paint a picture or say something specific about his own interpretation of the subject.

With his latest work, however, you can see it looks vastly different from everything that has come before it.

In this work, he is painting a photo he has taken of his own reflection in a window. Or at least that was how I saw it. But in hearing him speak, he makes a subtle but incredibly important clarification. It is not his reflection that he is painting. It is the glass itself.

Self-Portrait: Conduit Street, London

This is vastly different to his prior works. He is painting something still. A lifeless object that is neither complex nor always changing. No matter where this pane of glass may be, it is always the same in form. 

A few thoughts on this, and why it’s important. The first is that, before I gave it much thought, I had actually thought the opposite. Landscapes and people look pretty much the same, regardless of the time of day or how they’re feeling. On the other hand, the reflection of a glass is constantly changing. Because the glass reflects what is happening on a busy street, people walking past in a hurry or the contents of a shop seen through its window.

 On the other hand, people and landscapes are much slower to change. A bus may pass a window in three seconds, but in that same timeframe, a person’s emotions may not have changed at all. A cloud may not have passed over a landscape, and rain may not have stopped.

This made me really think about scales of time. As IMMA’s exhibition says, “Four Empires have expired…” Empires. Not minutes. One exhibition makes us think about the entirety of human history, the other less than ten seconds.

What is interesting about Davidson’s exhibition is that you can nearly feel the fluidity of what is happening in the paintings, a busyness and a sense that a painting, if depicting something even one minute later, may look drastically different. But maybe the chaos of what is happening in a busy street is irrelevant, because he is painting glass. And a single pane of glass is a product of raw materials that have existed in some shape or form for hundreds of thousands of years, materials that have been dug from the ground which is millennia old.

Thinking about the timescale that IMMA proposes, “Four Empires had come and gone”, and a new look at these paintings of glass, I suddenly feel the irrelevance of our own day-to-day lives, including my own. Buses come and go, people are constantly in a hurry. The contents of a shop window won’t be remembered two months from today, never mind in a thousand years.

Then I think about Senator George Mitchell, the most recent painting that Colin unveiled in New York. And suddenly I feel a human attachment to the slow, long and complex journey of a single human being, amidst all of the noise of our daily lives. Did George ever miss a bus before he was a Senator? What about today? Who cares? Nobody, really.

But, most importantly, the very idea and sheer volume of the “noise” that consumes our lives and our minds is at direct odds with the idea that we can possess self-determination in the first place. Are we self-determinant human beings if we live and die by a bus schedule that is out of our control? Is self-determination derived by the invisible forces that compel us to move quickly and distractedly through the reflections of shop windows?

These paintings feel like a warning. Slow down. There will be time for noise later. You must go out of your way to create headspace before you can create “self”. Don’t worry if you miss that bus. Two Empires from now, nobody will have cared that you were late for that meeting.

Two: Self-determination and capitalism

It’s really, really hard to look at this exhibition without contemplating the role of shrewd capitalism in our daily lives.

Self-Portrait (Regent Street, London) 

It’s not necessary to write a long essay on this, because you’ll already know the talking points by now. However, one of the things I feel when looking at a couple of these paintings is how easily “brands” or specific shop items catch my eye. It’s nearly like I’ve been trained for many years by billion-dollar media and marketing campaigns to instinctively move my eyes and my brain to bright products in store windows items from well-branded corporations.

While considering the haste at which we move through life and the invisible forces that compel us to do so, perhaps we should give those forces a name. Capitalism.

Do we really have any determination over our “self” when our thoughts have been trained, and our brains have been molded by capitalism to respond in a specific way that is subconscious and seems to be out of our control? I want to indulge in this idea in much more detail later this series. But for now, no.

Three: Self-determination and Norn Irishness

When walking through the Davidson exhibition, I realized that I recognized all of the places in the glass reflections: London, New York, Chicago and my second favorite Colin Davidson piece, Seamus Heaney, aside was the incredibly poignant painting of Washington DC.

These are all places that have featured prominently in my own life and my own sense of “self”. I’ve lived in London, New York and Chicago. And I’ve spent a lot of time in DC because of work. And what a coincidence, I thought, that the artist seems to have been impacted similarly by these places. So much so that he has painted them.

Self-Portrait (The Capitol, Washington DC)

And then I realised why his journey and my own, as reflections in various buildings that I’ve also walked past, are so similar. We’re both Northern Irish.

In fact, to be Northern Irish is a very real reflection of the comings and goings of these locations. Northern Ireland itself as an identity was shaped into its contemporary existence by Westminster in London, the White House in Washington DC and philanthropists in New York and Chicago.

During the Q&A, somebody asked Colin about which windows and which conditions he preferred to shoot his photos from which he painted. He mentioned something about the lighting, the reflection, the time of day, the colors in the sky. He also mentioned that he took hundreds of photos in places like Barcelona, but they never made the cut.

Aesthetically, there may be a very good reason for this. But where does Barcelona fit into a larger consideration of a Northern Irish artist? The landscapes of Belfast. The portraits of victims of The Troubles. A reflection of a man, shaped by these things, in the cities where those politicians who shaped Northern Ireland reside. Maybe the lighting was indeed not ideal in Barcelona. But maybe that’s because Colin’s work, in its entirety, is an aggregate of “self-determination”.

As a person from Northern Ireland, I am also a product of the rest of Colin’s work; the rolling hills of Belfast, the Troubles, and the Bills that pass in the U.S. Senate. The glass reflects not only Colin’s self-determination, but questions to a much larger degree the self-determination of Northern Irishness itself.

This is something that is at the heart of IMMA’s exhibition, too. “New narratives, new citizenships.” At this very moment, we are considering in very political and economic terms the determination of the North and, importantly, whose “self” gets to be determined: “my self” or “their self”; Nationalists or Unionists? Are they one and the same? A reflection of each other, perhaps?

Four: Self-Determination and making time

Over lunch with Colin and his partner, we broached the topic of being constantly busy. How should we prioritise who we meet? What work should we pursue? Whether we phone our parents when we say we will, while we still can.

So I’ll leave you with one final point on Colin’s exhibition and self-determination: “Self-determination” is similar to Professor Porter’s concept of strategy. It is, most of the time, about deciding what we don’t do. What we say “no” to is what reinforces the values that we hold. As in; “I will not do this project, because I want to spend more time with my children and my family”.

Because isn’t the crux of “self-determination”, at the level of a single human being, our ability to live up to the values that we decide for ourselves?