Hi folks, welcome to my art and a preview of some of the works to be exhibited at this year’s Stendhal Festival 2017. My name is Joe Campbell. This is just a little insight into the artworks, the thinking behind them and an invite to open up to the surreal and to pose the question: “What is reality?”
For some, that’s a silly question. “Reality? Reality is what I see in front of me. It’s the everyday experience of the world, what I can feel, touch, sense and most of all see”
So, fair enough, but what about, memory? What about imagination, thought, dreams, intuition, nurture, upbringing? All those other “dialogues” that continue even when you talk to someone, some internally spoken, some silent and sensed. For me – it’s much more complicated and my art reflects that.
Dream at Bishop’s Gate, 2017, Digital Print on Foam Board, 8 ft x 4 ft.
This image, for me, represents all of the notions above. It can be seen as painted experience, or as visual poetry. It’s memory fused with a sense of place. It takes the everyday and represents it as somewhere else, in a landscape of the imagination. It re- imagines the past and the present and brings them together in a crafted design that reflects my background as an artist. It’s detailed and realistic in style so as to give as much visual clarity to a dream as to reality.
Let’s start from the background out. The scene is set at Bishop Gate, in Derry, my home town where I have lived and worked my whole life. In the real world the gate is adorned with symbols and decorations from the time when it was erected. This is what Discover Ireland has to say about the gate.
“This original gate was replaced in 1789 by the present structure – a triumphal arch. This was to mark the first centenary of the closing of the gates by The Apprentice Boys of Derry. The architect was H.A. Baker, with the sculpted heads representing the River Foyle (external) and the River Boyne (internal) designed by Edward Smyth, who had sculptured the thirteen riverine heads on the Dublin Custom House in c.1784. On either side of the gate are steps giving access to the City Walls.”
And there was me thinking, “This is a typical Enlightenment, neoclassical piece of architecture, of its time and of the past” (as you do!) But yet, it carries another past forward, namely, events from the Siege of Derry in 1689. The closing of the gates against King James II by thirteen apprentice boys. It marks an event that is still held in reverence by contemporary Protestants. It has representations of two rivers, The Foyle and The Boyne. Two sites of significance to the Jacobite wars in Ireland. And you thought it was just a gate. It has carried those events to our own time, our “now” and will continue to carry them to other “nows” when we are all gone.
If you look carefully at the painting I have superimposed some symbols of my own on the gate, not to denigrate or belittle those already there but to demonstrate the power of symbols. I have placed Lammasu at the gates. They are Sumerian. These were sculpted female guardians who protected the entrance to sacred spaces. Other ancient symbols are of Egyptian gods, again, symbols of power and protection. Bishop gate is an entrance to a sacred spot.
In the Mid ground are figures from popular culture, movie stars, musicians, politicians and lurking behind are “river-dancing soldiers” who (as a result of my experience of the Northern Irish Troubles) are always there in the back of my mind, dancing away. They represent lingering trauma from that experience.
These are memories mixed with things I like, actors, like John Wayne and The Beatles, whose music went deep with me when I first discovered it in my teens, Ali, a giant hero who bestrode the landscape of my boyhood and last but not least, Donald Trump, the all pervading figure of our time. To me he is something to be feared. By representing him so I may find a way to laugh at him, to give that fear a release and to provide the same for any similarly-minded viewer. These images represent the “outside” world”, fun, enjoyment, and other experiences of which there were precious little during the Troubles.
Lastly, in the far distance, a starry sky. This takes the scene out of perceived reality and places it “out of time”, or somewhere else. That’s within the nature of dreams. They are somewhere else, generated by the same brain that tells you you are in a definite “here and now” so which is real? Which do you believe?
The Seventh Imperial Legion With the God of Thunder Quelling Barbarians, 2017, Digital print on Foam Board, 8 ft x 4 ft.
Is the title of that one long enough for you? My art is never meant to be controversial but it does attempt to be truthful, or at least represent my experience of the truth. The Northern Irish Troubles happened. They happened during my life time. They were at their worst during my teens and twenties and they lasted a long, long time. I didn’t ask for them. I wasn’t involved directly as a combatant and hold no deep allegiances to any of the flags, cultures or reasoning behind them. Yet, as a Derry Catholic, one could not escape them.
I was raised in a mixed area, working class Catholics lived side by side with working class Protestants. We shared the same space. I therefore, have no irrational fear of the “other”. Yet, as the Troubles developed, I witnessed a re-branding. “You are Irish. You are not British and therefore your sympathies must lie with Irish Republicans” Oh really! Right, so I’m not a musician? I’m not an artist? I’m not a Monty Python Fan? A Rory Gallagher fan? A science fiction dweeb or a big fan of Tolkien? No! I’m Catholic and an Irish Republican sympathiser and not British (even though I lived in Britain) And because I am “not British” We can do as we like with you. You are other. You are not us.
I often draw a comparison with current events. Imagine, a Muslim man blows himself up in London in the name of Isis. This is not the first such incident. But, in response, the British army is deployed into Leeds, Bradford and parts of Manchester in the belief that large Muslim communities who share the religion of the bombers must, therefore, be sympathetic to the bomber and Isis and are therefore – a threat.
Then you decide that Sunni Muslims alone are to blame and impose marshal law in those areas. You restrict movement, you identify people. You make lists of “suspects”. You arrest Sunni men of a certain age and imprison them without trial. You torture them in gaols, you carry out mass raids of homes seeking arms and bomb making equipment and you give a green light to “special forces” to carry out divisive mayhem, then you get Shi’ite Muslims to police the whole thing. Unlikely in Britain…?
And finally, to be sure to be sure, you show who is really in charge and superior you deploy the 1st Para and allow them to kill as many of these “terrorists” as they please. And all because these people shared the same religion as the bomber.
The following is an excerpt from the writings of the ancient imperial Roman military strategist, Vegetius.
“On a wider front, the Romans used tactics of denying their opponents the means of sustained warfare. For this they employed the tactic of Vastatio. It was in effect the systematic ravaging of an enemy’s territory. Crops were destroyed or carried off for Roman use, animals were taken away or simply slaughtered, people were massacred or enslaved.
The enemy’s lands were decimated, denying his army any form of support. Sometimes these tactics were also used to conduct punitive raids on barbarian tribes which had performed raids across the border.
The reasons for these tactics were simple. In the case of punitive raids they spread terror among the neighbouring tribes and acted as a deterrent to them. In the case of all-out war or the quashing rebels in occupied territories these harsh tactics denied any enemy force the support they needed to sustain a lengthy struggle.”
I wonder, after Bloody Sunday will the British government ever deploy the British Army in a part of the UK ever again?
So, the painting above alludes to Bloody Sunday. It alludes to fading empires and new emerging ones and to imperialism and its brutal methods of conquer and quell. It also alludes to the pervading trends in cinema and television for gods. Thor, the Norse god of War, Odin, Loki and the like. American Gods is a Television series that has every god under the sun. Gods that will kill bad guys, save the world, avenge the enemies of liberal democracies and uphold the American way. Send in Captain America! And if that doesn’t work – send in the Marines!
Marilyn at Free Derry Corner., 2015, Digital print on Foam Board, 3 ft x 4 ft.
This image was inspired by a poem. I place figures against symbolic structures like Free Derry Corner to create a “double-take” in the mind of the viewer. To provoke questions and encourage looking and a re-thinking of real places and spaces. Marilyn is an icon of popular culture, a high-priestess of glamour and fame, still worshipped. I’ve included the poem below.
I Dreamt I Danced With Marilyn
I dreamt I danced with Marilyn.
We skimmed across the stars
spinning, we tumbled,
eyes locked, like Ginger and Fred,
I, alive like never before,
she no longer dead.
We sailed across a chequered floor
and there, before an open door,
that led to somewhere else
we stopped and caught our breath.
And then again we found ourselves
by the shore of an emerald sea
she and I beside its nearness
And she offered me her gratitude
for granting her those moments.
And there, I bowed to her
And she took her leave
to continue with her death.
Whilst I rejoined the living
my head no longer full
of darkness and of dying.
And as we parted
I ripped a dark divide
to return to where I’d started
back to breath and light
and the miracle of existence.
Buzz Aldrin at Free Derry Corner, 2015, Digital Print on Foam Board, 3ft x 5ft.
Buzz Aldrin at Free Derry Corner
As Armstrong and Aldrin bounced on the moon
we battled in the Bogside, a giant leap backwards
as the gravitational pull of reality
barren as the moon above,
dragged us back to Earth
I sat, a boy, agog at the
black and white flickering miracle on TV
sat open-mouthed, clutching my model of Apollo
watching grown men cry
I bounced round the room with Neil and Buzz
witness to history in the heavens
while all around me, down on the ground
deployments, walls and peace lines rose
And now they come like Aldrin and Armstrong
the ultimate tourists drawn to those walls
posing for photos, smiling at the moon.
The Justice League of North Korea, 2016, Digital Print on Foam Board, 5ft x 3ft
Something really scary about North Korea. How it so wants to be counted among the great nations of the world but not in any cultural or creative way but as a feared nuclear power. The lack of North Korea’s self awareness, the seemingly total indoctrination of its citizens and a megalomaniac leader in Kim Jong-un, who has been raised in an unreal bubble of unreality, adoration and total privilege all contributes to a potential world war waiting to happen. Hence the humour, got to deal with it in some way!
Ironically, the sworn enemy of North Korea, the US is an imperial warmonger par excellence. I always translate “supermen” as “super power” namely America. The proliferation of Superhero movies and TV is unprecedented. They are everywhere. I think American Gods just really says it all. They are after all. Aren’t they?
Just to put this in perspective if Italy or Portugal produced 60 superhero movies each year and every character in them was Italian or Portuguese wouldn’t that seem odd?
And Finally…Pretty self explanatory, a tribute to the best electric guitarist ever, Rory Gallagher (in my humble opinion) or rather to his instantly recognisable beat-up guitar, a Fender Stratocaster that died with him…