In a new photography exhibition, the remnants of the Troubles remain stuck between past and present.
Northern Ireland’s only photography gallery, Belfast Exposed, turns the camera on a city living through a period of political transition and uncertainty. It is currently showing Archive_Belfast, a thought-provoking new exhibition by the German photographer Claudio Hils that explores the afterlife of the Troubles. The fact that the conflict in Northern Ireland has petered out, but remains unresolved, effectively means that the remnants of the conflict remain stuck between past and present.
Hils went around the city’s archives, photographing drums, pictures and x-rays, in police departments, basements and hospitals. On one hand, these objects look redundant and abandoned. An Irish Republican Socialist Party storeroom contains a mess of t-shirts and leaflets spread out across the floor. Unionist banners are crushed behind a rusty bicycle at the People’s Museum. Nobody is beating these drums or wearing these t-shirts, so they have been consigned in cluttered heaps to backrooms and basements. Hils often catches sections of fluorescent lighting or white radiators in his photographs, the effect of which creates a lifeless and sterilised atmosphere around the artefacts.
Yet these objects haven’t been put away, either. They haven’t been incorporated into a distant ‘history’, laid out in a museum collection, for example, with a label saying ‘Banner, civil rights march, 1971’. Nor have they been chucked out, seen as rubbish that no longer has any significance. They retain some of their resonance and continue to demand our attention. A shot of the Irish Republican Socialist Party’s kitchen features a small drawing of a balaclava-clad gunman, which jumps out from its surroundings. It is because of their past political meaning that these objects still grab us, the fact that leaflets were handed out and banners were marched behind.
In this respect, there is an obvious difference between Hils’ photos of archives that belong to the state, and those that belong to the people. While banners are marked by political passion, the files of the police service appear abstract and elusive, recording patterns of surveillance rather than action. A police video archive contains rows of tapes, all marked with ‘job no., tape no., date, item no.’. Another police store cupboard is shown with its doors locked and blocked up with chairs.
But although the political artefacts retain a charge, it is difficult to say what any of them mean. They cannot be categorised in the way that would traditionally have happened after the end of a conflict – when, according to the outcome, objects are defined as things to be celebrated or shamed. Hils captures fragments of objects that cannot be pieced together into a coherent whole. One scattered pile of photographs reveals parts of images and slogans, but each obscures the others. These objects only really made sense in relation to the political struggle of which they were part – now they are washed up, taken out of the wider context that gave them meaning. A war is not a collection of artefacts, and cannot be understood in these terms.
A similar thing is occurring with communist-era remnants in some of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Statues have been taken off their pedestals, but instead of being thrown away or consigned to a museum, some have been gathered together in sculpture gardens, with statues of Marx and Engels jumbled around Stalins and local communist leaders. At the Open Depot, an archive in the former East Germany, citizens leave their old communist-issue radios, food packages, and furniture, along with personal recollections. Just as in Northern Ireland, these archives can’t be thrown away, but nor can they be incorporated; they belong neither to the past nor the present.
In both Northern Ireland and Eastern Europe, conflicts and political regimes phased out, but they weren’t really replaced with anything new that people believed in. The present has been marked by apathy and disillusionment, rather than a new system that could categorise and order the remnants of the past, deciding what to retain and what to throw away.
It is as though all those banners and statues have only just been put down, but nobody knows what to do with them. Objects remain stuck in their archives, in a state of suspension captured so well by Hils’ camera. And until some new kind of politics is born, it is likely that this is where they will remain.