More Theatre than Threat


Ursula Burke - The Precariat at the RHA Dublin - 2018

The Precariat, a recent exhibition in the RHA Dublin by Tipperary-born-but-Belfast-based artist, Ursula Burke. My desire to review this particular exhibition was due to the multitude of questions that it left me with, however, unlike many other shows there was an opportunity to get my answers straight from the source. Burke is this year’s winner of the Suki Tea Art Prize and in tandem with this she was delivering a lecture on this specific show in Belfast on the 18th of October, alas it was meant to be.

At the foreground of the gallery one was addressed by a stark white bust, Burke’s main protagonist, whom doesn’t exactly greet visitors but rather, surveys them silently as they enter. This is one of several, the rest are grouped together, like a mass of protesters, confronting you directly with their bruised eyes and damaged features signifying “violations of the flesh” prescribed by the antiquated appearance of the Parium porcelain medium they are cast of, informed by Burke’s residency in Rome and exposure to classical art. She wanted to bridge the “ideal in form” with the physical effects of the body that become associated with acts of protest throughout history. These abused and ravaged yet polished and delicately placed figures could be the result (or the cause) of the scenes of discord in her embroideries, depicting politicians discarding diplomacy and democracy to the use of their fists. The site specific wall painting feigns an erosion of paradise, the backdrop to these insurgents and their blinded leaders, all participants in the flattened fiction.

The objects and images are sumptuous and attractive, I’d go as far to say Instagrammable. There is nothing new here; battered citizens and aggravated representatives are consistently filling up our digital news feeds and social enquiry spheres, triggering the smouldering activist in many. Similarly to the Victorians whom used Parium porcelain to produce stylised maquettes of Parium marble masterpieces, Burke engages symbolism in her choice of media to the point of dilution. Her rendering of them in homage to an age where representations of idealism were the common practice only serves to accentuate her credulous ceremony. I can safely surmise, that reading her biographical blurb on the wall of the RHA, denoting her residence in Belfast, could cause one to presume that her background influenced the exhibition’s narrative from a direct experience of the post conflict environment of Northern Ireland. This is not the case, Burke admitted she found the images for her embroideries by simply googling them, liking them and recreating them “whilst binge watching Netflix”. This revelation surprised me and I felt was actually very millennial and honest of her, in fact, wholly relatable. Her involvement in her own visual subject matter, is nonetheless surface only, the glossy cover of a phone screen, continuously swiping left. The running theme throughout the work was a fetishized simulation of a non-utopian political climate merely being acknowledged.

The exhibition title was taken from a text by Guy Standing, where “precarious” and “proletariat” literally merge, referring to a new class, the dangerous class, of individuals whom are directly experiencing an unsettling shift in the traditional anchors of Western life. Burke adopts this title as an efficient abbreviation of the themes and motifs within the work of present day neoliberalism, crumbling democracies, mutating religious attitudes and mirages of what we might one day be delivered from. I was casting my disgruntled critical perspective at the time; I felt her attention to the context of the show came off vague, sometimes even misinformed. After some close consideration I realised, that the real outcome of her talk was the explicit consciousness of her position, experiencing precariousness herself and in hindsight, this lived state is imbibed in the work. Thanks to a surge of recognition, two major awards and multiple residency opportunities, she stated that she can finally “depend on her work to provide her with a living”. Any of us attempting to manifest a future in art for ourselves will easily recognise (or envy) this transformation of circumstance as the long expected burst of success one hopes for after a 20 year practice.

Standing himself notes; that this state of mind acts as the central paradigm of the Precariat movement, everyone is angry but no one actually knows what’s going on, or what anyone is going to do about it, so people act out without any real agenda, resulting in no momentum to induce change. The white busts remain motionless, their faces will no longer be subject to brutality, neither will they heal. The unravelling threads of political communication have immobilised yet still fall to the floor, and whatever image of paradise one can picture, it’s only ever going to be an image.

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©2018 Tara McGinn