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232 10 At Vision’s Edge Post-Conflict Memory and Art Practice in Northern Ireland F ION N A BA R BE R The past is always present in Northern Ireland, structuring everyday experience to a degree not generally found elsewhere. In a society where historical events are continually relevant to contemporary life, both cultural memory and processes of memorialization become significant means whereby people live out their identities. In turn, this level of awareness also informs aspects of the visual: artists are not separate from the culture they inhabit but are equally formed by its shared experiences of community, danger, and loss. Much of the work of artists in post-conflict Northern Ireland bears the marks of this communality of experience, whether through an explicit engagement or through more subtly encoded traces. This essay tries to establish some of the key features through situating art practice in relation to aspects of cultural memory, and more specifically to the presence of trauma, within a post-conflict culture. In Northern Ireland, artists and photographers work in a context where the visual is deeply embedded in the formation of political identity that plays such a major role in determining lived identity for many people. During the years of conflict, commemorative murals in loyalist and nationalist working -class areas acted not just as reminders of the past; they also provided an assertion of contemporary political allegiances. Yet the significance of icons honoring sacrifice and martyrdom was not just a matter of making the past relevant within the present: this imagery also helped to define other Post-Conflict Memory and Art Practice 233 parameters, such as those of spatial identity, functioning as an explicit means of defining territory and a sense of belonging within a particular community. A further feature of life in Northern Ireland is that people tend to develop acute sensitivity to the nuances of difference, picking up the subtly encoded signifiers of Protestantism or Catholicism in ways that continually elude outside observers. Although these behavioral strategies were already a feature of the divided society that predated the onset of the Troubles, they became more vitally necessary during the years of conflict, when a precise knowledge of one’s surroundings could be literally a matter of life or death. Operating at a level beyond everyday awareness, the negotiation of political difference has become deeply entrenched at an unconscious level—something that has continued even though the conflict has ended. Significantly, however, it is an awareness of other knowledge that can also be regarded as unconscious, repressed from waking thought, which is increasingly recognized as embodying a more disturbing sense of what has happened. The years following the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998 were a period of economic growth and increased prosperity during which a significant part of the visual and material culture of conflict has been eradicated, yet the veneer of commercialism can still not smooth out the knots of past experience embedded under the surface of a now mostly peaceful society. The term “trauma” can refer to the effects of either physiological or psychological wounding or threat of danger in origin; both can have effects on processes of memory and the individual’s ability to cope with the consequences of an event. Traumatic experiences can be life threatening or involve the proximity of the death of others, or they can also result, on a psychological level, in the unravelling of an individual’s sense of self and identity. All of these were characteristics of the experience of the Troubles for many people in Northern Ireland; even if they did not themselves have to confront directly threatening events, people’s everyday life was for many years in the 1970s and 1980s imbued with a sense of risk and the need for continual vigilance that left deeply embedded scars. The effects of horrific and overwhelming experiences of this nature also extend far beyond the individual who actually experiences them, affecting family, carers, and friends. The reporting of such experiences in the media and survival within 234 Fionna Barber a community’s cultural memory, meanwhile, add a public and social dimension to the private and individual experience of trauma. The knowledge of these events also persists through time as a form of what Marianne Hirsch has termed “post-memory,” whereby a subsequent generation acquires a deep sense of having experienced a past that took place before they were born (Hirsch 1997). Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2008 a report published jointly by...


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