An inspiring art exhibition paying homage to the ‘Christmas Gift Fund’, which ensured First World War British soldiers received gifts for their first Christmas at war, opened at the MAC this week.
The project began when the MAC, Belfast’s newest arts venue, gave a vintage Princess Mary box to the Northern Irish artist Graham Gingles. This gift led the artist to explore the experiences of the men on the front and in particular the wartime diaries of Robert McGookin, a solider from Larne where the artist lives.
The resulting exhibition takes up the whole of the MAC’s Sunken Gallery, which itself becomes a box into which the visitor enters. Sculptural and theatrical, this immersive artwork invites the viewer to peer into the room’s nooks and crannies in a compelling treatment of memory and loss.
Co-commissioned by the MAC and 14-18 NOW, a major cultural programme taking place across the UK to mark the centenary of the First World War, the immersive installation runs until 17th August.
The First World War Christmas Gift Fund was the brainchild of the 17-year-old Princess Mary, who was determined that no British soldier would go without a gift on the first Christmas Day of the war. Her highly successful nationwide fundraising campaign meant that nearly half a million gifts were delivered to troops on the Western Front. Packed with presents ranging from lighters and cigarettes to chocolate and spices, these embossed brass boxes would become one of the most enduring keepsakes of the First World War, symbols of compassion in a time of suffering.
Hugh Mulholland, Curator at the MAC, commented:
“The newly commissioned work which Graham has produced for the Sunken Gallery at the MAC is a significant and ambitious development in his practice. Whilst the installation is a dramatic scaling up of his usually small-scale works, it has not lost any of the emotional complexity of his more widely known box works.
“The work is highly evocative of the period, its themes of memory and loss and its quiet theatricality and immersive presence a poignant and suitable monument to the bravery of service men and women like Robert McGookin.
The MAC is delighted to be one of only two Northern Ireland projects selected for the NOW 14-18 project, which has invited leading artists from across the UK to respond to the events of World War 1 as part of the centenary commemorations.”
Artist Graham Gingles commented:
“I have always wanted to create environments into which one might walk, but had neither the space nor the money to make it. This commission has allowed me the opportunity to achieve this goal. Working with the Lawrence Street Workshops in South Belfast I have been able to increase the scale of his work to realise this ambitious project for the MAC. I hope visitors will be intrigued by it – they’ll be able to walk inside it, around it and explore it. There is no way I could compete with the very dramatic images of World War 1 that already exist, so this installation is my very small contribution as an act of remembrance in my own way.”
We are also delighted to be one of only two Northern Ireland projects selected for the NOW 14-18 project, which has invited leading artists from across the UK to respond to the events of World War 1 as part of the centenary commemorations.”
The exhibition is entitled ‘At times like these men were wishing they were all kinds of insects’, a quote inspired by Robert McGookin’s wartime diaries, a soldier from Larne who spoke of the men’s wish whilst under shell fire to become like insects – like a worm burrowing into the trenches. McGookin’s is one of a number of soldiers’ memoirs which artist Graham Gingles was moved to explore after receiving his gift from the MAC.
Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW commented:
“The themes of memory and loss addressed in this project provide a deep and compelling vision of the First World War. It has been fascinating working with Graham Gingles and the curatorial team at the MAC on a project which remembers the First World War servicemen and women through contemporary art.”
‘At times like these, men were wishing they were all kinds of insects’ by Graham Gingles is free of charge and can be viewed every day at the MAC from 10am-7pm.