Sylvia Grace Borda's 'Churches'
Self-help philosopher Alain de Botton recently opined that 'ugly neighbourhoods are generally not ugly because they are poor, they are poor because they are ugly'. This statement is the most abject nonsense, but interesting in giving voice to a common assumption. The notion of what is ugly and what isn't, in architecture and town planning, changes radically every few decades, or less. Ornament-encrusted red brick and terracotta Victorian town halls, grand hotels and commercial palaces were considered hideously ugly, now they're 'beautiful'. For the Victorians, regimented, stock-brick Georgian squares, with their near-total lack of ornament, their disinterest in the picturesque and their machine-like right angles were the epitome of ugliness. When they could, they slathered these squares in decoration and imposed the irregular skylines they lacked. For Nikolaus Pevsner, the opulent neo-Egyptian/Hollywood aesthetics of the Hoover Factory in West London was a 'modernistic atrocity'; later volumes of his Guides have had to reverse his judgement, although the building is identical, but for the Tescos slotted into the back entrance. This applies in urban and suburban space as much as it does in mere aesthetics. Islington was ugly and is now beautiful, as with the stuccoed speculative squares of Pimlico or Notting Hill. The Victorian terrace has gone from being mass-produced to being 'special'. The Trellick Tower is now beautiful, as is the Brunswick Centre, largely because of the amount of the beautiful people that live there, or want to live there.
In architecture, judgement on ugliness, beauty, social ethics or elegance is an exceptionally moveable feast. That's something especially obvious on perusal of the Northern Irish chapels, churches, lodges and other religious buildings assembled in Sylvia Grace Borda's 'Churches'. What she does here is strip any possible extraneous source of judgement from these buildings. You are not told where they are, save that they are somewhere in Northern Ireland; you are not told who designed them, when they were built, or, rather crucially, what denomination they were built for. Instead, you're just presented with some buildings. Of course, the process of stripping any information from the architectural image can only go so far. The photographs themselves are very much aesthetic objects in their own right, with many of them centred or framed to expel anything extraneous from the picture – people, contextualising buildings, much else other than grass verges – although even then, sometimes something else has crept in. However, anyone looking at them will have their own preconceptions about this sort of architecture and where it might be located. Modernism, especially of the strident, sculptural kind showcased here, is still a controversial matter, and usually sparks off a customary, learned chain of association – modernism equals 60s equals concrete equals ugly, or modernism equals council estates equals poor people equals ugly; or some combination of these. The photographs go about as far as it's possible to go into just making you look at a building without any overarching prejudice.
What are we looking at, then, if we pretend that we're looking at something that isn't loaded? Sometimes we're looking at very dramatic architecture indeed, as where we see several triangular canopies with verdigris roofs, topped by spires. Sometimes we're looking at a more dour, boxy modernism, detailed sometimes in concrete, sometimes in rubble stone, and sometimes even in pebbledash. Sometimes we're looking at staggeringly nondescript sheds, functional in the most basic manner. Sometimes these are combined – in one photograph, we see a mundane pitch-roof shed suddenly erupt into a practically geological, expressionistic vertical feature. You often see similar things – crosses, obviously, but also a certain parsimony about the materials, a sense that some of these buildings were realised on the hop, with whatever could be thrown into making them thrown in; the architecture often seems to reflect a similar spirit of accident and improvisation. However, the nagging questions still itch at you. What? Where? Who? The photographer refuses to offer such details, and mentions when asked that usually, when people have tried to guess which churches are Catholic and which are Protestant, they've been mistaken; some of those which would seem to reflect the favouring of modern architecture by Vatican Two might, in fact, be Presbyterian.
When looking at the photographs, I thought of an experience I'd often had in Poland, where my partner was born and grew up. We'd walk round prefab concrete estates, and find within them extraordinary expressionist-baroque churches, with a real violence and power. Being foreign, I'd take them as pure architectural objects, as the most spatially imaginative and tectonically fearless things in sight – smashed glass polygons in the outskirts of Radom, raw brick and concrete temples in suburban Warsaw. My partner saw them as the places she'd had her communion and confirmation, as products of a church that became a property developer post-89; and was hence deeply hostile to them. They never featured in glossy architectural books or magazines, and were excluded from the canons of the Polish architectural avant-garde. That's not because young Polish aesthetes couldn't see the architectural qualities of these buildings, but because they were overdetermined by a very real and very present power to which they were hostile. The same would be true anywhere that religion or another form of power becomes overbearing.
These churches are similar, sometimes even strikingly similar as architecture to these Polish, Catholic examples; but you still cannot discover which is actually ecclesiastically similar. In the end, they start to look like one coherent movement, an archive of an architecture that is sometimes very ambitious, sometimes very cheap, a document almost of a vernacular modernism, of what modernism became when far from the metropolitan centre; both alien and utterly ordinary. The central part of 'Churches' finally domesticates the 'ugly' and alien, casting the images into ceramic plates, as if to mime the various faiths sitting around the table at Stormont; in the process, these churches-as-modernist-monuments become both more ostensibly friendly – homely tokens, souvenirs, no longer aloof or avant-garde - but also even more inescapable.
Chapter “Imaging, imagination, and the role of contemporary arts in Northern Ireland” published in the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies Anthology
Absorbing Modernity, British Council for Venice Biennale for Architecture, Northern Ireland (catalogue)
Graham, Colin. Project review for “Churches: Coming to the Table” in the book Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography Publisher Belfast Exposed Photography Gallery and the MAC
Hatherley, Owen. 'Sylvia Grace Borda's Churches.' Belfast Exposed catalog (see top page for full text)
Magarrey, Paige. “Photographs of postwar religious buildings in Northern Ireland constitute a thought-provoking exhibition at the Belfast Exposed Gallery,” Canadian Architect, April 2012
Hunter, Dorothy. “Sylvia Grace Borda: Churches” in Photomonitor, UK April 2012
Fullam, Fiona. “CHURCHES” Exhibition Review in Visual Arts Ireland Newsletter, February 2012
Richardson, Vicky. “My Kind of Town: Guest column by Director of the British Council Design, Architecture & Fashion Programme” in Architecture Today February 2012
Laurence, Robin. ‘Churches’ Exhibition catalogue. Belfast Exposed Gallery, Northern Ireland 2012
Interview with critic Anne-Marie McAleese, BBC Northern Ireland: Arts Extra Programme – Broadcast: January 19, 2012
Absorbing Modernity, Panelist, British Council for Venice Biennale for Architecture, Northern Ireland (October 25, 2014)
Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography Artist panelist and discussion between Sylvia Grace Borda, John Duncan Mary McIntyre, and Donovan Wylie
For Sylvia's discussion about the development of CHURCHES listen to audio clips at https://soundcloud.com/mrulster/20130517-belfast-exposed-06
For a full audio record of the panelists in discussion visit
A paper on the development of this large-scale photographic project was presented by the artist as part of the inaugural Visual Arts Panel at the International European Irish Studies Conference in October 2012, University of Salford-Manchester.
Paper was peer reviewed by Dr Claire Nally, University of Northumbria.
The Ulster Museum in 2013 acquired a number of ceramic plates (artist proofs) directly from Sylvia to complement their own visual art collection. An edition of Coming to the table: Churches (a dinner set of 16 plates) was purchased separately by Belfast Exposed Gallery and the Northern Ireland Arts Council to add their own contemporary art holdings in 2012. The purchase of an edition by the Northern Ireland Arts Council illustrated the significance and support from within the country for the artist's endeavour.
Artist's Essay about the Project
presented as part of the IRISH STUDIES EUROPEAN CONFERENCE, University of Salford, Manchester October 2012
Paper title: Imaging and the role of contemporary arts in Northern Ireland
Visual Arts Panel – A Summary of Voices
To launch the inaugural Visual Arts Panel at the European Studies Irish Studies conference an artist, photographer, academic, and cultural director were each invited to discuss their own experiences about art, imaging and imagination as it resides within a contemporary and post conflict Northern Ireland.
As a Canadian artist, leading this panel, I had my own direct experiences in Northern Ireland having come to the country vis a vis an academic post at Queen’s University Belfast. I was invited in Autumn 2006 at Queen’s University Belfast to lead the new MA in Photography course as part of the Visual Studies programme offered through the Film Studies Department. I held that post until April 2009.
Through my appointment at Queen’s I realised early on the amount of voices and views about Northern Ireland are often complex and can easily be misunderstood beyond the boundaries of the country. As such I proposed in late 2010 to offer a Visual Arts panel focusing on the Northern Irish arts scene as a platform from which speakers could speak directly with their audience about their own cultural experiences and in relation to their own studies and projects that they have led.
The panel included Pauline Hadaway, Director of Belfast Exposed who spoke about the histories of Northern Ireland’s only contemporary photography gallery which commissions new work, maintains an image archive, and publishes its own theoretical and photo-illustrated titles. Artist, Rita Duffy, considered one of Northern Ireland's foremost practitioners, has been working on projects that embrace and comment on the political, domestic, figurative, and narrative traditions both within the country and elsewhere. Rita spoke openly about the development of her own practice and her experiences as a Northern Irish born and raised artist.  Dr Shane Alcobia Murphy, Senior Lecturer at the School of English Language and Literature, University of Aberdeen, examined how his studies offer a broader definition to the role of film and duration in Northern Irish art-film-making.
Lastly, I also spoke about my own direct experiences of having resided, worked, and later returning to Northern Ireland as an artist in order to conclude a large-scale photographic project touching on the country’s recent socio-political histories. This project was drawn from my experiences leading the Photography programme at Queen’s University Belfast; in which I gained an opportunity, not only to deliver a new arts programme, but equally to learn more about the visual vocabularies and complex relationships that have defined the country through The Troubles to the present.
A Canadian Artist’s response to Northern Ireland
In order to contextualise how this Northern Irish art project began, I will first explain that in relation to my own artistic practice I started creating contemporary conceptual art whilst in Vancouver in the 1990s and I continue to produce large opuses of work about the built environment. Whilst at Queen’s University I also worked as a guest MA & PhD Convener at the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning over a 2-year period. Through this post, I imported to the university a cross-cultural dynamic as a Canadian citizen, with no past experience or personal relationship tied to the political conditions that have shaped Northern Ireland over the last forty years. While I am conscious of what has arisen in Northern Ireland, I was unable to build on this platform directly as it is not an immediate part of my cultural or social fabric.
Rather than adopting a misguided stance about the significance of the Troubles (1960-1998) and the cultural arts developed during this time, I sought advice and guidance from senior artists and institutional representatives. In most cases these are the same people who have been actively defining and promoting Northern Ireland’s artists and cultural venues over the last 30 years.
It should be noted that there have been numerous organisations, which through the efforts of individuals, collectives and boards, have worked tirelessly during the Troubles to present a platform for the arts to be seen and experienced for the public and visitors to Northern Ireland. These include: (Belfast Exposed Gallery for the promotion of photography; Ormeau Baths Gallery, and Millennium Arts Court Centre in Portadown for the promotion of contemporary fine art display and education established, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery, Black Box, Catalyst Arts Gallery, Crescent Arts Centre, Engine Room, Queen Street Studios, and other venues).
The Northern Ireland contemporary art scene was also the result of graduate students during the early 1980s working together to form the Artist Collective of Northern Ireland. Among the activities of the group was to publish and distribute the art magazine CIRCA, to create Queen Street Artist Studios, and to deliver alternative partnerships for art production across Belfast City.
All of these efforts collectively assisted in creating a ‘scene’ for the visual arts. Indeed the work, vision, and commitment of this community nearly 30 years ago led to a dynamic art scene which is present in Northern Ireland today and recognised across Ireland and elsewhere. 
The context of how art is delivered and developed within a country can assist greatly in recognising how other artists respond to their own visual heritage. In particular, one artist – Victor Sloan, might be considered the ‘grandfather’ of contemporary arts in Northern Ireland. Victor has been generous with his time in dialogue and in offering advice as I developed my own work.
Victor Sloan has held the roles of educator, honorary curator and cultural promoter often concurrently since his appearance in the 1960s. In terms of his practice, Victor may be initially identified in terms of his photographic-painting and assemblages that depict and isolate figures shown at Orange Order marches and meetings: The Walk, the Platform and the Field (1985); Drumming (1986); The Birches (1988); and Walls (1989)
In these works there is a heavy surface treatment so that the events form a new photo image in which the whole construction and the artist’s marks across the surface become a focus for the viewer. Unlike a documentary image where the viewer is left to examine an account, in Sloan’s work, the artist enacts or inserts other events.
For the viewer, and particularly for native residents, the images ‘bring to the very surface of the image the tensions underlying the apparent normality of life in Northern Ireland’ To some extent, one could argue the real, abstracted and forlorn images at the base of Sloan’s photographic images of Northern Ireland extend an uncertain narrative. Since Sloan’s works are often a response to socio-political and religious concerns, his proposed narratives can only fulfill themes based on the experiences which viewers come equipped with.
As already noted the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland Act allowed for the establishment of a devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. By creating an independent parliament for Northern Ireland to self manage itself with representation from all parties, the activities associated with the height of the Troubles came to an end.
In observing how the peace process has been remembered I’ve noted most Northern Irish residents post their thirties speak about it in an animated way, however, for younger residents in their mid 20s the significance of this process experienced during their younger years has pushed these experiences into a more distant past. In a post war recovery period, these younger artists have let the voice and the tension of the Troubles become an arena of expression best left to their parents’ generation than for themselves.
In a similar manner I have followed this path of other younger Northern Irish artists since my own experiences are not directly tied to the Troubles. This said I am interested in turning the lens onto cultural events that have both defined and restricted dialogue about Northern Ireland – these do not represent conflict openly but allude to them through other visual systems.
Interest in Modernism
In my work I use visual research as a driver to define how I will systematically treat or respond to a subject. When I moved to Northern Ireland, I was struck by how early Modernist buildings, particularly those prior to the Troubles, aspired to embrace new architectural ideas. The Modernist structures I saw both in Belfast and throughout the country were monumental, lofty, and transparent - reaching for the Heavens while also becoming features forming significant sight lines on the horizon.
I also noted that while The Festival of Britain is understood in terms of its legacy in the creation of the Arts Hub at Southbank London – virtually nothing is known about its counterpart staging in Belfast. The Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland (1951) was designed, according to Craft Northern Ireland historian and Lecturer in Design History, Joseph McBrinn, “with the hopes that the exhibition would demonstrate the North’s contribution to Britain’s economy and thus help reaffirm the province’s place within collective national identity. The exhibition further suggested that the North’s vernacular material culture was the root of its modern industrial achievement.”
Modernist architectural structures were built and encouraged in Belfast in order to illustrate the country’s ability to adopt highly industrial processes while also producing architectural legacies.
The impact of Northern Ireland’s own vernacular Modernist architecture and its utopian ideals of creating architecture without division or class was overshadowed though by the commencement of the Troubles.
In particular it is this Modernist incubator time from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s that holds my fascination within Northern Ireland. The global and pan-modernist concept of building together for the future, liberating the past, and serving the present needs of the citizen came to fruition in Northern Ireland. Remarkably as the country grew (baby boom period) the need for extended social amenities increased.
Architects embraced the idea that across faiths there should be egalitarian treatment in the use of materials and construction. In this way church building faithfully prescribed to Modernist ideals. Newly commissioned faith buildings took on board the Modernist ethos of new methods of production (such as steel, glass, and concrete assembly) in order to serve humanity with the liberation of the latest technological progression.
Overall what remains most unusual in regard to Northern Irish Modernist design is that as faith buildings – overt signifiers were specifically reduced so that the building did not impose associated faith values across the landscape. This masking of buildings through a Modernist doctrine to create openness or idea of free social movement -- creates a paradigm in which it’s only by knowing in advance what area of a city or town you are entering – can you guess the faith orientation associated with the neighbourhood. In this way, the Modernist Northern Irish faith buildings ultimately defy their own religious root or purpose.
For my work CHURCHES IN-NI (Churches in Northern Ireland) I have selected to document Northern Ireland’s Modernist churches. The project functions in an ironic manner. It subtly plays with the realization that for most outside of the UK, the easiest way to define the country is through the Troubles and its religious divide. In this manner the project offers the viewer – the visual symbol of this divide –“ the church”; however, since the buildings are Modernist and were originally designed to be undecipherable in terms of faith association – the viewer is left confounded.
The churches form a contemporary portrait of Northern Ireland, and it’s unchronicled Modernist past. For local residents, the series also perpetrates biases and stereotypes. Most residents will be able to identify their own local churches within a 15 mile radius, but beyond this range are left to second-guess the faith associated with the documents. For non-Northern Irish audiences the series fuels an obvious association and desire to see represented the divide. The words and histories used to describe the country through on-going media reports about sectarian divide are defied in the series.
As a conceptual artwork – the series borrows and extends ideas associated with the creation of a typology. In the creation of a photographic typology – documents are created of buildings with similar physical characteristics. Through the placement of the images together the individual characteristics of the building start to illustrate similar forms or patterns. The Dusseldorf Academy through the husband and wife team, Hilla and Bernd Becher, promoted the systematic photography of functionalist architecture organized in picture grids.
My work CHUCHES IN-NI is an ode to this style of conceptual photography. Furthermore my consolidation of images of faith buildings throughout the entire country, creates both a conceptual and historical archive of a pre-Troubles Northern Ireland and traces a development of Modernist buildings erected right up until the Good Friday Agreement.
Ultimately in this work I am working with the cultural identity as subject. My subjects are situated and only available within the country. For an external audience, unfamiliar with Northern Ireland’s landscape or architectural heritage, the photographs have been composed, printed, arranged, and left unnamed in order to become iconic through this editing process. More importantly, the images playfully invite viewers to consider what is ‘iconic’ or ‘stereotypical’ in the definition and visualization of national identity and image making.
While I am interested in assigning new recognition to faith spaces that define for many the everyday living circumstances within Northern Ireland, my work sets up a paradigm for the viewer to recognize the subject of the church, while equally seeing it as an independent and sometimes indefinable cultural motif. This process of editing and arrangement is not an easy task given most of the imagery that has so far has defined Northern Ireland is associated directly with reportage and/or the representation of the Troubles.
The creative capacity to imagine Northern Ireland through a quasi-scientific and systematic approach of photographing ‘every Modernist Church’ challenges viewers’ own perceptions of how to understand the concept of home. Hence, rather than exhibiting large scale photographs of the Modernist Churches, which might privilege one faith over another, I elected to reproduce the Church series as a set of ceramic plates. Critically the ability to frame the work in a domestic environment, I hoped would enable viewers to be more open to handle the work and consider the series’ narrative.
Subsequently the commemorative plates of the Churches are immediately banal, tactile and fragile. Of note, ceramic plates onto themselves have a unique position within Northern Irish histories. The traditional souvenir plate was popular as a token of remembrance, and was often associated with travel and the depiction of picturesque locales. A number of ceramic dishes can be found associated as souvenir tokens of visits to Northern Ireland’s numerous seaside towns. Up until the Troubles, Northern Ireland supported a domestic ceramic industry, producing many of its own homewares. In this way – I created my own 21st century grand tour souvenirs of Modernist faith destinations.
In naming the plate series ‘Coming to the Table’ I further explored the notions of a dinner table as a place of gathering and exchange of conversation. By illustrating the range of Modernist Churches found in Northern Ireland through the plates, I also allude to the country’s shared tabling of power in order to overcome the Troubles and to establish its own Parliament. The photographic dinnerware thus becomes symbolically a powerful reference representing Northern Ireland’s faith buildings, whilst also alluding to wider histories beyond those of the sectarian divide. While the commemorative plate as souvenir offers a sense of orderliness and decorum as laid out on the table, it can underline a sense of fragility that extends to Northern Ireland politics and self.
Ultimately ‘Coming to the Table’ acts as a conceptual and reflective work alluding to the broader conditions that are defining Northern Ireland’s contemporary landscape, and at a literal level it mimics the viewer’s own entrance and approach to the table that completes the title’s self proclaimed invitation.
Lastly “CHURCHES IN-NI” is complemented by a film loop depicting 100 individual Modernist Churches for viewers to observe. This cumulative time-based work lasting just under 4minutes in duration subtly provokes viewers to locate the Churches within the national geography. There is a subtle question at stake about the viewer's ability to identify these fairly anonymous churches or even the location within their own country -- and the ensuing notion of identity and difference.
My hope arising as an outcome of this series is that a debate about contemporary photography and imaging art production can begin to emerge. This exhibition piece is not just about a geographical place or time period in Northern Ireland – it is about creating a work that resonates and reflects multiple points of origin and study. Furthermore the work has been designed with an opportunity for the public to bring on board their own sense of place, a place they may or not have experienced first hand, whilst also having an opportunity to reflect and question it.
 For a complete biographical and illustrated catalogue of Rita Duffy’s own practice see http://ritaduffystudio.com/
 For the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) Sinead Morrissey, School of English, and I delivered PictureText, a MA programme that addressed semiotics and visuality. More information about this project can be found at http://www.qub.ac.uk/cecpa/picturetext.htmlwebsite. Of note when CETL was launched it offered the first-ever comprehensive consolidation of the University’s creative programmes, which assisted in Queen’s University later establishing the School of Creative Arts in 2011.
 Over the last five years, Peter Richards, curator of Golden Thread has invited guest curators to stage exhibitions, which reflect on the recent production of art from the Troubles to the present. The exhibition and essay series, entitled Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art, is an invaluable source and should be referenced to provide further context in regard to the development of contemporary art within the country.
 I am privileged to have been in dialogue with Victor and other artists since living in Belfast and elsewhere to present. Victor’s time in describing the working conditions of being an artist during and after the Troubles has greatly assisted my own learning.
 For further information see Joseph McBrinn’s article ‘Festival of Britain, 1951’ in Perspective Magazine published by Craft Northern Ireland, June 2011.
 The notions of how to respond to this work through the urban built environment are discussed by Paige Magarrey in “Photographs of post war religious buildings in Northern Ireland constitute a thought-provoking exhibition at the Belfast Exposed Gallery,” in Canadian Architect, April 2012 See http://www.canadianarchitect.com/news/church-lady/1001127945/
 According to Belfast Exposed Gallery ‘CHURCHES,’ exhibited from January 19-March 3, 2012, proved to be one of the most popular displays ever launched by the organisation, gaining a wide audience following from younger artists to seniors, and non-arts audiences.
 The April 2012 article written by Dorothy Hunter for Photomonitor UK aptly argues how a Canadian can successfully comment on the social-political landscape of Northern Ireland through conceptual photography. For the full article see www.photomonitor.co.uk/2012/04/sylvia-grace-borda-churches/