Why do humans build towers?

painting of bonfire tower, Belfast by Claire Halpin
Claire Halpin: “The Towers That Be, Belfast”, 30 x 40 cm, oil on gesso, 2022.

Yes indeed, this is a painting from Claire Halpin’s new show at the Olivier Cornet Gallery. (It opens tonight). It got me thinking about towers – the towers of industry, the towers of capitalism, the twin towers, the tower of Babel…

Why do humans build towers?  It could be for practical reasons but more likely, they are symbols of their wealth and power – the taller the tower, the more important the owners appear to be, I suppose.

But then, isn’t there also the urge, a secret urge perhaps, to knock them down?  We humans are so competitive.  Wouldn’t we be better off if we worked together for the common good.

The tower in the painting above was a temporary one, built to be set alight on the eve of the Twelfth of July.  Hundreds of these towers are built and burned in the North each year to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  And those towers get bigger and more dangerous every year!

art installation of empty coffee cups by Eoin Mac Lochlainn Celtic Towers
“Celtic Towers”, my installation of coffee cups at the Bourn Vincent Gallery, University of Limerick

I built the towers above for an art installation some years ago. That was during  the era of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and the coffee cups became for me, a symbol of the boom and bust economy. We didn’t know ourselves with all the fancy coffees we could choose from back then – the Skinny Lattes, the Cappuccinos… Does anyone remember the Babyccinos?  Babyccinos with marshmallows – mmmm, wasn’t it just coffee heaven! But then at the end of the day, the empty paper cups were being used by people who were homeless to beg on the street.

There’s always politics – winners and losers – but how does art and politics fit together, I wonder?  “As an artist, I see it as my responsibility to bear witness to what is happening in our own time”,  says Halpin,  “and to question why it occurs. If this makes me a political artist, then so be it!”

I note the slight reluctance in her statement, presumably because art that explores the murky world of geopolitics can sometimes be viewed as activism or worse still: propaganda.  In my opinion, it must be art first – and if it carries within it, further levels of meaning, then, so much the better.

detail from painting by Claire Halpin - the powers that be
Claire Halpin:  “The Towers That Be, Belfast” (detail)  – It’s always worth examining these paintings closely!

I’ve heard it said that good art arouses the emotions, makes you think and ultimately, it can broaden your horizons but I think that if it doesn’t attract your attention at the start, then it has failed as art.  If you need to go over to read the label to see what it’s about, it has failed.  Of course, it’s good to find out more and, even the title can bring you to a deeper understanding – but I’m afraid most of us tend to judge the book by its cover.

Needless to say, as soon as I saw the painting above, I wanted to view it more closely and to discover as much as I could about it. And I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the show soon!

https://clairehalpin2011.wordpress.com/

https://www.oliviercornetgallery.com/

6 comments

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