Lighting the way: In search of the Ulster soul

Enlightenment Festival sees two installations light up Belfast’s Linen Hall Library

Let there be light! And, from the end of this month, there will be light, spilling across the austere exterior walls and burnished interior of Belfast’s Linen Hall Library during its inaugural Enlightenment Festival.

A two-part programme comprises film, politics, literature, music, art installations and community consultations. It is designed to graft a 21st-century twist on to themes emanating from the great European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Names that jump out from its first part include American novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, author Carlo Gebler, former Obama aide and speechwriter Ben Rhodes and Belfast actor Carol Moore’s film of 22 Belfast women reading from James Joyce’s Ulysses, of which the library is a custodian of a rare, original copy.

The curators are artistic producers Seán Doran and Liam Browne (DoranBrowne), who have delivered a number of international, groundbreaking festivals across Ireland, dedicated to Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and Oscar Wilde, and are currently engaged on similar events centred around Robert Graves and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, among others.

Situated opposite the City Hall, inside a former linen warehouse designed by the distinguished architect Charles Lanyon, the Linen Hall Library has, for centuries, been the beating heart of Belfast’s cultural and creative life. It was founded in 1788 as The Belfast Reading Society. In 1792, it renamed itself The Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, whose mission was to house “… an extensive library, philosophical apparatus and such products of nature and art as tend to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry”.

Doran says that in curating the festival, he and Browne have been struck by the “ripeness” of its timing.

“The Enlightenment began over 200 years ago and here we are, slowly emerging from Covid in 2022, taking in the light of the personal and public recalibrating we are now doing. The ground may already be changing underneath our feet, in readiness for a new festival of this nature, which reimagines a long lost institution in our collective consciousness.”

Part one of the programme is constructed around two specially commissioned light installations.

Linen Into Light: An illuminated Promenade Through the Ulster Soul is a one-person nocturnal journey of discovery, created by the highly regarded Dublin-based lighting designer Conleth White. His work encompasses spectacular outdoor events as well as theatre productions the length and breadth of this island and beyond. The audience member walks alone around a selection of illuminated objects and posters inside the library.

“There’s two elements to the title,” says White. “Linen relates to the building having once been a linen hall. The Ulster soul is a reference to Theory of the Soul by Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), a 10th-century Persian Muslim philosopher and intellectual, who was writing during the golden age of Islamic culture. It’s my inspiration.

“The individual’s experience is small-scale and, hopefully, theatrical, by the nature of my own background. The journey goes in search of the Ulster soul across the ages, alighting on some of the Ulster and Enlightenment history in the building and ending with the resolution that led to the peace process and an end to conflict. I have worked quite a bit in live art, especially Butoh dance, where I light a solo performer for 20-40 minutes or so. This is similar and it may be easier, but I could change my mind once we install it!”

BrainWaves is an abstract, moving installation by Belfast artist Susan Hughes, scheduled to mark St Brigid’s Day. It will flood the library’s colonnaded entrance, changing colour and definition as the natural light drains from the day and the city’s neon street signs take over.

Doran and Browne approached Hughes with a quote from Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Unknown to them, the pairing of words and artist could not have been more apposite, reviving fond memories of her working trips to the glacial northern lands of Scandinavia.

Knausgaard writes: “On the horizon, more mountains rose up. Between them were valleys. One was covered by an enormous, white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered. One river was purple, the others dark red. The landscape they coursed through was full of unfamiliar colours. The glacier held my gaze the longest, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. Suddenly a wave of red rose up and washed across the white surface.”

What he was describing, however, were not the dramatic snowscapes of his native country but his first sight of a living brain, viewed through the microscopes of the pioneering English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. On reading it, Hughes immediately felt she was on to a good start.

“The Knausgaard quote took me right back to Scandinavia. When he’s talking about the landscape and the colours contained in it, that’s something I’m really interested in, those psychedelic elements within nature.

“I want the installation to be mesmerising and seductive. The imagery of brain scans, the interiors of bodies and brains, the way your thoughts meander… they’re very abstract and offer a lot, visually. All the footage is my own, gathered over the years. There are jellyfish floating through coloured space like celestial beings, blurred car lights forming crazy patterns under a bridge near the docks, electronic currents, brain scans, moving water.

“To me it all makes sense because the experiences I’ve had in nature and even in the city are kind of psychedelic and totally related to the functioning of my thought patterns.”

Installing a highly technical piece on to a historic, listed building on a busy street proved complicated; much of it had to be done after working hours, when the city was dark and quiet. Once in place, motorists and pedestrians threading their way along Donegall Square North will be able to experience and share those thought patterns, filtered through a constantly changing flow of light imagery.

“When you’re walking along the aisles of a library or when you’re doing research there, random associations and references pop in and out of your brain,” says Hughes. “The installation is a bit like navigating a library.”

“Many passersby each day have no idea of the library’s history and what lies behind its walls,” says Doran. “They don’t realise it’s a repository, a sanctuary, or that it’s their civic right to freely walk inside. You could crudely look on the festival as creative advertising, a call to arms, an open invitation: ‘Come inside!’”.

Enlightenment Festival, Part One, February 1st-5th. Part Two is scheduled for late spring. linenhall.com

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