Published on 10 February 2008
Produced over three years, John Duncan's new series of photographs, Bonfires, documents a long-standing tradition of bonfire building by Protestant communities in Belfast. The bonfires are built in preparation for the annual 12 July celebrations, which commemorate the defeat of James Stuart at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Their imposing structures are a powerful provocation with which Protestant identity is asserted and a sense of solidarity and continuity is re-affirmed.
Duncan’s photographs frame and measure the structures against their various social settings, revealing both a sense of Belfast’s changing urban landscape and the deep divisions that, despite political progress, still affect Northern Ireland long after the ceasefires. The bonfires have recently been challenged from a number of quarters: from within the Protestant community for damage caused to property and surrounding areas; from developers who cover the wasteland they are built on; and from environmentalists who express concerns about the pollution they cause. Seen against this backdrop of competing agendas, the bonfires come to express a form of resistance, and their building a kind of raw ingenuity.
Duncan’s work dwells on the fact that each bonfire has a singular identity. They are sculptural and architectural oddities with many resonances through history and art, from the Empire State Building to the tower of Babel. Duncan’s photographs are alive to these broader themes and their various photographic connections, for example, with Bernd and Hilla Becher’s meticulous documenting of industrial architecture. But the typological aspects of the work are just one of its many rich undercurrents, never diminishing the primary impact of the photographs or the importance of the social and political reality that they confront head on.
Featuring essays by writer and historian Colin Graham and art historian and critic Mary Warner Marien.