Graffiti on Motorway Sign, Belfast is a colour photograph on paper. The image was shot by the artist in Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s as part of a group of work collectively entitled Troubled Land. It was subsequently reprinted by the artist in the mid-1990s in an edition of ten, plus two artist’s proofs, on Fuji paper and previous versions were destroyed, as he explained in a letter of July 2007 to his London gallerist Anthony Reynolds:
I first printed these c.1987–88 on Kodak Ektacolor paper, which was considered the best available, but little was known about the stability and permanence of such colour materials at this point, as most photographers made b/w [black and white] images then ... However, it was discovered that Fuji had far better stability, and almost negligible ‘base-yellowing’ in comparison ... I reprinted these on Fuji paper in about 1993–4. (I destroyed the yellowed Kodak prints.) ... nothing has changed about these prints from c.1993, except the material. They are exactly the same size, same borders, same printer (me).
(Letter from the artist to Anthony Reynolds July 2007, Tate Gallery Records.)
Tate’s copy is the tenth in the edition and is inscribed with the artist’s name, the title and the edition number of the print.
Graffiti on Motorway Sign, Belfast shows a stretch of road bordered by grassy verges tapering away into the distance under a grey, lowering sky. To the left, a blue motorway junction sign has had graffiti written on it. The scene appears altogether unremarkable. Graham first visited Northern Ireland in 1984, during the IRA’s declared ceasefire, when he began working on the group of landscape photographs which he would later publish as a book, Troubled Land (Grey Editions, London 1987). In this series, he developed a response to the historical and political events of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland through an examination of the geographical landscape.
Influenced by the work of American photographer William Eggleston (born 1937) in his choice of apparently insignificant, disregarded sites, Graham’s subject became ‘the way in which the geography of “the Troubles” is held as a continuous narrative within the landscape itself, in which everything is charged with significant meaning’ (Wilson, p.64). By using colour, as Eggleston had done, and by standing back rather than getting up close, Graham set himself apart from the accepted language of photojournalism and reportage, an approach which led him to be criticised as ‘somewhat radical, like working in colour when all serious photographers made black and white, like mixing up genres by making war photographs that looked like landscape photographs’ (Graham quoted in Wilson, p.141). For Graham, such criticism ignored the fact that ‘the subject of “the Troubles” is so etched into the landscape that it is impossible to see one without seeing the other’ (Wilson, p.64).
As the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast was the site of much of the unrest and bloodshed which surrounded the ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s and 1980s. In Graffiti on Motorway Sign, Belfast, Graham takes as his subject an everyday landmark which has had pro-IRA graffiti inserted into it, thus transforming an apparently ordinary scene into a matter of political and historical record.
Other works from Troubled Land in Tate’s collection are Paint on Road, Gobnascale Estate, Derry 1984 (P79338), H-Block Prison Protest, Newry 1985 (P79340), Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, Belfast 1984 (P79341), Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast 1984 (P79342) and Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone 1985 (P79343).
Paul Graham, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Teléfonica, Madrid 2004, pp.9–35, reproduced p.33.
Andrew Wilson, Gillian Wearing, Carol Squiers, Paul Graham, London 1996.