Review | Ben Turnbull’s ‘I Don’t Like Sundays’

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Adrian Burnham


Ben Turnbull’s ‘I Don’t Like Sundays’

 

In a collaboration with Bristol creative collective ART808, British artist Ben Turnbull unveiled his latest body of work at The Mount Without (formerly St Michael’s on the Mount Without), Bristol, last month. Entitled I Don’t Like Sundays, the show was supported by city-wide poster campaign that stirred a lot of interest in the city. Adrian Burnham went along to view the exhibition.

If gouging intricate sunken-relief gun forms in ecclesiastical pitch pine seems sacrilegious, it’s meant to.

The twelve works that comprise Ben Turnbull’s I don’t Like Sundays exhibition variously challenge formal religion’s propensity to promote division.

Superbly staged at The Mount Without, shafts of light filtering through stained glass windows of this deconsecrated church illuminate Turnbull’s unflinching riposte to acts of violence perpetrated in the names of assorted jealous, vengeful Gods by their devoted followers on earth.

One carved church pew end bears an oversized hand grenade. Another, in an Old English typeface, carries large letters spelling the word FEAR. Four of the carved works combine image and text. A skull and skeletal hand are paired with the words ‘Every Living Creature on Earth Dies Alone’. Beneath two “Peacemaker” Colt revolvers appears the line ‘Let Death Take My Enemies’, the carved ribbon scroll glowing against the original dark and distressed pew surface. Likewise, the chilling phrase ‘Soon Shall We Cast Terror’ appears beneath two 9mm Beretta semi-automatic pistols. This ‘renowned sidearm’ has been the US military issue handgun since 1985. Flawed procurement and distribution measures means that thousands of these weapons have also found their way into terrorists’ hands.

‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ features two Kalashnikov AK47s leaning back-to-back, a Janus-like coupling that suggests the interdependency of opposing sides in conflict: violence begets violence. The tips of the weapons’ muzzles sit beneath two pre-existing Celtic crosses. Informed by his own family’s experiences, this work is particularly meaningful to the artist who remembers the guns and incessant religious trauma during The Troubles. A text incised beneath the weapons is taken from a notorious loyalist UVF wall mural: “Prepared for Peace Ready for War”.

The pared down arsenal imagery and nightmarish quotations proffer a chilling message. But it’s also the patient, painstaking manner by which the works are wrought – all twelve pieces were created over two years during the height of the Covid pandemic – that encapsulates and communicates the depth and intensity of Turnbull’s ire, his despair at sectarian antagonism.

It’s not all doom and gloom, the project afforded Turnbull an opportunity to, if not bury, then at least cauterize some of the pain associated with living through social and doctrinal hostility. The artist also deftly weaves into the works references to music and popular culture. One of the repurposed hymn boards in the show quotes Johnny Rotten’s parting shot to the crowds at the final Sex Pistol’s gig: “Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?”.

I DON’T LIKE SUNDAYS extends beyond the once sacred walls of The Mount Without exhibition space with a poster campaign across Bristol courtesy of JackArts and UNCLE. Being confronted with a 20ft wide billboard featuring a chiselled panel that reads ‘God Bless Atheism’ is a bizarre and, for many of us, droll intervention on the public realm. Likewise, the street posters featuring another of Turnbull’s hymn board works declaring ‘When We All Get To Hell’ includes a wry turn in that the word ‘Hell’ is made from burning red upside down and back to front hymn numbers.

Even those people who believe religion to be divine can’t deny its interpretation is always human. Turnbull’s stark and riveting suite of twelve new works begs the question, “Why does humankind persist in making the same fatal mistakes over and over again?”

 

Ben Turnbull, I don’t Like Sundays, The Mount Without, Upper Church Lane, Bristol BS2 8FN. The exhibition ran from the 6th – 9th June 2022.


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