Friday, March 17, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications 5 and Post Mortem 4

After the concentrated focus on Cheltenham all week it's a relief to move on to rugby where my engagement isn't financial apart from the odd bet on Stander to score the first try. I missed my week 4 forecast but would certainly have expected both France and England to win easily as they did. I thought Ireland would be too good for the previously unimpressive Welsh side but we managed to fuck it up again for a number of reasons. Henshaw's rush of blood ultimately cost us the match because the momentum was with us and a converted try at that stage would have seen them sag. However, given the amount of possession we had, we still should have won. There is a lack of creativity in the back line - especially at centre. We rely too much on Sexton to create the spark, or Murray. They were both off for periods which set us back. Also, our bloody lineout has gone to the dogs. It's inexplicable to me how O'Mahony isn't on from the start to give us more options. Toner was woeful and deserves to be dropped and Best wasn't exactly hitting his targets. England will murder us in this area unless we come up with something. Regarding this weekends matches, let's get the easy ones over with. Scotland will show that they are not as awful as they appeared against England by hammering Italy. France will confirm my poor opinion of Wales by beating them, not quite so easily. Wales rescued their season by beating us and won't be as cranked up. I had thought we would do a home town job on England but seeing the team I now doubt it. Murray is a huge loss, not least for his cover and tackling but also for his general air of being in charge. Kearney has been poor all season so I'm glad he's gone. His aerial game is as good as ever but after he makes a heroic catch he just charges aimlessly into the cover and the whole thing peters out. Payne is short of game time and I'm not sure a match against England is the place to give it to him. I'd have put Zebo there and added Conway or Gilroy on the wing. Having dropped Toner for being off form Schmidt has still omitted O'Mahony. I'd have dropped Heaslip (where has he been this season?) and rejigged the back row to accomodate O'Mahony. It's beginning to seem that Schmidt has a Leinster bias and that he's reviving that old adage about it being harder to get off the Irish team than to get on to it. I see England winning by about 12 points. I'll be very happy to be wrong as, unlike Cheltenham, it won't cost me anything.

Eh Joe at the Gate

                        Michael Colgan's valedictory season of plays by Beckett, Pinter and Friel keeps up the very high standards he helped to initiate and sustain for 33 years. I saw a great version of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter last week with Lorcan Cranitch and Garrett Lombard. This week's offering surpassed that with a virtuouso version of Beckett's Eh Joe. Not knowing the play I was wondering how Gambon was going to get on because, famously, he had retired because he could no longer remember lines. Of course, as I discovered, Eh Joe is ideal for him as there are no lines. He basically just sits there and responds visually (rather than vocally) to a disembodied woman's voice. She is the voice of his conscience reminding him of how badly he has treated various women and what now lies ahead of him. It's classic Beckett in terms of the stripped down language and the bleak intimations: "Then yourself ...That old bonfire ...Years of that stink ...Then the silence". Bracing stuff.   I knew the play was written for television - the first such one he wrote - and that it mainly features the actor's face and attendant reactions. So I was wondering how it would be staged and was thankful I had a seat close to the stage. But I needn't have worried. They filmed his face as he sat on a bed and projected it giantly onto a scrim (transparent cloth) that covered the entire front of the stage. His read covered an area close to half the size of the scrim so even a visually impaired person in the back row could monitor every twitch. And twitches there were aplenty, and tears. Gambon gave it the full rueful, sorrowful, pitiful works. It was only 30 minutes long but that was enough for such sustained bleakness.      

Monday, March 13, 2017

John Short at the Solomon Gallery


A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 12 March 2017.

John Short is best known for his bright and playful water colours and prints depicting the often portly denizens of South County Dublin going about their bathing business. Short’s work keeps the best of company and can be found in Áras an Uachtaráin, the Shelbourne and in the Law Library. His new show at the Solomon extends beyond his usual haunts to embrace cockatoos and kangaroos in Australia and dancers in the South of France. Large watercolours, such as the striking Cockatoos, Sydney, require a deft touch and Short is a master of the medium. His expertise was recognised with the prestigious 2012 Artist Prize at the Royal Watercolour Society in London. He augments his paint work with ink, collage and occasionally photo transfers. There’s a sense of evanescence in some of these carefree scenes. It is suggested in the ectoplasmic outlines of his swimmers in Winter Bathing Scene, Seapoint as they disport themselves against the stern permanence of a Martello tower. His collected sketchbooks over the past thirty years are also on show, evidence of a long-standing dedication to his art and his capacity for capturing the transitory and rendering it permanent in his warm and colourful paintings.  

Solomon Gallery
Dublin 2

John P. O'Sullivan    

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications - 3

It would be immodest to mention that I got it pretty well spot on in the second series of games. They were, I suppose, fairly predictable. England were lucky to beat Wales - but this is a poor Welsh team and England just grind out the results pragmatically. This week we can leave England and Italy to one side - England will win and get a bonus point. Ireland should also beat France - although if conditions turn nasty it could become a place kicking contest and I trust Sexton less in this regard than Jackson. Otherwise I think we are too organised for them and it would be a major shock if we lose. The Wales Scotland match is the most interesting. I fancy Scotland to win but Laidlaw is a massive loss. Apart from his decision making and sharpness around the field, his unfailing accuracy with penalties could be sorely missed. As a result it may be closer than it would have been.   

 Ireland could win all their remaining matches and still lose the championship unless they pick up a bonus point today or against Wales, or England. Today is their best chance. If we do so we can end up on 19 points. England will get a bonus point today and very likely one at home against Scotland. This would give them 18 points and if they hold Ireland to a small margin and thus get a bonus point they will also end up on 19 points. Then it comes down to points difference so Englands score against Italy today could be crucial. We'll worry about all this if we beat Wales next week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Siobhan McDonald - Crystalline

 An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 19 February 2017.

 Siobhan McDonald does not see herself as part of the standing army of Irish landscape painters, abstract or otherwise. Her art is more concerned with science than with nature. Despite some superficial similarities, especially in her earlier work, she discourages any attempts to place her within the landscape tradition. She maintains that her art invokes patterns generated by the invisible forces of nature rather than the visible. “From an early age I’ve always had a love of rocks. Rocks are recorders of time. As an artist who is deeply motivated by geology, the idea of landscape doesn’t fit easily with me and the world I’m looking at is not abstracted – it is connected in time layer by layer.”  She’s more interested in what lies below the landscape and what lies far above it – in subterranean readings and in the vacant interstellar spaces (see Tycho Star in her current exhibition). Her  inspiration comes from seismologists, geologists, cosmologists, and cartographers. Her subject matter comes from field work in Iceland,  Asia, and The West Indies and from museums, archives and laboratories. “I work collaboratively with cartographers, scientists, and composers combining ideas of interaction on the natural world.” She has found in recent years that painting alone cannot convey her vision. “I need to use different forms of expression”. This interdisciplinary approach is seen in her new exhibition which features pressed plants, seeds in glass vessels, ghostly after images of butterflies on antique paper, a series of mysterious white sculptures, a striking work on calf skin, a few small, eerie paintings, and even a short film with an original sound track.   

McDonald has always been a roamer. A cursory look at her CV shows how wide she has ranged with exhibitions over the past 18 years in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Paris, New York, Oslo, and at the European Space Agency in Holland. She has been singularly successful in getting travel grants and residencies over this period and has not been afraid to engage with a variety of disciplines. Her itinerant approach to showing her work is perhaps influenced by her background. She was born in New York of Northern Ireland parents. The family moved back to Monaghan when she was a child, and her accent retains an attractive trace of her Northern roots. She studied art in Belfast and Dun Laoghaire. Her first solo show took her back to New York where she lived for a couple of years and enjoyed some success before moving back to Dublin. "New York was really good to me but I always had this grá for Ireland. I wanted my base to be in Ireland".  

While she has always found inspiration from science (her first two exhibitions were titled Elements and Molecule), two specific events triggered her latest show. In 2010 she joined the Irish Geological Society on a field trip to carry out a geological survey of Iceland. "I really wanted to go just to see the landscape." Camille Souter was also on the trip. "She was so much fun." During the trip their guide took them to the edge of Eyjafjallajökull the volcano that had recently erupted. "It was like we were gazing into the core of the earth. Looking at seismology charts to explore how an earthquake can inscribe itself into scientific records I started to visualise these dark fluctuations as patterns generated by the forces of nature. My subsequent drawings of the unseen world under the microscope brought a new element of alchemy into my paintings".   

Then in 2013 McDonald won an open competition for a residency at Parity Studios in UCD working on a commission for the School of Biology and Environmental Science. “The residency at Parity Studios provided me with a real chance to deepen my interest in geology, physics and plant palaeontology.” This residency led in turn to an Arctic Circle Residency and a voyage on a barkentine (an old square rigged sailing ship) to the Arctic. While on this voyage she was lent a copy of a book about the doomed Franklin expedition. In 1845, Sir John Franklin, an experienced but ageing explorer, set off to discover the North West Passage on two ships, Erebus and Terror. They were never seen again despite a number of rescue missions being mounted. Over the years various traces were found, a letter, artefacts and a couple of graves on Beechey Island. There’s a YouTube video featuring the perfectly preserved bodies that were uncovered. Eventually the two lost ships turned up. Erebus in 2014 and Terror last year. They had become trapped in ice and the crews had died of scurvy, lead poisoning from tinned food (a new technology ironically), starvation and exposure. McDonald was fascinated with the story, "I became very upset about the whole thing. I was in the same waters they had died in".   

The trip to the Arctic also brought a new focus to a lingering unease she had always felt about climate change. She saw at first hand the diminishing ice cap and mingled with members of the scientific community who could back up opinion with hard science. She learnt about the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological epoch which begins with the Industrial Revolution. She quotes a European Space Agency scientist’s dire warning: “I told my children not to have children.” The show that resulted from these journeys is both a tacit and an explicit warning about the looming catastrophe that is global warming.   

There are two key exhibits in the show, Crystalline and Solar Skin. Crystalline is a series of white sculptures that dominate the entrance to the exhibition hall. They are an artistic response to the retreating Arctic glaciers. "This installation is made up of 166 pieces and each one represents a year since we screwed up the atmosphere". She dates this back the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The cracks on the surface represent the damage to the polar icecap. They were originated in a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) last summer and with an Irish company called Enbio. The latter developed the white material coating the surface of the sculptures. This is the protective material made from carbon and bone that will be applied to the surface of the ESA's Solar Orbiter that sets its controls for the heart of the sun in 2018. Another voyage from which there will be no return. The fact that our ice caps do not in fact enjoy such protection from the sun's rays is an irony implicit in the work.   

Solar Skin represents the sun, the hero turned villain. It is a striking piece that dominates the show visually. It consists of a large circular piece of burnished calf skin, a fine layer of woven basalt, and smoked paper inscribed with seismographic markings. McDonald worked with the conservator in Trinity whose brief includes the Book of Kells to garner expertise in this area. A pre-industrial material to balance the super science of her sculptures. She sees the original scars on the surface of the vellum "as a map of the animal's journey". Another doomed voyage.   

Some of the most poignant pieces in the show are small paintings inspired by old glass photographic plates rescued from lost Arctic expeditions. She discovered these in the national library in Oslo and she recreated the faded images in paintings that deliver ghostly intimations of the Franklin expedition. Unknown Landscapes (above) features seemingly lost figures blurred against an Arctic landscape containing ice-locked ships. A figure in the foreground looks out forlornly at the viewer. Her painting skills are evident in Pyramiden, an eerie evocation of the Soviet ghost town on the edge of the Arctic circle. Many other exhibits in the show also contain intimations of lost expeditions. She extracted seeds from plant pressings stored in the Antiquities Department of the Botanic Gardens after an earlier Franklin expedition in 1825. She is involved in a project with Kew Gardens to endeavour to germinate these old seeds. The aim is to produce plants from a period before the Anthropocene began to bite.  “These seeds represent the earth before we fucked it up.” Another exhibit, Silent Witnessing, features melanin traces from the ghosts of past butterflies imprinted on antique paper from an old display case - the original inhabitants  crumbled to dust. The faint traces of the absent butterflies is a metaphor surely for all the beauty and diversity that we are losing.  

 In addition to the paintings, photography, sculpture and found objects that constitute the show an original music score has been written by Irene Buckley to accompany a beautiful and evocative film shot during the Arctic trip. This score is based on McDonald's use of a heliograph, a old device for tracking the sun. She attached it to her Arctic ship to record the sun's track at summer solstice. The recorded pulses as the sun moved across the sky produced the notations used for the score. It also contains the sounds of dying glaciers collected by Professor Chris Bean.   

The sun is central to McDonald's show. The sound score, the large vellum piece Solar Skin, and the sculpture Crystalline all point to a disturbing truth. Since the Industrial Revolution we have been moving towards a situation where the sun has has gone from being the bringer of life to being the agent of our ultimate destruction. We have tipped the balance of nature towards extinction. The melting ice caps are harbingers of doom. Recent events across the Atlantic are not comforting. Artists, who capture the zeitgeist, have a role to play in alerting us in a way that cold science cannot. McDonald's haunting and thought-provoking show reminds us of the fragility of our situation on this vale of tears.      

Centre Culturel Irlandais
 Paris
Tue-Sun: 2-6pm
 Phone: +33 1 58 52 10 30


 John P. O'Sullivan