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.      

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 John P. O'Sullivan