Essay for the ‘The Possibilities of Place’ – an exhibition by 9 Stones Artists at Visual Centre for
Contemporary Art, 02 July – 16 October 2016 Carlow, Ireland
Myopic and hyperopic lifeworlds
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.
‘La Prisonnière’, the fifth volume of ‘Remembrance of Things Past’
(also known as) ‘In Search of Lost Time’ Marcel Proust
When I think of a mountainous terrain I conjure up an image of a wild and rugged region, of good foot ware, of the more expensive pair of boots I wish I had bought and my so called waterproof spray that doesn’t work. Of waterproofs, freshness – mist on my face, a feeling of at-oneness with the elements and of the comfort food I will enjoy after my imagined walk. I think of negotiating my way across puckered land, indented over time by hoof marks, to reach the top or far away destination, most
likely for me a place that is a remnant of habitation. Of being careful underfoot – looking down, taking
into account the minutiae of detail that the ground has to offer. Above ground, of scrub and vegetation eaten to the scut by what writer, environmental and political activist – George Monbiot calls the ‘woolly maggots’. Of wind swept trees telling the direction of the prevailing winds. Of the hardy livestock who dwell there, their owners … their lifeworlds. I think of sheepdogs and amaze at how their myopic and hyperopic capabilities are employed in surveying a mountain. How their embodied knowledge helps them navigate the land, weaving their way through mostly inhospitable (in human terms) terrain, in all weathers, in order to negotiate their role as herder and guardian of animals – mostly sheep.
When we think about the rural we think of images of landscapes that are either constructed or remembered. If one questions how the image presents itself, how it is embedded in our psyche over time, this implicates art history. The word ‘landscape’ entered into our lexicon of consciousness originally as a technical term for painters to describe the artistic presentation of a scene. The word ‘performs’ in our minds eye bucolic scenes whereby idyllic rural image montages are built up, this
‘chocolate box’ treatment of an idealized landscape offers us a fetishized view of landscape as stasis, untouched and unspoiled by hu(man). My formal art training acknowledges this process of translating from three-dimensional ‘real life’ onto a two-dimensional picture plane as a false and inadequate representation. Having a clear and distinctive foreground, middle and background one can never represent the other, adequately or, indeed, as simply. Scratching the surface critically, landscape provides, according to anthropologists P. J. Stewart and A. Starthern, a ‘contextual horizon of perceptions…in which people see themselves to be living in the world’1. It codifies (a) history they say, as seen from the viewpoint of personal experience, in the world, which we are all part of.
‘Possibilities of Place’ is the title of an exhibition by 9 artists who work and live in and around the Blackstairs Mountain range in Co. Carlow. The title of the exhibition generously allows for subjectivities that are invested in the word ‘possibilities’. It is only a coincidence that there are nine individual artists, a self-organized group who come together to exhibit under the banner ‘9 Stones Artists’. To this end, it is not by accident that the place in question shares its name with the artists’ group – a monument of 9 standing stones on the Blackstairs Mountain range is a viewing point, a point at which one can stop and survey both the near and far. The agency of the group is activated through exhibitions – over the past ten-years they have held six previous exhibitions, more recently in ‘other’ places not necessarily associated with art exhibitions, such as; a semi derelict town house, a ballroom in and around Borris, an abandoned gate lodge in Carlow town. In places near to where they all live – though this is all relative in the country! Acknowledging that this was a ‘lure’ to local audiences – for some, not so accustomed with frequenting ‘proper’ art galleries, per se. This ‘heritage’ aspect and the
agency that art has in literally ‘opening doors’ throws up questions about the ‘cultural capital’ invested in spaces; either those with historic significance or indeed the white cube gallery or museum space. Their current group exhibition at Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow comprises of sculpture, photography, printmaking, drawing, painting, video and found objects. Each work is autonomous, each work sits comfortably beside the next and the 17 artworks presented are placed sensitively across two rooms in the upstairs galleries.
As a consequence of the Celtic Tiger, many artists migrated from cities to more regional and rural areas throughout Ireland. Superimposing what geographer David Harvey calls the ‘uneven geographies’ of poor farmland with low-income farmsteads, the shift in migration trends with historical co-ordinates from rural to urban (for education and economic purposes) to a more recent change in direction from the urban to rural as ‘counter urbanization’ (lured in part by house price differentials) means that a new type of resident – autonomous from agriculture – is ‘emplaced’ in the locale. This is true for many areas throughout Ireland, where artist enclaves have developed. While I cannot attest as to whether these were motivating factors for any the ‘9 Stones Artists’, it is neither helpful nor healthy to unpick genealogies that further uphold an urban / rural polarity – questions bound up in who is an insider, outsider, local or blow-in are no longer acceptable in what Murdock and Pratt have coined in their text; Modernism, postmodernism and the ‘post-rural’ (in: Journal of Rural Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4. 1993) as a ‘post-rural’ identity of the now. The ‘9 Stones Artists’ are all local, their arms-reach links them within a nine mile radius of each other, though this does not mean that they meet on a daily basis or go on regular outings with each other. They are, however, culturally connected to place which provides a meeting ground, a site of hybridity, a place for a ‘meeting up of histories’ a definition put forward by geographer Doreen Massey, creating a space which connects the past with the present and the future too.
So, what might we ask, is the nature of an artist’s covenant with place? British geographer Denis Cosgrove observes that ‘a lived in landscape becomes a place, which implies intimacy’.1 Described by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan as ‘topophilia’ – this familiarity includes a relationship with nature, flora and fauna, topography that in turn informs a ‘place based’… ‘individual and group identity.’ 2 Tuan relates space, in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, to having ‘temporal insinuations’ and place as having ‘physical insinuations’, that further clarifies the difference and interdependency of the two concepts. Our contemporary global lifestyles, resulting in the ‘uprooting of our lives’ and a ‘waning of our abilities to locate ourselves’3 according to writer, art critic, activist and curator Lucy Lippard, has led to a deficiency in locating ourselves, resulting with a disconnect from the world – past, present and future; to nature – creating phenomenological voids and a lacking value system. Perhaps the overwhelming sense of helplessness to bigger world issues has its roots in this lack of locating self. Therefore, a rethinking of the role of the artist as a producer of living culture aims to address how humans relate to nature within the multifaceted context of landscape, both of the urban and the rural. The articulation of nine individual lifeworlds, their subjectivities and aesthetics are presented here through a cross section of arts practice that employs methods of sculpture; stone carving, modeling, assemblage, casting, alongside photography, high definition video, drawing, printmaking and painting.
This exhibition articulates the rural from an embodied, inside out, bottom-up perspective. The presentation of work acts as a catalyst for revised perspectives – it does not aim to represent the rural, notwithstanding the particularity of Cathy Fitzgerald’s myopic transformation of ‘her’ 2-acre monoculture conifer plantation. But, rather, it translates individual relationships to place, to material, to stories by (re)considering myopic and hyperopic visions bound up in the ecological, the social and cultural lifeworlds. So, whilst place and location are important, that does not limit the resonance of what is being said – local places share global subjects after all.
By drawing on history and trace memories to evoke ways in which we might better place rural lifeworlds4 as directly experienced by individuals, subjectively, in and through their everyday life, the project entitled ‘Nest’ evokes our subjective relationship with ‘home’. A series of nine photographs by Annabel Konig each depict an actual bird’s nest with an artifact belonging to the human world. Ideas of home; memory, loss, abandonment, temporality, freedom, shelter, roots, refuge are transmitted through these donated items by Konig’s collaborators. The use of found ‘things’ – those invested with personal significance, natural elements such as a branch with dried up leaves and a linear natural construction made from straw, feathers and detritus – all interwoven and packed together as if it were a cavity wall insulation – are accompanied by testimonials that reflect on the aforementioned subjects through personal reflections that offer a textural intimacy with political implications about the subject of ‘home’.
The use of the hand and its labour is too often eradicated and made invisible in modernity as seen through mans’ desire for regulation, formality and straight edges. The two woodblock prints by Anthony Lyttle demonstrate a delicacy of the hand drawn/carved line and an intimacy with the medium – that of wood, ink and paper. The hypnotic overlapping of lines, drawn, carved, re-drawn and re-carved offer a hatching effect as seen in ‘Shift and Shift 1’ is reminiscent of dry stone walls, associated with the west of Ireland and of upland regions, built up and layered over time. These inscriptions allow the hands movement to interweave a complex topography across the picture plane, often eradicating the individual line itself, creating dark spaces of ‘otherness’. The second abstract translation is ‘Shift and Shift 2’ rendered in red on white and is more reminiscent of abstracted lace patterns or a snail’s residual trail left behind after traversing a skylight pane. They speak of slow time, at-oneness, delicacy, patience and perseverance and offer a new way of looking via abstraction at the residual traces we see in nature.
Working on one’s doorstep is a difficult task. Not to be taken for granted, this is brave. It implicates the artist in her work, it speaks back to her and includes both a solicitude and criticality alike. It critiques responsibility – past, present and future of the ‘I’ and ‘we’. It questions agency, aesthetics and communicates across a very located particular place on a micro and meta level. Local and global issues prescient are found in the transversal eco-social art practice of Cathy Fitzgerald and in the transformation of her and her husband’s 2-acre monoculture conifer plantation.
Since 2008 this personal / public journey is researched through the use of experimental film-making, photography and text, whilst engaging with activities lesser associated with an art practice per se; forestry, biodiversity surveying, blogging and theory writing affecting in turn forest policy development. Her research, as exhibited here, is distilled through a 15 min. DV and accompanying photograph of ‘Hollywood forest’ – a place in flux. The DV tells of the journey she has undertaken, it tells of ecological struggles and political agency, and critiques the unsustainable practices that a politically promoted monoculture clear-fell forestry system, as seen only through the productivist lens that is currently employed. Through the use of vignettes the chapter titles offer us a glimpse into the complex issues at stake, creatively adapted, as the title refers to ‘Reversing Silent Spring’ (after Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental book Silent Spring). The aim is ‘to co-create and share a new story of forestry’ through the transformation of ‘Hollywood [is] the story of the little wood that could’.
Gwen Wilkinson re-presents remnants from a Carlow past, making links with the former lace making industry there. In what could be called ‘memory blueprints’ her cyanotype montage artwork entitled ‘Lacework’ is an assemblage of ninety-six individual photograms that explore issues that not only resonate in the loss of the cottage industry and local crafts, but those that reference exotic images similar to designs to be found on Persian carpets. Questions of indignity, travel, industry and how ‘we’ assimilate global imagery are all bound up in the work. The intricate patterns are reminiscent too of the inkblot test devised by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach – a technique that tests subjects’ perceptions and emotions of inkblots that are recorded and analyzed using psychological interpretation and complex algorithms, or both. The luxurious overall effect of the wall piece with its lacey fragments arranged to create an overall pleasing composition of symmetry and asymmetry, reality and abstraction display the individual nature of the process. Whereby each sheet of paper is hand painted with a solution of iron compounds, exposed to UV light and each develop to varying degrees a blue tonality – showing the subtle but different elements employed.
The large-scale painting, a mixed media on canvas by Jules Michael entitled ‘Fallen’ pares back the wide-angle panoptical view of landscape and focuses our attention on planes within it. An abstracted expression, a metaphor contained in the built environment where angular planes are painted in muted tones of Naples Yellow, Payne’s Grey, weathered Siennas and Umbers that remind me of many juxtaposed farm buildings; with extensions added on over time, that create a place where utility meets aesthetic. Buildings in nature serve as abstracted ‘interruptions’ to the so-called wilderness of nature, as viewed through a static lens as unchanged and untouched by (hu)man. We pass these buildings daily, taking for granted their function for storage, production and consumption, but as places of work we can only ponder as to what happens inside. Compositional navigations in paint on a picture plane are delineated by her use of shape, colour, tone and texture. Our eye is led across the canvas, taking us on a journey of discovery – not to find the particularity of place, per se, but to expand our way of seeing nature that includes the built environment.
Martin Lyttle explores the materiality of stone, light-grey honed limestone to be exact, that is quarried nearby in Paulstown, Co. Kilkenny. Telling its own story, the form holds empathy with its material, that has, one could say, experienced its own form of demise and evolution over time, phoenix like, being compressed by the weight of history in order for it to be resurrected again through the sculpture forms. In ‘Pelvis’, the lapidified anatomical depictions of a pelvic bone or part thereof act as a remnant and testimony to a former life. In ‘Wing’, a giant-sized rib-bone exaggerates its own fragility, as each lie detached on their respective plinths. We immediately connect with the animal reference – we embody the human, animal and mineral association through the materiality of the stone. The limestone holds a wealth of history, telling of former lifeworlds and remnants of marine organisms, their skeletal fragments semi visible for human in(tro)spection.
Maps, as we may know them, have their origins in those meticulously drawn by soldiers. They served as a means of transferring knowledge, noting markers that distinguish a terrain. They were used for navigational purposes; for governance and control – an aerial, hawk-eye view from above, serving as a tool for maintenance and tax collection to provide services for an area and its people. The lines that are mapped, drawn out and carved by Michelle Byrne on/into the limestone surface offer alternative routes of journeys past and the possibility of journeys future – ones that perhaps engage the imagination rather than the feet. They offer us the opportunity of less ‘official’ journeys through their abstracted translation seen in the cuboid form. Here, Byrne delimits the hegemonic control that a map holds by erasing the markers associated with the built environment. In ‘Black Tumulus’ what remains of the ancient burial ground (referenced in its title) is an invitation to run a hand along its many routes – taking journeys of the imagination. It does not guide us to a particular place, but rather it offers us a space for mindfulness – of being in the moment, making a journey, by hand, eye, by imagination or by foot.
In ‘River Goddess I, II, III,’ the freshwater pearl mussel, a protected species and only to be found in unpolluted waters – is given the pre-eminent status. The three enlarged sculptures by Rachel Joynt sit upright on their respective limestone base. Each is hinged literally, held motionless at varying degrees of openness offering us a rare glimpse inside. These have been studied on a micro level, scrutinized, researched and politicised by their ‘protected’ status and as a subject of enquiry here. The water-worn texture on the outer surfaces have inscribed numbers, coordinates that tell of – yet don’t reveal – their ‘place’. Cast in bronze, they each reveal their precious spherical pearl inside made from a contrasting nickel/silver plated bronze. Joynt’s interest in the natural sciences and biology remains a constant in her work; the sea – once a focus with its aquatic lifeworlds has expanded somewhat to include rivers. The seeking out and finding excitement in the minutiae of life is what living ‘with nature’ encompasses. Not solely taking from it, as through the usual productivist lens (seeing the land as only having value through its produce and viewed as ‘product’). But she begins here to set up a new value system (re)considering both myopic and hyperopic visions bound up in the ecological, the social and cultural lifeworlds.
The relationship between the photographic image and its referent provides a questioning relation between it and the viewer, providing ‘another way of telling’ as John Berger suggests. Remco De Fouw photographs in nature, at night, using natural light or a flashlight to expose the paper that is painted with liquid silver gelatine. An image of a tree in ‘Shroud’ is disrupted by the use of what seems to be a multiple pinhole camera. A veil with hundreds of circular holes exposing the image, revealing it in part, as if viewed through the perforated industrial lens with multiple image parts that make up a bigger whole. Another piece ‘Random Access Memory VII’ comprises of a rough-hewn block of Kilkenny limestone, sitting on a plinth with one cut and polished face that is perforated with a series of drill holes. Some of these holes are filled with glass rods, refracting light, whilst others remain empty – as if it were a QR code requiring us to hold our smart phones up to, to reveal its hidden message. Or we could just use our imagination and make our own connections with time, nature, mechanization, acceleration, memory….
It is not a prerequisite that a group show has to share one or many common subjects. By suggesting this the autonomy that each artist holds is not lost. It is not difficult, however, to draw connecting threads between the works on show – the use of materials, the visible hand, the excavation of memory through the telling of stories, place and the rural as stimulus – thus signifying a connection between the local and global, micro and meta narratives and the myopic and hyperopic visions employed.
The exhibition engages the viewers as ‘actors’ and in turn the very essence of writing about the artworks – placing the work within the context of this text – enables the work and its intent to reach secondary audiences. Writing has a role to play in disseminating the work, offering new opportunities and other ‘possibilities of place’. However challenging the task of transforming a visual discipline into the literary discipline is, it opens up a critical space for imbuing both micro and meta-narratives at the very least – a dialogue with oneself, acknowledging our individual personal histories and within that a subjectivity of emplacement5, creating a thirdspace6.”
Visual Artist, PhD candidate University of Amsterdam,
School of Heritage, Memory and Material Culture
1. Steward –PJ & Strathern. A.,2003, Landscape, Memory and History, Anthropological Perspectives, (London, Sterling, Virginia; Pluto Press), p4.
2. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local, Senses of Place in a Mulicentered Society, 1997, New York; The New Press, p. 8.
3. Lippard, The Lure of The Local,p.33.
4. Lippard, The Lure of The Local, p.33.
5. “A lifeworld (in German Lebenswelt) is the term used in phenomenology for the world as it is directly experienced in our subjective everyday life; that is, in our everyday situations and relations (as opposed to the world as the object of scientific study). The lifeworld is made up of different aspects of our experiences – imaginal, social, perceptual, and embodied – and is often thematically framed in terms of “lived space, the lived body, lived time, and our lived human relationship with other beings”. Taken from an article written by Dr. Iain Biggs “Incorrigibly plural”? Rural Lifewolds between Concept and Experience for The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies Vol. 38, Nos. 1+2 (2014).
6. Emplacement suggests the sensuous interrelationship of body-mind environment, see Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography, 2009, London, California, New Delhi, Singapore; Sage Publishing.
7. Thirdspace is based on the work of a number of social scientists, most notably Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre introduces Thirdspace in a slightly different form and under a different name: ‘Space of representation and can also be seen as ‘lived space’. It is the idea of Thirdspace as the space we give meaning to in a rapidly, continually changing space in which we live. It is the experience of living.