I recall the last words of a stranger - "I can't breathe". These words are unsettling as they return me to you. You who are no longer breathing. I can't breathe. Your last words to me 'say nothing' and so nothing more was said. In this space I am breathing and making a memorial. Around the world unknown people can no longer breathe. Memorials and monuments are being pulled down. What can I do to remember you and all those who are no longer breathing? In the middle of a pandemic that has produced an awareness of how our breath affects those around us, how can I make breathing an act of remembrance? If each inhalation and exhalation could be materialised and made visible then what would the result of such a breathing excercise look like. How would it sound? I exhaled into a bag. Sealed it. Wrapped it in plaster and waited. When the plaster was dry, I removed the bag and the solid shape of my breath remained. Hard to the touch. Hollow inside. Empty and open. The gap fits my mouth and I breathe again. Remembering.
When thinking about memorials, the issue of names - both those who are named and those who are not - is something which must be confronted if the intention is to remember the dead. Over the summer, I have been thinking about this and looking at how others - such as Maya Lin and Lutyens - had to consider the inclusion of so many names on the memorials they designed. I was also struck by how both architects took simplicity - in form and materials - as a starting point. As an exercise in thinking through these points, I made a series of memorial forms (12 in all) made firstly, by collating scraps and remnants scattered around the studio, and secondly by covering the compositions with thin paper, so that the underlying surface could be rubbed with crayon. The images shown here are digitally inverted versions of the original. In thinking about names, and acknowledging that everyone is someone, and that we are all somehow reflected in each other I chose not to use names but rather to incorporate inclusive terms such as "we", "us", "they", "I", as well as "me" and "you". It's still a work in progress but it allows for an empathetic approach, rather than one which must decide who were victims and who were the perpetrators in relation to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Juxtaposing. A word much overused in my art college days. Recently, however, I have been reconsidering its meaning as part of the renewed social interest in how we abut, encounter, interface and perhaps even co-exist with each other during the continuing pandemic. In this context, I started to juxtapose sculptures made just pre-Covid with those made more recently. In the last blog post, I shared the process of making a painting on the theme of breathing, using blown bubbles and paint. The image above (left) uses the floor cloth from this experiment. It is draped over a piece of studio furniture - an old lectern from an unknown church. Onto this, I set a piece of sculpture made from driftwood which I had collected in the West of Ireland. The sculpture is called Mother and Child. Bringing these three elements together - the lectern, the stained sheet and the sculpture gave the piece a cohesion which was not apparent when the elements were randomly dispersed around the studio. As a reflection on this, I concluded that there is nothing to fear from bringing diverse materials or objects (or people) together as the sum of the parts can progress us towards new ways of thinking and seeing, refreshing old ideas and adding new layers of meaning.
The past few weeks have been marked by protest, monuments being toppled around the world and the unrelenting death toll caused by COVID - 19. So many deaths have occured in hospitals surrounded by caring staff or, uniquely, in brutal circumstances on the streets at the hands of those whose duty it is to serve and protect. Some have died at home, in lonely and desparate circumstances. How are we to make sense of it all? Of any of it? I tried to reflect on this in the studio, continuing on from research into how to make absence present; or how to make material that which is no longer there, like a breath. I thought about my own research into how to make a memorial for the Troubles, and how to (as Donna Harraway would say) stay with that trouble by considering the past as well as the present. I am still here. Still present. I marked that presence by taking a breath and remembering someone as I exhaled, through a mixture of soap and paint. The bubbles which formed dropped onto paper, some floated into space and I held the paper up to catch them. Each left its mark on the paper, evidence of breathing. Of being present. Of thinking of those who are not.
For many, including me, May has been a month of mourning as we collectively and individually count the dead here and around the world. Those known and unknown to us who died because they were ill or because they were trying to save those who were ill. Far away from these shores, some die because of the colour of their skin. Judith Butler, in Precarious Life (2004) described - most eloquently - how we are undone by each other and how if we are not, we are missing something. I was a little undone by events in May and so I post this image of Ballywalter beach in memory of someone by whom, at one time, I was undone. As Butler says, " For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the "we" except by finding the way in which I am tied to "you", by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we are yet to know". As many of us are feeling disorientated, or unbound, at the moment, I invite you to consider the horizon in the image above and imagine something better appearing there, drifting towards our shore.
At the beginning of March I was just leaving Paris and wondering, a little skeptically, what lay ahead of us all under the threat of the little known COVID-19. Sadly now, we are all too aware of the present danger and our way of living and being has been considerably changed. For some , like me, there is the safety of being locked down at home in relatively comfortable surroundings. The situation is not the same for everyone and around the world some countries have dealt with this crisis better than others. In the UK, the death rate in now the third highest globally. The luck of the Irish is a well rehearsed cliche but for now, being located on the North of this Island offers a further degree of comfort. Our fatalities, for the moment, are lower than in the rest of the UK. As someone who is trying to create a memorial for the Troubles, these new deaths add a sad extra dimension to the work. How will they be remembered? I wonder when we will all gather in groups again, or will social distancing become an ingrained habit? I have thought about how the home is a refuge for some and a prison for others during these unprecedented times. The designs I am working on at the moment, shown above, reflect some of these concerns and are a way of working through ideas of community, solitude, commemoration and the memory/memorial relationship.
A trip to Paris always brings something unexpected - this time the non stop rain and the threat of COVID 19 virus all around - even the Louvre was forced to close. Luckily, I was able to catch the wonderful Christian Boltanski retrospective at the Pompidou before it finished. A sombre, moving and provocative exhibition centred (for me) around themes of remembering and forgetting; mourning and memorials. It seems appropriate to include an image of Notre Dame in ruins.... Back home, I was pleased to have an older piece of work (bottom right) included in the exhibition Embracing Human Rights; Conflict Textiles' Journey at Roe Valley Arts Centre, curated by Roberta Bacic. My work, the recumbent figure holding a mirror, reflects how much of March has been - moving forward by thinking about ways to remember the past. Next month, I may post a picture of tulips and the rain may even have stopped!
February has been cold, windy and wet so I have been busy working on new drawings in the studio. As is often the case with my drawings, they are difficult to document and much of the detail can be lost. In these drawings, the process is made deliberately complex as erasure, engraving and layering are part of the process. The work is a response to thinking about time and mourning; about marking the loss of many lives individually and collectively and how in times of violence we are entangled with each other. Maybe the heading of this month's blog should be Philosophical February! But these drawings are a way of making marks on paper as a reflection of how time, trauma and memory can mark us all.
January can be a long, bleak month so rather than fight it, I went to London for a weekend of dark things! Memories, ghosts, art and memorials (naturally). Looking back through my photographs I was struck (not literally) by the unintended theme of axes which emerged. From Anslem Keifer's beautiful, bleak exhibition at the White Cube* to a Jack Nicholson mural in the East End of London, as well as 'axes' ancient and modern at the Museum of London, there is always something to see and a motif to follow, if you choose. I wonder what February will bring?
*Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot
December marks the end of one year and the beginning of another. The Solstice is observed and each day extends its light by welcome minutes. It seems to be a reflective time of the year, full of contrasts, such as memory and hope. These reflections are manifested in my ongoing memorial research. This month I have been preoccupied by doors and thresholds, thinking perhaps of those we welcome into our lives and those we lose. The Japanese craft of kintsugi has inspired me as a means to think about damage and repair, how things can be fitted back together, without losing their beauty, even though the wounds are on show. Dark December. Happy New Year!
This is where you will find news about exhibitions, projects, events, other artists, travels, experimental work and sometimes things that I just enjoyed seeing! I hope you enjoy them too!