This time last year, I was in Paris. It was my last trip abroad. Since then, travel has been limited but thoughts can always roam free. Sometimes, the memories of a special place are found nearer to home. There is no need to visit them because they can be recalled in the mind just as a photograph is held in the hand. Island Hill is a storehouse of memory for me. Each time I think of it, or visit it, I am reminded of Marc Augé when he said " Memories are crafted by oblivion as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea" . He speaks of the connections between memory, oblivion and erosion and it always makes me think of Island Hill and how , over my life time, is has been eroded and seems a little smaller each time I go there. I wonder then as it decreases in size will my memories of it fade or will it always exist as long as I remember it? In years to come, what will be remembered from this year of lock down - who will be remembered and why? Despite the impossibility of perfect recall and the challenges of the past year, I feel lucky to be here to narrate the memories of them.
The stones in the foreground of the image above are known locally as a dolmen, and it sits within a circular earthwork - or henge - called the Giant's Ring. It is one of Ireland's oldest monuments, circa 5, 000 years old, and therefore it predates the pyramids at Giza. What we see today are the inner remains of the tomb and not its outer covering, nor the other tombs that were said to surround it. I have been thinking a lot recently about the oppositions of inner/outer and visible/invisible. Bachelard's Poetics of Space has helped me think about these things in interesting ways. Bachelard talks about the interface of oppositions by drawing our attention to what is held in tension between polarities and how the dialectical relationship between inner/outer is intimate and subject to change, or reversal. The point at which these polarities come together - the border line - is, according to Bechelard, painful to both sides. To avoid this pain, in a move from poetry to physics, we might consider that (after Barad, 2014) there are no boundaries, as "there is no absolute outside ; the outside is already inside". As I continue to develop ideas for a future memorial, I ask myself what the relationship between the visible and invisible will be, and how will it enable polarities to come together there in ways which are not painful to either side. How can I avoid absolutes?
The origins of the phrase 'may you live in interesting times' may never be known . I would argue that today, the nature of time itself is compelling and complex. We are not just living in interesting times but in a troubling and traumatic time period when the measurement of how hours and days pass (and repeat) is marked by a new chronology - Covid Time - which seemingly has no end. As the evenings darken and temperatures drop is it possible to think of better times ahead? I believe that it is. November turns into December and the shortest day is just that - one solstice day - after which days incrementally start to lengthen . At this present time we are shut down, locked in and dark. Time passes slowly for some and quickly for others. Some people don't notice time passing at all . For too many people this was the year that time stopped. These are some of the reflections that were layered into the making of the clock shown above. It had lived, silently, in a box for many years - an inheritance from another time. When I unwrapped it in the studio to start making a cast of it, the mechanism unstuck itself, and I heard it tick for the first time.
In a world where the only certain thing is continuing uncertainty it seems appropriate to continue experimenting in the hope that being open to new ways of thinking and doing might be part of the solution. In the studio, I continue with experiments into how to materialise that which cannot be measured or seen - like a breath or the weight of someone's soul. Allegedly, and if we believe in such things, this is 23 grammes. The bird form shown above weighs 23 grammes. It is hollow and translucent, made from fibreglass tissue and pva glue - gossamer or ectoplasm were not available! As we have just passed Hallowe'en, and today marks the Mexican Day of the Dead, in the midst of another COVID lockdown, one wonders about the combined weight of all the souls of the dead. By how much will this weight increase in the coming weeks, and who should be remembered this year, on Remembrance Day?
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.
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