Bedrooms and bomb sites

I recently encountered two very different installation works that made me think about the power of artificiality. Both Matthew Crawley’s Life Cycle of a Mould Mite (2015) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s In-Between (2015) are recreations of real or imagined spaces: the former a 1:1 facsimile of the artist’s daughter’s bedroom, the latter a low-grade material rendering of a bombed out interior, based on media images. While they differ significantly in materials, content and process, both works spoke to me through a language of elaborate, methodical copyism. Whether reproducing a teenager’s bedroom with exactitude or hand-constructing the detritus of a fictional explosion, both artists engage in a symbolic process of destruction and re-creation.

Matthew Crawley, 'Life cycle of a mould mite' (view from studio), 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photos: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Life cycle of a mould mite’ (view from studio), 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photos: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, 'Life cycle of a mould mite', 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photo: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Life cycle of a mould mite’, 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photo: Harry Meadley

Crawley’s Life Cycle involved the meticulous reconstruction of Brady’s bedroom as it appeared in 2012, complete with furnishings, books, cds, clothing, smartphone, posters, magnets, hair pins, etc. etc., into a replica of the bedroom built by the artist in his shared studio at Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (former home to artist collective Leeds Weirdo Club). Inspired by the evacuation of Brady’s room in 2014 due to an infestation of mould mites, Crawley set out to reproduce an earlier incarnation of Brady’s room, building the replica to fit the original carpet and arranging the contents according to memory and photographs. Like Crawley’s other works, the build is impeccable, the walls, light switches, electrical sockets, baseboards, window and door frames are reproduced with skilled precision. Entering the room is akin to passing through a portal. The austere, white door of the studio reveals a second replica door – complete with hand-drawn paper nameplate and doorknob hanger – leading into the highly personalised, pink-toned world of Brady Crawley, then aged 13.

So convincing is this facsimile, with every object in its right place, collected and arranged according to the desires and logic of a teenage girl, that for a moment it ceases to feel like art. There is an inexplicable awkwardness – this is a private world that ought not to be gawped at – and yet the urge to explore the details, to hover over the pinups and open the dresser drawers, soon takes over. It feels lived in, and at the same time eerily staged. Evidence of its falsity is well concealed: the radiator is made of wood, its magnetic alphabet stuck on with blue tack. When the curtains of the single window are drawn, a view of the studio shatters the illusion. For the duration of the show, the only way into the studio was by crawling over the bed and through the window, returning the viewer to the ‘real’ world and exposing the backstage of Crawley’s installation.

Matthew Crawley, 'Life cycle of a mould mite', 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photo: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Life cycle of a mould mite’ (view from studio), 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photo: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, 'Life cycle of a mould mite' (view from studio), 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Gif: Harry Meadley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Life cycle of a mould mite’ (view from studio), 2015, Leeds Weirdo Club. Photo: Harry Meadley

Life Cycle is about identity and familial bonds, and how the spaces we grow up in reflect and embody our changing personalities. A phase of Brady’s development is memorialised, freezing the traffic of mementos, magazines and colour schemes at a particular point in time. While some of these objects continue to reside in Brady’s room (which, incidentally, she lived without for the duration of the exhibition), many of them had to be reintroduced or reconstructed. Now 16, the artist’s daughter collaborated on these aspects, colouring some Moshi Monsters to replace those that had previously populated her wall. In this way the work is both a memorial, a kind of time capsule, and a reimagining of a lost moment – a fake. Its poignance lies in the fact that Brady and her parents cannot return to this moment. Life Cycle succeeds at the point of failure, in the very effort and exertion of trying to capture experiences and things that have passed.

Months later, visiting the South London Gallery to see Hirschhorn’s In-Between in its final week, I was again struck by the sheer ambition and level of detail of the installation, which towered, spilled over and filled every corner of the main gallery. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s words, ‘Destruction is difficult. It is as difficult as creation’, the work is one of a series in which Hirschhorn explores the aesthetics of ruin and disaster, using the media’s barrage of disaster images as a reference point. The result is an oddly beautiful space, light filtering through a perforated tarp onto heaps of debris, webs of hanging wires and projecting crossbeams. A closer look reveals that much of the rubble is sculpted from cardboard, painted black, some with faux-brick patterns. Toilets, still attached to their plumbing, dangle from exposed upper floors. As I was leaving the gallery a piece of styrofoam fell from the ceiling, prompting an invigilator to gasp, horrified. It was comical. This art-ruin must not be allowed to fall further into ruin!

Thomas Hirschhorn, 'In-Between', 2015, South London Gallery

Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘In-Between’, 2015, South London Gallery

Thomas Hirschhorn, 'In-Between' (detail), 2015, South London Gallery

Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘In-Between’ (detail), 2015, South London Gallery

Hirschhorn continues a legacy of artificial ruins that can be traced back to the nineteenth century – they epitomise a fascination with the ruin as a symbol of fallen civilizations, of human achievement and hubris toppled and reclaimed by nature, of apocalypse. All these associations are of interest to Hirschhorn, but more centrally he is concerned with what it means to be ‘in between’ creation and destruction, a state of uncertainty and precarity that is exemplified by the ruin, and that we all occupy in our present world. In this sense, Ruins with a capital R stands for ‘a structural, an economical, a cultural, a political or a human failure’, yet to cause destruction is a creative act in itself, and a challenging one at that. In the words of Hirschhorn:

My love of precarity comes from the strength and courage which is necessary to create something, despite its precarity, despite the precarity of all things and despite the precarity of life. The logic of the precarious is an absolute necessity and complete emergency – the contrary of an ephemeral – logic which is nothing else than the logic of death.

For me, it is their ability to ‘give form’ to precarity that makes both Crawley and Hirschhorn’s installations so affective. They draw the visitor in with their architectures, their surfaces, their carefully considered details. They imbue objects and their arrangement with a certain resonance – one that speaks of the unrelenting, destructive pressure of time. They both try in vain to recuperate this loss, thereby asking us to acknowledge and confront it. For this reason Life Cycle and In-Between present rich material worlds that seem palpable, trapped energy in a dead-end loop. To try to recreate a moment in history is ultimately to fail, but it is by way of trying that something redemptive emerges. These works – facsimiles, fakes – deliver a profound message about our need to anchor ourselves within this precarious world, if only to pause and consider the fragile beauty of an in-between space.

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Art. What’s the Use?

There has been much clamour of late about the usefulness of art. An art advocate might say that expression – whether commemorative, symbolic, expressionist, conceptual or formal – is valuable or ‘useful’ in its own right. A sceptic, on the other hand, would argue that the large majority of contemporary art is elitist, materialistic and insular. From either standpoint, I remain convinced that art has the potential to challenge definitions of use value, and thereby to change opinion or shift perspectives. Why else does art continue to thrive even without obvious practical or functional applications, even (or especially) in times of austerity? I have been following this question of usefulness for some time: through the pondering the inferior position of ornamental traditions within Western Art History (and the forced divisions between the fine and decorative arts), and through the folly as a construction that serves no other purpose than to compliment a landscape or symbolise the passage of time.

I’ve been reading up on Grizedale Arts, an arts organisation and curatorial project based at Lawson Park farm, above the Coniston valley in the Lake District. Grizedale’s main agenda, at least under directors Alistair Hudson and Adam Sutherland, has been to explore the use value of art – with ‘resident artists, architects, designers, crafts people and critics often working directly with the location and its inhabitants – holding events and activities that engender a collision between arts, community, political and economic thinking and practice’. This focus was developed into a manifesto for the Office of the Useful Art Association, a collaboration initiated by Grizedale and Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, and an integral part of Grizedale’s 5-year touring project: Uses of Art: The Legacy of 1848 and 1989. The project has been hosted by venues across Europe, including Tate Liverpool and Ikon Gallery in the UK, and has just come to rest at MIMA under the new directorship of Hudson. In each manifestation the Office is a space that requires activation, and is wholly dependent on external collaboration. Visitors are invited to add to the archive of useful art, or, ‘participate in this working space, with opportunities to make, create and share your ideas of what useful art means to you’.

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The Office of Useful Art manifesto, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 20 May-1 June 2014

Since 2012 Bruguera has been testing the boundaries of socially effective or useful art, beyond the politics of representation and symbolism that normally serve as its markers. She is asking for a reconsideration of the quality of exchange between art and its audience, with visitors invited to join the Asociación de Arte Útil (Useful Art Association), a membership organisation that underpins Arte Útil or Useful Art. Bruguera explains:

…the utilitarian component I’m looking for does not aim to make something that is already useful more beautiful, but on the contrary aims to focus on the beauty of being useful. It looks at the research of the concept and potential of usefulness itself as an aesthetic category.

More instructionally, the useful art movement asks ‘what can artists do for society, and what do they want to do it for, what can society expect from artists, and what does it want them to do, where should artists open up towards social concerns and where do they need to defend themselves so as not to be appropriated by various groups and their interests?’ (rather long-winded, but at least covers all the basis of intention, production and reception). Despite the good intentions of such a project (in line with Hudson’s aim of rescuing art from the dual threat of its own autonomy and consumer capitalism), I can’t help but feel there’s something missing here. Doubtless, there are many socially affective artists and collectives out there – most topically, the Turner Prize nominated Assemble – who are working with communities to develop (regenerate?) the areas which they inhabit. But, without the direction or influence of artists or curators (read: authorship), how can we call it art? Is it possible to feel collective ownership over something that was a priori conceived and framed within the language of art theory and political philosophy?

When students ask me the inevitable question that hangs over relational aesthetics: ‘But is it art?’, I am often surprised to find myself coming to the aid of socially engaged practice. I point out the range and diversity of such work since the 90s, from Santiago Sierra’s ‘160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People’ (where drug-addicted prostitutes were paid the price of a shot of heroin for having a line tattooed across their backs in a gallery space), to the utilitarian work of Superflex that creates democratic production conditions and encourages self-organisation. More recently, Tino Sehgal has taken the art world by storm (and the participant hostage) with his aggressively interactive workshops in which the line between actors and participants is unnervingly blurred.

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Tino Seghal, ‘These Associations’, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, 2012

Thomas Hirschhorn’s interactive monument-installations dedicated to philosophers such as Spinoza, Deleuze, Bataille and Gramsci have done much to shake up the class and economic hierarchies endemic to the art world under neoliberalism. Similarly, Carey Young’s ‘Conflict Management’ installations offer visitors free counselling services in the street, within clear view of multinational corporation buildings and signage. With relational practice now a well-established tradition, why does it continue to raise the hackles of art goers and laypersons alike? I find myself dangerously close to empathising with Jonathan Jones in his scathing (what else) review of Jon Fawcett’s interactive work at the Tate in 2012, when he moans, ‘Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions’.

‘Social interaction’ can mean a number of different things, and it is not my intention to paint all relational works with the same brush or belabour already much belaboured points about the condescension and exploitation that continue to haunt relational practice. However, the more I hear about the need for artists to make themselves useful to society by way of initiating social interaction, the more I think we’re sending them down a misguided and already well-trodden path. Human cooperation is a behaviour learned very early on in life (as Richard Sennet argues in his book Together), following the realisation that we can only fulfil our basic needs with the help of others. From this perspective, breastfeeding and house building are cooperative tasks through which we learn to work with others out of shared necessity. Cooperation can be difficult, requiring us to overcome our discomfort and fear of difference. We learn to do it because it makes our lives easier, and satisfies a basic need for social contact.

Contemporary art projects which adopt the cooperative model – communal meals, regular meetings, membership schemes, skillshares – are picking up on this built-in aspect of human behaviour and reminding us of its social and political importance. Contradictorily, many of these interactive projects prove awkward in their staged ‘relationalism’, recalling social experiment tactics or loosely scripted performances. Cooperation is unnaturally provoked, with participants forced into conversations or interactions with complete strangers, the ‘results’ documented by artists and institutions for proof of their success (impact?) and for posterity. I can’t help but think that with all the effort of such performances: why not just start an actual coop, or organise a real political action? Having been a member of a particularly well-functioning cohousing community for nearly a year, I can say that living and working with others is a truly rich and empowering experience – but I wouldn’t call it art.

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Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘Gramsci Monument’, Forest Houses, Bronx, 2013

Can social relations be called art? It’s a tough question. Like art, human relations are complex, they require work and skill, and some people are naturally better at it than others. I’ve always had a problem with Nicolas Bourriaud’s assertion that social relations can take the place of or become the artwork, for, as many others have pointed out, it is still the artist(s) or curator(s) that ultimately have authorship over those relations. Or, put another way, they wouldn’t have happened if that artist or curator hadn’t instigated them (nor would they take place in a gallery setting if the institution hadn’t offered a platform). To state the obvious, social relations happen all the time, as well as cooperative initiatives, and they don’t require artists or a bespoke venue.

Hudson and others see the potential for art to be rescued through this avenue of social relevance, or usefulness, but I worry that they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A necessary counter-question is how is art already useful, how does it already affect social change? And not just socially engaged art: all the other traditional (read: non-relational) forms of art production. What about all the ways in which art can open up spaces to think differently about our world, or show us things that we wouldn’t have noticed or thought about otherwise. The ways it teaches us that we can be different, better (more cooperative, even), not as part of an artwork, but in our everyday lives?

I’m grappling here with a paradox that I think lies at the heart of this ‘useful art’ debate, which is that contemporary practice is inextricably tied to authorship and therefore can never be fully in the service of society. Take Grizedale’s Mechanics Institute. In attempting to transplant a Victorian philanthropic initiative (intended to foster artistic skills amongst working class people) into a very different social-economic context (Coniston is home primarily to wealthy retirees and a steady stream of tourists), it glosses over the complexities of what it means to be ’empowered’ as a participant. This is further complicated by Liam Gillick’s commission for the Institute’s library, which amounts to its interior decoration; some sculptural-looking readings desks, a warm colour scheme and framed print. Otherwise, the room functions as any other village public library, ordering and lending books to local residents. I can’t help but feel that this is an abuse of the name of an internationally recognised artist, whose intervention means little or nothing to the users for whom and with the Institute was revived and renovated. Why involve Gillick if not to pander to an art world that deals in names and reputations, and the financial success that goes with them?

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Mechanics Institute Library, designed by Liam Gillick with Grizedale Arts, Coniston. Photo: Hydar Dewachi

At the same time, such contradictions and shortcomings throw into question the usefulness of art at a time of austerity and great political change. Unlike revolutions of the past, art no longer plays a leading role (think Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat of 1793), but a more responsive, critical one. Relational practice has grown out of a basic human need for interaction and cooperation, things that are ever more endangered in post-capitalist, individualistic societies. It points to something that is missing – which is in itself a useful gesture – even when it fails to fulfil a remit of social solidarity and action. In their failure to assimilate or recreate these practices, relational projects act as a mirror or symbol of the frustrating, disjointed experience of citizens of first-world, democratic societies who have been taught to put the needs of the individual first. Cooperation is a skill many of us have lost, along with other practical skills for sustainable living. Their disfunction shows us that we should be relearning and implementing such skills in our day-to-day lives (and many are), not acting them out as art.

Fake histories; false documents

For my recent residency at the Calder, Hepworth Wakefield – part of Pavilion’s Follies of Youth exhibition (2 April – 31 May), I asked visitors to help me build a fake history. After years of doing ‘real’ research, it was like a breath of fresh air to play with facts and testimonies, to pick and plunder facts that stand out to me as ‘interesting’. The idea behind my ‘mapping exercise’ was that participants were invited to add or expand upon selections from the research archive materials, which had been gathered by the group of artists, writers and research known as ‘Follies’. Through this engagement and transformation of historical facts, they were asked to imagine a new, fake history, building on observations which are subjective in the first place.

Most historians will tell you that history is written by the ‘winners’, predominantly white men in positions of power. Particular events and details are pieced together and further narrativised by researchers, who comb archives for information that they deem useful or relevant (to some extent reflecting their own views and biases), often with a particular aim in mind. history-books Histories are made up. They are assemblages of facts and descriptions, with holes and gaps filled in with informed (and not-so-informed) speculation. Perhaps more important is the vast amount of information – events, people, things, reflections on all of the above – which are omitted or left out of official histories. It would be impossible to collate and present in any discernible or compelling manner all the details surrounding a place, event or life, even if those details had been preserved in their entirety. This is increasingly reflected in some people’s desire to document every moment of their lives – from the banal to the spectacular – with new technologies designed to do precisely that. Perhaps that’s a good illustration of my point: think of a facebook friend who compulsively uploads photos, selfies, instagram shots and videos. The result is a bland continuum of images that by their very quantity and random regularity render your friend boring and tedious. Histories, unlike facebook timelines, are carefully crafted things. Like a story, they have beginnings, middles and ends; protagonists and antagonists; conflicts and resolutions.

At the same time histories present themselves as authoritative, objective documents. They act as proof and testament that people existed and things happened, and that they happened in a particular order, often causally. For anyone who has ever attempted to piece together a history, you’ll know the overwhelming temptation to make links, to draw conclusions and to make one thing follow on from another (or across time and place). As you gather more and more facts and evidence from different sources, the process starts to resemble assembling a puzzle, as if each piece has it’s intended place. In reality, things are much more complicated, arbitrary and mixed up. It’s often our tendency to want to make sense of things, and to give them entertainment value, that causes us to arrange things in a particularly pleasing order.  missing-puzzle-piece-300x199So, giving myself (and others) the task of compiling a fake history made me think about these creative processes, and how they are turned out as authentic reflections on history. What kind of language – choice of vocabulary, style, tone – is employed to convince and seduce the reader? What makes a history seem feasible, logical or true? What makes a fact significant or worthy of note? How reliable are the secondary sources that many historians rely upon, and how does this create a layering of fictions posing as fact? To clarify (and state the obvious), there are many ways to write history and some attempts are more rigorous than others.

For my Follies of Youth project, I was interested in what I think is a fundamentally and unavoidably creative act of gathering together and presenting information as history. In other words, I wanted to explore its artful properties, its artifice. I recently stumbled across the concept of the ‘false document’, what Wikipedia defines as

‘a technique employed to create verisimilitude in a work of fiction… By inventing and inserting documents that appear to be factual, an author tries to create a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief for a work of art. The goal of a false document is to convince an audience that what is being presented is factual’

Examples include fake police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references, documentary footage, or using the legal names of performers or writers in a fictional context.  Authors and filmmakers use false documents to validate (even if artificially) a conceit, referring back to them within the text as if they are authentic materials (literary examples might include Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Handmaid’s Tale; though these are debated in an associated Wikipedia Talk page, and the jury is currently out on what distinguishes a false document from a mockumentary film). 220px-F_for_Fake_poster

What seems to emerge out of this debate is whether or not a false document is a form of willing forgery – made with the intent to deceive audiences or readers – and/or revolves around the idea of fakery or forgery. The classic example of the latter is Orson Well’s F for Fake, a falsified video-diary of Elmyr de Hory’s recounting of his career as a professional art forger, starring Orson Welles, who also plays himself, and ‘hoax-biographer’ Clifford Irving. Such works consciously blur the line between fact and fiction, to such an extent that audiences are sometime duped into thinking their stories are true. Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995) fooled an entire nation into believing in a lost national treasure in the form of New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who, the film purported, single-handedly invented the tracking shot (by accident) and the close-up (unintentionally). (In)famously, Jackson was forced to publicly apologise for the hoax, which had caused viewers to cultivate false pride for an auteur who was a complete fabrication.

In a similar way, architectural follies make a mockery of history. Those fashioned as ruins, also called ‘shams’, pretend to be older than they actually are, whilst others appear as functional buildings from a distance whilst serving only an ornamental purpose. They are subversive by way of their very falseness, they make us question the authority of historical styles and their uses, such that it is difficult for non-experts to tell a Neo-Gothic ruin from its much older prototype (which may indeed, be more structurally intact). A ruin made new is a playful diversion, and its very existence makes us question our enduring fascination with deterioration. It raises the question I’ve asked here before – why build a folly? It has no use other than to point backwards to a constructed notion of history, or the passage of time, as embodied in the ornamental ruin.

'Fisher's Hall', Neo-gothic folly Hackfall Wood, near Grewelthorpe, North Yorkshire (England)

‘Fisher’s Hall’, Neo-gothic folly Hackfall Wood, near Grewelthorpe, North Yorkshire (England)

At the Calder we set about making up history, in part an attempt to animate the lost landscapes of Capability Brown (Byram Park, Whitley Beaumont and Stapleton), and to invite participants to think about the past in more abstract, creative terms. The resulting co-authored, edited narrative functions as a folly, a false construction that reveals the unavoidable but often denied artificiality of history. It reveals the processes of history-making: the selection and elaboration of certain ‘facts’ by individuals at a particular point in time. In this way, it is both a comment on our contemporary moment and a false document, evidence of an imagined past.

Download our fake history here: And so throughout history: a consortium of facts.

adventures beyond the black square

Lately I’ve been thinking about geometry, or more precisely, about the straight-lined. For me, geometry evokes a pleasant schoolroom setting, protractors, compasses and straightedges (rulers) strewn about desktops. It involved an exotic vocabulary: quadrilaterals, isosceles, octagons, tetrahedrons, etc., conjuring visions of prehistoric creatures and faceted gemstones. A kind of maths I could get my head around, it was Round shapes of a gemstone. Wireframea visual practice that resulted in making objects. I loved filling pages with precise lines and shapes, closing gaps, outlining, filling. It was an opportunity to create beautiful things, and helped me see the patterns that were in everything around me.

When I teach Islamic art, which involves a good deal of geometry, I often find myself struggling to remember the basics and to relay them to Art History students who are rather shocked at being confronted with maths. This has made me think about why these two categories exist separately in Western pedagogy, and why geometric patterns are more associated with engineering than art. I get a kick out of challenging these established modes of thinking – I ask them why they think geometry is ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘naturalistic’, and then ask them to think about snowflakes, or crystals, or DNA. The fact is, geometry is not a modern, industry-inspired style or form – like everything else it evolved from examples found in the natural world, from its underlying structures and patterns. There’s also a stigma surrounding geometry (like maths) that its processes are somehow uncreative, fixed in a way that making naturalistic or gestural lines and shapes is not. As if using a straight-edge robs the artists of his or her expression, or that having to calculate is a distraction from creative thinking. What is lost here is an appreciation for the endless possibilities allowed by geometry, the infinite number of variations and combinations of shapes. This is where designers of Islamic patterns truly shine; by innovating within set rules, finding new paths along those well travelled. Novelty is found only through careful adherence to basic principles and steps. And, for some reason that is not known or understood, the large majority of Islamic designers since the medieval period have preferred straight lines over curvilinear ones – omitting the basic circle that is the basis for any geometric pattern (Eric Broug, a designer and writer, explains this and other key concepts on his website and in his recently published book, Islamic Geometric Design. The V&A collections also have a great learning page).

Lampas silk fragment, 14th c., Spain. V&A museum no. 1312-1864

Lampas silk fragment, 14th c. Spain. V&A museum no. 1312-1864

The Victorians, obsessed simultaneously with nature and with the technologies used to control and tame it, caught on to this tradition in the Islamic world and used it as the basis for developing new, modern designs. Owen Jones and later generations of design reformers used these more mathematically minded traditions, and their roots in nature’s underlying principles, to create patterns which were versatile in their replicability and machine-like finish. The medieval Orient thus came crashing into the modern era, a movement that was not without its critics (of them, John Ruskin was perhaps the most vocal). For many 19th century thinkers, geometric designs sat uncomfortably between the ‘straight-lined’ forms of nature, and the abstract fantasies of the undeveloped, uncivilised mind, which was threatened to warp and stylize ‘actual’ things as the objective, trained eye might see them. For every privileged Victorian authority who embraced difference, there was another one waiting to shut it down, and still others who managed to do both at once. Ruskin, despite being an amateur mineralogist, struggled to accept the use of abstract and geometric forms in art, associating them with the evils of mechanical production.

Christopher Dresser, 'Botanical lecture diagram', c. 1855. V&A Museum no. 3981

Christopher Dresser, ‘Botanical lecture diagram’, c. 1855. V&A Museum no. 3981

But enough about the Victorians. What I really want to talk about, if only briefly here, is the relationship between geometric form and the way different cultures seek to order or make sense of the world. The ubiquitous pie chart, to give an obvious example, holds sway because it is instantly graspable; powerful and authoritative in its simplicity. On the other hand, kaleidoscopes splinter and multiply its subjects to a point of complete obscurity. Both offer ways to organise and reorder space, subjugating the visual experience to the logic of lines and shapes. There is something undeniably reassuring about a patterned surface: evenly distributed, balanced, precise. I’ve always thought it an interesting paradox that societies which produce pattern as a primary visual output have historically been seen as primitive, their artforms as craft. The tendency to cover buildings or objects with ornamentation has been associated with ‘horror vacui’, a term suggesting an innate fear of empty space. Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle claimed. Art historians have read anthropological meaning into certain cultures’ penchant for decoration, particularly nomadic desert peoples who were surrounded by, well, lots of empty space. This fails to account for the raft of other stylistic periods that span the globe, which are liberal in their over-the-top space filling (i.e. Baroque, Victoriana, Postmodernism), and dabbles in a racially or ethnically determined explanation of style which is best left were it belongs, in the past. It also focuses on the issue of quantity rather than the medium or style in question. How much is too much, and who decides?

Mshatta palace facade, 8th century (under Caliph Al-Walid II, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (excavated from site in modern day Jordan)

Mshatta palace facade, 8th century (under Caliph Al-Walid II), Pergamon Museum, Berlin (excavated from site in modern day Jordan)

Where does geometry come into all this? Well, the covering of surfaces with pattern is best achieved through the use of repeated grids (as opposed to pattern radiating outwards from a central shape, which can lead to irregularities), which means that some form of geometric calculation must take place before an object – whether a Greek amphora or an Islamic palace facade – is ornamented. This is something Muslim designers mastered as early as the 7th century. To make a clear, bold statement about the sophistication and power of a ruler and his court, geometric designs were developed (with the help of Euclid), to project from buildings, textiles, furniture, luxury objects and books in a way that boasted mathematical and artisanal mastery. Pattern was a language that everyone understood, if only through its visual and tactile qualities. This is arguably still true today. Successful patterns are ones that catch and hold the eye, and become easily identifiable signs of culture and status, of identity and affiliation. Think of the subtle but important differences between tartan (plaid), check and gingham. Or Louis Vuitton and Cath Kidson. Iconic patterns articulate complex social messages in an instant, and transcend the language barrier through their organisation of colour, line and shape within a repeatable grid. The building blocks that unites them all are the square and the circle, which underpin each and every design that patterns our world.

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Whitechapel Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015‘, is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the geometric escapades of modern and contemporary art, with a strong nod to international and ‘non-Western’ traditions which are part of the legacy catalyzed by Kazimir Malevich’s ‘black quadrilateral’, first exhibited in Russia in 1915. I was particularly struck by the way that the curators attempted to elevate geometry under the rubric of abstraction, following the Conceptual Turn. In plain speak – geometry was only considered art-proper when it it became a receptacle for avant garde ideas. Emancipated from the realm of craft and decoration, it was given pride of place amongst other fine/high art modes of production. Standing on a Carle Andre and looking at Dan Flavin’s strip-lit Monument I for V. Tatlinit was clear that geometry for geometry’s sake had no place in the history of Modernism. In their attempt to empty art of all reference, these archetypal minimalist works are always, unavoidably about the Western art canon and its discontents: the triumph of ideas over medium and process. The contemporary galleries confirmed my suspicions – the work of Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia is an overt example of how traditional Islamic pattern is in the service of a concept or idea, in this case it functions to scramble news headlines. According to the curators, it’s the way that Ansarinia ‘links Persian and Arabic decorative arts with Modernism’ that is important here.

Nazgol Ansarinia, from reflections refractions series, 2012, 'Enemies Should Know that Syria Will Never Fall Assad, newspaper collage, 15.6 x 13.4 cm

Nazgol Ansarinia, from reflections refractions series, 2012, ‘Enemies Should Know that Syria Will Never Fall Assad’, newspaper collage, 15.6 x 13.4 cm

What is left out of this and other rather late arriving discussions about abstraction is the value of geometry as a creative practice and form of inspiration in its own right. Its history reaches much farther back than Modernity (a nebulous temporal category in the first place), and often overlaps with representation in that it borrows from and mirrors the underlying features of the natural world – the mostly hidden realms of rocks, minerals and crystals. As my friend and art historian Anirudha Dhanawade has observed, crystals have proved not only to be ‘curious’ in themselves, but have also inspired representations which ‘invite reflection upon the nature of images’. Their clean lines and complex formations appear to our eyes as somehow fabricated or constructed; they are magical, miraculously produced things. The replication and interpretation of these systems and their structural logic is the basis for technological as well as artistic developments, something that is often left out of discussions of the ‘representational’ in art. The Whitechapel exhibition acknowledges this through its second organising category, ‘Architectonics’, but mainly through the lens of Constructivist idealism. Similarly, the ‘Everyday’ picks up on textile compositions by Sophie Taeuber-Arp and truisms by Jenny Holzer as the basis for discussing the slow incursion of geometric abstraction into our daily lives since the birth of Modern art.

If this has turned out to be a critique of ‘Adventures of the Black Square’, then I hope it also acts as an incentive to see the exhibition before it ends (6th of April). I think its clever curatorial vision is worth exploring, and the works themselves (by over 100 artists!) are a feast for the senses. Yet there’s something incredibly partial about its scope – not so much in geographic terms, as it charts a truly global path – but in its pondering of the geometric and the abstract as a Modernist invention, at least in a populist or avant-gardist sense. What about the history (histories?) of geometric art production that can only be considered innovative by an entirely separate criteria? What about artists who perfect the art of elaborating and complicating the rules, rather than breaking them? While we are able to recognise patterns and their association with brands or types of people, the average contemporary viewer has no idea how they are designed or executed. Certain audiences of the past, by contrast, may have grasped the language and principles of geometry in a way that allowed them access to the complex variations of shapes and lines within repeated grids. Indeed, for many it was a dynamic and contemplative act that we might liken to entertainment, or cultural enrichment.

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Muqarnas or ‘stalactite’ domed ceiling, Hall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra palace, Granada

What’s in an Image?

At its worst, the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris on the 7th of January and the controversial ‘Je Suis Charlie’ campaign which followed, sent a cynical message about the seeming impossibility of intercultural relations. In its initial coverage the media presented a simplistic notion of freedom of speech vs. religious censorship, and pointed out the apparent innocuousness of the political cartoons that made the journal and its staff the target of senseless, backwards barbarism. I think the cartoons speak for themselves, and I won’t draw further attention to them by describing their content here (in fact, I’ve purposely chosen not to include any images in this post due to its inflammatory subject).

While I am not a Muslim, I find these images deeply offensive, perhaps in part because they are intended as such. It goes without saying that the murder of Charlie Hebdo staff members was unwarranted and a terrible tragedy, but to link their deaths to the claim that the repeated defamatory depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is morally defensible in the name of freedom of speech, and by extension, political satire, is to ignore the lessons of history and deny the political culpability of artists. Furthermore, to blame ‘Muslims’ (as a homogenous mass somehow removed from the multicultural societies in which they live) for not understanding the subtle nuances of ‘Western’ humour, is utterly reprehensible (articulated brilliantly and tragically in this cartoon by Joe Sacco).

Closer to the point I’d like to make here, many images throughout history (and the particular contexts in which they were produced and received) have been the catalyst of conflict and bloodshed. This legacy is not restricted to the varied traditions of the Islamic world, but also pertains to Christian, Jewish and Buddhist contexts. From the image wars of Byzantine iconoclasm during the eighth and ninth centuries to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ from 1987, representations of holy figures – in two or three dimensions – continue to provoke violence (indeed, ‘iconoclasm’ means to literally to break or destroy images). Picked out as an example of ‘free speech double standards’ that coincided with the Hebdo events, Milan saw the banning of a fashion advert that parodied da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Ironically the controversy that arises from the censorship of such images strengthens their notoriety and redoubles their exposure, presenting a moral dilemma to broadcasters when deciding whether or not to republish the Hebdo cartoons.

It has been heartening to see a number of art historians and cultural theorists tackle this issue in the wake of the events in Paris, many bringing expert knowledge of Islamic visual culture to the fore. But through this another dangerous equivalence began to emerge: that a representation of Muhammad created by Muslim hands is the same as (or somehow justifies) a satirical drawing of the Prophet, by a non-Muslim. As pointed out by Christine Gruber in a series of Newsweek articles, the rules around representing the Prophet have varied in different Muslim societies over the centuries, as have the corresponding interpretations of the Qu’ran, which only explicitly forbids idolatry in a wider sense (as does the Bible).

The fact that Muhammad sometimes appears, with or without facial features, or as a calligraphic symbol, does not reflect a contradiction in Islamic doctrine or a misinterpretation of it – it is an indication of the diversity of cultures and periods that constitute the ‘Islamic world’. The category alone is a geo-historical misnomer, resulting from the late arrival of these myriad traditions to Western art history – it collapses vast swathes of territories across centuries of production into a vague, featureless ‘type’ or style. This also explains, to some extent, why the term ‘Islamic’ continues to be used when describing any example of art or architecture produced by Muslim designers and craftspeople, regardless of whether or not its meaning or function is explicitly ‘sacred’ (it would seem preposterous to refer to European visual cultures from medieval times to present day as ‘Christian’).

Put bluntly, Islamic art is not always religious, and when it is, it does not operate by the same set of rules. As an art historian, I have ventured into the muddy waters of representation and realised the extent of my ignorance, both as a Westerner and an agnostic. Numerous individuals and societies have grappled with the problem of representing deities and other symbols of holiness precisely because they occupy a space beyond representation. It is a philosophical as much as a theological problem, with its roots in our mortal struggle to reconcile our own materiality with the immaterial realm that may or may not exist beyond it. In organised religions this realm takes a particular shape and form (with related doctrine), but to deny that members of a secular society do not contemplate such matters is to deny our shared experience as humans. Representing gods, saints, prophets or other figures of reverence in a satirical way constitutes a deeper offence not only because it presumes their non-existence, but also because it makes a mockery of a wider belief that the metaphysical world is unknowable and invisible – a great mystery that is in itself sacred.

For these and other reasons representations have been, and continue to be, dangerous. Political cartoonists understand this completely, and are fully aware of the effect of their creations on the public that view them. I agree with Henri Roussel, the 80-year-old founder of Hara-Kiri (later changed Charlie Hebdo), who warned the chief editor Stephane Charbonnier about depictions of the Prophet on the basis that ‘it didn’t need to be done’. Images are more volatile than words; they ‘show’ things in a universal language while at the same time leaving a wide margin for misinterpretation. Images have a provocative immediacy; their impact is instant and irreversible. The ‘pencils vs. Kalashnikovs’ images that arose in solidarity with the murdered Hebdo cartoonists confirms this, but through a twisted logic. Both are seen as weapons, but while guns are associated with irrational brutality and intolerance, the pencil is synonymous with the righteous, rational defence of liberal values (as if to suggest that firearms haven’t played a pivotal role in countless battles for freedom and individual rights, with casualties on both sides). Indeed, Charbonnier himself seemed to think he was battling some sort of front line, stating on record that he would ‘rather die standing than live on his knees’.

Frighteningly, we live in an age when there is a fine line between expressing one’s opinion and provoking terrorist attacks. This should not, however, form the basis for a polarising view that pits Western satirists against Islam. Why? Because it overlooks a larger, more pressing question about cultural sensitivity, which seems to have been thrown out with the bloodied bathwater. Why, in our fragile global-political climate, is it morally defensible to produce visual content that is designed with the specific aim of tearing at the cultural and religious fabric of our own societies? Many of those negatively affected by these images share a vision of free expression, but that doesn’t extend to seeing blasphemous images thrown in their faces, as if to test the boundaries of their faith and tolerance, or what they’re willing to endure in the name of living in a democratic country. It is possible to see the images produced and defended by Charlie Hebdo (along with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the Swedish Nerikes Allehanda) as a form of cultural bullying, if not a violent attack on the values and beliefs of other societies. Far from democratic, it is agitating and aggressive, a fact that cannot and should not be elided by claims of satirical impartiality (i.e. if they satirise one religion they have the right and duty to satirise them all).

Perhaps more to the point: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

There is little disagreement about whether terrorism should be condemned and its perpetrators brought to justice, but the attacks on ‘gross multiculturalism’ by UKIP and other far right party leaders in Europe is a sign that this logic is being taken to its equally intolerant extreme. This is reinforced by journal and newspaper editors’ insistence upon reprinting the images that sparked the conflict in the first place, as an act of defiance, a ‘two fingers up’ to terrorists. What continues to be shamelessly overlooked is the damage this is doing to cross-cultural relations (nationally and internationally), which are already strained to breaking point. While an overemphasis on ‘civility’ has been rightly criticised (leading to the privileging of some sensitivities over others), there is equally a case to be made for keeping the peace at times when socio-political tensions are high. What harm is there in not representing the Prophet Muhammad in the current global climate, or any other religious figure for that matter?

The tendency in the Western press to associate Islam with the Dark Ages (from which liberal democracies have been emancipated) serves to bury the lessons of the past, including the rich and complicated history of image politics. It also conflates different sects and practices of Islam, such as the growing influence of ultra-conservative Wahhabism with more moderate Muslim practices and beliefs. Even when condemning fundamentalist movements, catalysts behind such movements, often tied up with global political events than fundamentalism (see Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake), are often ignored. What is lacking is a disinterest in understanding belief systems and how they are connected to values, practices and politics. Why not look to history to help shed light on the value systems and visual languages that remain an integral part of our diverse societies, and to better understand the sensitivities of particular religious groups?

Western democratic societies might learn something about themselves in the process. The rampant voyeurism that plagues the internet, and the pressure on journalists and news platforms to ‘bear all’, leads only to a culture of desensitisation that tacitly accepts violence and suffering from the comfort of armchairs. When images become personal, however, viewers are less likely to permit their publication and distribution – the memory and thus the honour of loved ones are preserved in the image, a value that must not be toyed with in any culture. I’m reminded of a recent charge against Facebook for its ‘inadvertent algorithmic cruelty’ when a man was presented with an image of his deceased daughter, selected as the key photo in his ‘Year in Review’. The question of whether he should have posted the photo in the first place doesn’t change the fact that he was deeply offended by the context in which it was re-presented. Most of us have seen something on the news or through a link that we then can’t unsee. It can feel deeply unsettling or traumatic, conflicting with our beliefs or surpassing our thresholds for violence.

So, what’s in an image? Different things to different people – which is why we ought to treat them carefully, with respect and open minds. The question remains whether or not the right to free speech within predominantly secular societies should trump the those of minority religious groups. Rather than being used to raise suspicions that Muslim immigrants might be operatives of an imagined ‘fifth column’ (a shockingly archaic suggestion, even from the likes of Nigel Farage), resistance to representations of this kind should be listened to and understood. If we are to believe in a functioning multiculturalism that hinges on acceptance as opposed to mere tolerance, then we need to regain the ground that has been lost in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo events.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the throngs

I simply don’t have the strength for central London in full holiday swing. Rammed with people moving at alarming speeds in cars and buses, on bikes and foot, I become quickly disoriented and lose all sense of purpose – why did I come here? where am I going? where can I find an independent cafe? – before giving up and settling for a Starbucks. I order a filter coffee and feel defiant, before being relegated to the same queue as the usual suspects. There’s no winning this game without a solidly researched plan of approach. I have one card up my sleeve, which has led me to Regent St in the height of Christmas shopping in the first place, and it had better pay off. Walking up the high-end historic strip, punctuated by the Night at the Museum lights so sardonically slated by Stewart Lee, I was jostled, cut off and tsked by shoppers much more determined and skilled in the ways of consumerism (I, like so many others, have retreated to the safety and security of online shopping, Amazon-free this year).

I’m with Lee here – someone has sucked the spirit out of Christmas, and while I hesitate to pin this on Ben Stiller and the remaining members of Take That (though they may rightly deserve it), I fear there’s a much more menacing monster that’s holding our festive souls hostage. It’s loud, corporate, exploitive and it reeks of department store perfume. I sip my Starbucks filter coffee with contempt and judge those around me. Their bulging bags of shopping, their chestnut praline lattes, their smug, glazed faces staring down at smart phones, fingers swiping and tapping away. They’ve bought it (literally), hook, line and sinker. We are lost.

Night at the Museum lights, Regent Street, London

Night at the Museum lights, Regent Street, London

Despairing and misanthropic I make a move for my destination, an installation by Pipilotti Rist at Hauser & Wirth. It’s on Savile Row, a street known for its traditional bespoke tailoring shops and commercial galleries. The exhibition has been celebrated by critics and events guides alike and promises something different, even pleasureful for the contemporary art-goer. Entering the gallery I take my shoes off as required and slip behind a giant denim curtain which runs the length and height of the space. Inside I am greeted by a sight that is instantly calming. A carpeted floor scattered with thick duvets and pillows. They look like cocoons, and as my eyes adjust I see visitors (participants?) sunk within them like babes in swaddling. Significantly, I notice all this before the art itself – a video work projected colossally across two full walls of the generous space.

I find a free duvet, drop my bag, and set about making myself a nest. I’m going to stay for a while, I decide, regardless of the art. But as I lie there, limbs akimbo, my back thanking me for this much needed respite, I am lulled gently into the work. Worry Will Vanish Horizon (2014) is a feast for the senses, combining visual and audio elements (Rist collaborated with musician Anders Guggisberg), its slippage between beautifully rendered layers of translucent membranes, spiderwebs, veins, leaves and liquids (from water to blood) is utterly transfixing. Based on a 3D animation of the interior of a human body, Rist takes us on a journey that mirrors our own organicism, through an eyelid, along the inner tubes of fingers, the throat, the belly; softly lit corridors all magically emptied of bones and muscle to make way for us. Sound strange or disgusting? It isn’t. It’s beautiful. Celestial scenes are glimpsed through delicate orifices and figures unfurl across fleshy vibrant skeins. It’s like being inside a foetus, looking out onto the world through a prismatic beam of coloured light.

Pipilotti Rist, Installation view 'Worry Will Vanish Horizon' (2014), Hauser & Wirth London, 2014. © Pipilotti Rist

Pipilotti Rist, Installation view ‘Worry Will Vanish Horizon’ (2014), Hauser & Wirth, London © Pipilotti Rist

I watch it 3 times before I fall asleep. I wake and look around drowsily to see if I’ve been caught. Others are doing the same, drifting in and out of consciousness. I am experiencing the opposite problem that I normally have with video based artworks (confession): rather than checking my watch to gauge how long I need to stay in order to ‘get it’ (worrying that I’ll miss something and feeling unsure about when it begins or ends, if that’s even important), here I am worried about staying too long and start wondering if the gallery staff have a policy in place for politely ejecting loiterers. A few minutes pass and I sink back into my cozy bed, assured and relieved that I can stay as long as I like. In fact, it is clear from our collective lethargy that we all need this. Rist’s work is excellent, its bold tactility and visceral pleasure creating an environment in which we feel safe, calm, and increasingly carefree. Unsurprisingly, her work uses principles of Autogenic Training, a relaxation technique developed by a German psychiatrist in 1932 to reduce stress. The frenetic pace of London’s streets, the pressures of work, and the growing anxieties that are part and parcel (pun intended) of contemporary life, are taking their toll. If Christmas shopping has become a war zone, in this private gallery Rist has managed to create a safe haven.

Night falls as I emerge from the gallery and make my way back to Oxford Circus. I opt out of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the RA, finding I can’t face its dark, complex windows into history after such a simple, and dare I say easy experience. I find myself wondering (worrying) if art is currently most effective as a form of escapism, designating precious little pockets for doing nothing together; spaces for reflecting, ruminating and reminding ourselves that as humans we share certain physical, mental and spiritual needs. Some of my most memorable encounters with contemporary art have been immersive and communal: Lee Bull’s Live Forever, a room full of karaoke pods that lull the ensconced participants into a state of expressive extroversion, without the aid of alcohol. I left the gallery flushed and breathless after belting Radiohead’s ‘Don’t Leave Me High’ as I never thought I could, looking around at others to see similar levels of euphoria.

More recently, I experienced Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Room on the floor of Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art, sat amidst a large group of participants. Friends and strangers looked at each other aghast, watching our heartbeats collectively flash across the grids of lightbulbs above us, and hearing them pound in our ears and through the floor, amplified through a sound system. These are the artworks that stick in my memory, that stay with me, that fill me with wonder and hope. I think they offer far more than simple distraction or escape: they also have the power to bring people together in a way that seems singular, special, somehow authentic (if one turns a blind eye to art institutional agendas, of course); the kind of communal experience that is increasingly out of reach in public life.

I begin an aimless search for a quirky little deli to buy a gift for my gracious London hosts, who I am en route to see, but all I can find is a Tesco Metro. I don’t own a smart phone, or an app, to tell me where to go so I let out a deep sigh, steel myself, and enter. Desperately scanning the shelves for something meaningful, something real to give my friends, my mind returns to my snug little nest, among a sea of nests, all our restful faces basking in the lush colours and gentle light of Rist’s videoscapes. If only I could wrap that feeling up, it would make the perfect gift.

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, ‘Pulse Room’, Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014 (author’s pulse included)

breaking earth*

Histories are trapped in the bog lands of County Offaly. As turf is cut and peeled back, remnants of the past are exposed, released into our present. The partial body of Oldcroghan Man, discovered in 2003, now lies behind museum glass in the National Museum of Ireland. Pickled in peat for over two thousand years, the skin on his long arms is remarkably well preserved, retaining something eerily specific, personal. Stabbed, decapitated and cut in half below the torso, he was found near Croghan Hill, an extinct volcano and the site of kingship ceremonies in the Iron Age. His manicured fingernails and plaited armband are indications of high status, and the contents of his stomach (a last meal of wheat and buttermilk) suggest he was sacrificed, possibly after a run of bad harvests. Such narratives, presented in museum captions alongside bog bodies and artefacts, tell of rulers, travellers and thieves that were murdered, punished for their crimes or otherwise betrayed by their kinsmen. Depositing victims in bog pools might have been a further punitive measure, condemning them to a purgatory where high acidity and lack of oxygen prevented their decomposition. A return to earth, but of another, darker kind.

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

More recent human casualties have been recovered from the bogs, too close to living memory to be displayed in museums. Objects are also found: barrels of butter, shoes, tools, weapons and ornaments dating from various periods and contexts. Their unearthing, facilitated by industrial mining, produces new histories. Museum curators decide which examples are appropriate, educational or of particular significance; anthropologists and archaeologists come up with theories and explanations to give them meaning. Yet a different logic of preservation runs through and across the layers of peat: an arbitrary historical record that evolves separately from our oral, visual and written narratives. Human histories are filled with hope and tragedy, remorse and redemption, causality and consequence. Bog history is a hall of echoes. Partial and diffused, its objects refuse a cohesive overview of events unfolding, of beginnings, middles and ends.

The Good Hatchery is an experimental initiative that hosts artists, curators and writers in a converted eighteenth-century farmstead near Croghan Hill. Its directors, Ruth E. Lyons and Carl Giffney, with the help of friends and fellow artists, have transformed a former stable and hayloft into an open plan live-work space and lower workshop. It looks onto a central courtyard where hens and cats amble through the detritus of past projects – a stage fashioned from a trailer, a mirrored shed and an enormous canoe carved from the trunk of a nearby fallen tree (Bravo Serotonin, curated by Giffney, 2012) – while a trampoline and Canadian cedar sauna sit like playful invitations. The part-ruined, part-renovated stead once belonged to a much larger estate, its stone borders extending for acres. We begin with a walk through a forest of hazelnut trees and arrive at a peat field, its rows of turf turned and stacked like so many tiny primitive structures.

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live-work space, the Good Hatchery

live-work space, the Good Hatchery

We eat, and Ruth tells us about the nearby town of Daingain where a prison barracks-turned-reformatory now houses oversized items from the local museum, which sit like dusty relics hidden from public view: a symptom of the failure of local councils to deal with the atrocities of recent memory. History feels close here, time is heavy. I am one of three volunteers on the Follies of Youth project, a collaborative initiative by Leeds-based arts organisation Pavilion, who have travelled to the Good Hatchery to work with Lyons on a project called Pilot Light. Over five days, and with the generous help of a number of collaborators, we will teach ourselves how to make quicklime, which will be used in an installation on the site of a former Capability Brown landscape in Byram, North Yorkshire, in the coming months. This initial stage is also a conversation with history. We will be performing an anachronism, extracting and refining natural resources as a way of engaging with technologies of the industrial past.

On our second day we collect limestone rocks, testing their veracity with vinegar, lemon juice and hydrochloric acid. If they contain limestone, they should fizz. The acid works best. Next we break them, smashing them into smaller pieces with hammers and drills, opening up their insides. Fossils show themselves in smooth grooves and calculated patterns. Limestone is rich with crystalline calcite, partly comprised of fossilised sea life. Cockles. Shells. Coral. Little puffs of captured time escape into our present moment. Later on we watch films in the bunkroom, a programme vaguely linked to rocks and mining. The earth seems to pull; a dilated moon hangs low in the night sky.

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Day three sees us build our first kiln with cement blocks. Our efforts are rudimentary; we watch YouTube videos and look at diagrams, guestimate and make adjustments as we go along. We build the kiln collectively, the blocks laid speculatively and then with more certainty. We add a metal flue and christen it Gertie. It is tall and narrow; smoke billows out of its cracks as wood, coal and rock burn for twelve consecutive hours. We take turns stoking the fire and keep vigil with food, music and stories. Ideas collect, hold, disperse.

We learn about the history of the farmstead from its owner, Eileen Hanlon, who lives in the converted coach house. The Magan family, hailing from Galway, built its foundations in the early 1700s on the grounds of a castle. The walled neoclassical manor suffered a fire in 1846, the gutted structure later dismantled by the monks of Roscrea Abbey. Scandal hangs about the Magans: William Henry ‘the Bad’, who continued to live in the gate lodge after the fire, is rumoured to have dressed the resident butcher as a priest and set him alight as a party trick, and to have married his mistress before strangling her to death. A recent visitor to the farmstead reported the sensation of cold hands closing around her neck while she was ascending a staircase. William Henry’s sister Augusta is thought to be the inspiration for Dickens’ Miss Haversham, a wealthy woman who fled her Dublin residence after being jilted on her wedding day. When the Loreto Nuns purchased the property almost fifty years later they found the breakfast room still set for the wedding, and Augusta’s bridal dress draped over a chair.

Hanlon is descendant from the family of caretakers who took over the property in 1908. She is also the gatekeeper of its tales and oral histories. Responding to an online advert by Lyons and her co-founders in 2007, graduates looking for a contemporary workspace and residency venue, she opened a door onto a new era of the property’s history. Artists use the Good Hatchery as a space for converging, talking, eating, thinking and making. It is a safe haven, an incubation chamber and a platform for ideas, located a manageable distance from the bustle of Dublin. Its interior walls have recently been painted with white lime render and a number of its furnishings recycled from the black wooden planks of Lyons’ 2012 architectural installation, The Forgotten Works at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. The bunkroom is black on white and smells of woodstove. Everywhere I am reminded of the soil and rock beneath us.

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

I meditate on materials. How they come together and fall apart. Their power to preserve, transform and destroy. Lime, peat, rock, soil, matter. The systems of making and unmaking that churn below the earth. How do our interventions interrupt, augment, enhance these movements and cycles, and mark our presence as natural or unnatural? What is modern industry but yet another process? We have entered the age of the Anthropocene, geologists warn, a new stage in which the human impact on the natural environment is indelible and irreversible. Our technologies now rival the earth’s destructive potential, but lack its healing powers. I read on the news that oil mining in the Middle East has exposed the earth’s mantle. The headline evokes a vision of open wounds, of big claw marks tracking across vast territories, of hot bubbling crevasses.

Our first kiln produces only a few chalk-like bits of lime. We decide to try again, following a visit to the ruins of a nineteenth-century limekiln at Ballindoolin estate in County Kildare. Built into the side of a hill, with only a small opening, its design leaves me with more questions than answers, but my collaborators are determined. Back at the Good Hatchery we build a shorter, squatter model and call her Bertha. Our second vigil feels less focused, thoughts and lines of inquiry fragmented and dispersed. The sauna beckons. I ponder, after Lucy Lippard, over the ‘reconstructive potential of an art that raises consciousness on the land, about land use, history and local culture and place’. [i] Are contemporary earthworks as provocative as the colossal land art of the 60s and 70s? Is it enough to simply raise awareness about the fragile state of our planet when our energy demands far exceed its resources? We are on borrowed time. Lippard reminds us that

‘If we fail to heal what Marx called “our metabolic rift with nature”, it will just go on without us. New species will arise to replace the ones we have killed off. We need nature. Nature doesn’t need us. It will simply be a different world.’ [ii]

'Bertha', lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

‘Bertha’, lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

What that different world might look and feel like is the stuff of science-fiction: toxic gases hanging over deserted cities and suburbs, parched or flooded landscapes, the charred or drowned ruins of civilisation left to rot. In many post-apocalyptic narratives nature emerges victorious, shrugging us off with a disaster and returning to pick up the pieces, mending itself in our wake. The image of the overgrown Romantic ruin holds a special place in our collective unconscious, for it embodies our endgame: our final, inevitable return to earth. For all the recent buzz around ecomaterialism and thing-theory, models that call for a deepened understanding of the human in relation to other ‘things’, both natural and artificial, we may be too late to negotiate a working relationship with the complex ecosystems that make our existence possible.

Downtrodden, broken up, emptied out – our time here will one day be recorded through the ceaseless pressures and flows of nature. Compressed and bound together, fragments of our bodies and material cultures will form constellations under the earth. Perhaps one day they will be discovered by some other civilisation, reordered and given meaning according to categories similar to or perhaps altogether different from deep time, prehistoric time, historical time, ahistorical time, etc. Our stories will be lost, but new narratives and interpretations will spring up in their place, based loosely on the remnants of our anatomies, physiologies, buildings, furnishings, tools, languages and artforms. Evidence will be gathered to explain and shed light on our extinction, the circumstances of our final days and hours. Lessons will be learned.

Bertha yields a generous crop. We watch transfixed as Lyons pours water into a bucket filled with chalky stones. Instantly corrosive, they begin to steam, soften, expand, and almost breathe, exceeding the limits of the container. The volume of the powdery quicklime nearly doubles. It makes me think of sinkholes caused by naturally dissolving pockets of limestone, of fossilised sea life being released after millennia, their delicate lines and textures merging, receding and sinking back into the soil. It is extraordinary and terrifying how nature pulls together temporary worlds; snatches things from our continuum, holds onto them a while, and lets them go. It is not interested in permanence or legacy, and never hesitates to kill its darlings.

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*Thanks to Ruth E. Lyons, Eileen Hanlon, Miriam Thorpe, Doug Bowen, Carl Giffney, Emma Houligan, Kathryn McGuire and Barra Dinan for their participation on Pilot Light, and to the directors at Pavilion for their support. 

[i] Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press, 2014), pp. 8-9.

[ii] Lippard, Undermining, p. 179.