Reviews

2019 RTE, ‘Artist: Siobhán McDonald on geology, time and the Anthropocene’ by Cristín Leach

2019 Irish Times, The five best art exhibitions to visit this week, Feb 9th. by Aidan Dunne

2019 Sunday Business Post, https://www.businesspost.ie/magazine/breathe-the-pressure-432158 by Cathy Dillon

2019 Irish Times, ‘Ash to art: Can Mount Etna’s eruptions tackle carbon emissions?’ by Sue Rainsford

2019 Interalia Magazine, Hidden Monuments

2018 Interalia Magazine, Messages in Water

2018 Artists and Climate Change: Painting the Mysteries of Science

2017 The Guardian: Arctic expeditions and stars collide to create 'quietly powerful' show

2017 The Irish Times, Gemma Tipton: Best Art Exhibitions this Week

2017 Crystalline, Featured with Chris Drury;  David Buckland, Cape Farewell and Heather Davis on April 2017 of Interalia,  issue, Earth

2017 Awarded show of the week: The UN Framework for Climate Change

2017 Review Science Magazine ‘Deep Exposures‘ by Deborah Dixon

2017 The European Space Agency, ‘From Stone Age To Space Age: How Artist Siobhán Mcdonald Used Charred Bone To Bring Past And Future Together’ by Stuart Clarke

2017 Apollo International, ‘Siobhan McDonald’s chance encounters with a changing world’ Art Magazine by Tom Jeffreys

2017 Sunday Times ‘Her crystalline mine’ by John O'Sullivan

2016 The Guardian, ‘My works seek to merge the poetic and the Scientific’

2015 Irish Times, The Gloss, ‘My Arctic Voyage of Self Discovery‘

2015 Irish Times, The Art of Scientific Exploration by Cathy Dillon

2014 Irish Times, Siobhan McDonald Paints like a geologist by Dick Ahlstrom

2013 Irish Times, ‘Iceland is like a blank canvas’ by Kevin Courtney


‘Born of a Singularity’,[1] Art and our position in the ecosystem

If you look through critical writing about Siobhan McDonald’s artwork you would not be immediately aware that she is pre-eminently a painter. But it is with the sensibility of a painter that she views the issues of our time. On the day on which I first met her, at her studio in the Science Faculty at University College Dublin, it had just been announced that Cheddar Man, the oldest known human inhabitant of the British Isles and ancestor of the British (and Irish) people was not white, as previously thought, but black. New DNA evidence revealed that the ethnic purity of the white ‘master’ race was based on nothing more than a false, and generally, harmful assumption. Science has a way of reviewing even the most cherished beliefs, and confronting us with alternative hypotheses to what we think is the truth. As an artist, Siobhan McDonald has devoted herself to bringing visibility and sense to subtle, even invisible shifts in knowledge.

Like the great painters of the past, she is interested in the mystery of existence, ‘what is still unknown to science, exploring the origins of life and plants as a way to see clearly into the future’. Her field of vision is large. It extends across time and space in search of artistic vehicles that can carry the wonder, the mind-numbing terror of change over temporal and spatial spans that we cannot begin to imagine. She invites us to consider how past and future might come together, keeping a forensic as well as an aesthetic eye on the traces and residues of past activity and the scientific studies that suggest future direction, bringing her closer to an understanding of the phenomena that feed her art project. She moves between examination of the evidence of biological and historical activity hidden in the icy landscapes of the arctic circle, to volcanic activity in the same region, creating her own seismometer to record tectonic shifts in the earth’s substrata, making artwork to reflect the fossilization of an object as modern as an abandoned Dakota DC3 aircraft, bringing a painter’s eye to bear on the accretions painted by time on to its surface.  This merely parallels her own painting process. “Paint congealed and reacting to time for me suggests possibilities… a form of alchemy that transforms our understanding”.[2]

 

Her philosophical landscape is filled with evidence of the strength and continuity of natural forces. While there is something biblical about the power and might of geological change, McDonald is just as quick to spot and be moved by quieter, but no less inexorable temporal alteration. Thus, Silent Witnessing (2017), is simply composed of a sheet of paper, which once formed the backing to a collection of rare butterflies in UCD. The butterflies had long since turned to dust, and been swept away to prepare for other research species. Only McDonald was sensitive to the potent image left in their wake by dust and melanin, describing their patterned imprint as ‘a natural photogram’.

 

In pursuit of her goals she has embraced sculptural installation, photography, sound, video, found objects and chance occurrences, even materials so new, they are only being invented as she uses them. Her paintings, as Disappearing Worlds reveals, are informed by all of them. What does it mean to take a pre-existing image, literally frozen in time as the plate glass photographs of failed, nineteenth century arctic expeditions were, and to re-imagine them in paint?  The act of painting becomes a means to feel your way into the experience of the original photographers, to consider what they saw, to add the dimension of present time and your own thoughts as you examine each mark, scratch and erasure in the original. The paintings are influenced by the ravages of a century of concealment in ice on those glass plates; their tracery becomes part of her painterly alphabet. The battered figures in paintings such as Unknown Landscape (2016), blurred and partly obliterated as if time and snow and desperation withholds them from our re-discovery, result in a real sense of encounter with the ill-fated expedition team. Their moment in time and the climatic conditions which paradoxically caused their deaths but preserved the evidence; simultaneously showing the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, become the emotional stimulus for the contemporary painting. Importantly, the time-based painting process, itself, adds an emotional dimension to mere scientific ‘evidence’ of time, cold and certain death. Inevitably the little expedition paintings evoke Caspar David Friedrich’s figures gazing over the cliffs at Rugen.  But no matter how terrible Friedrich’s sublime is, his well-dressed protagonists retain a sense of agency over the landscape, it is clear from McDonald’s paintings, that the blizzards of ice that already sweep her human inhabitants away from each other, deny such power. In this, McDonald’s paintings are closer to those of Turner, speaking of vulnerability, refusing the comfort of a church spire, however distant.

 

If the narratives of the cosmos from the Jurassic periods to the Anthropocene yield the subject matter for McDonald’s work, time, matter and space are also implicated as co-workers in it and it is her role as a painter to make that visible. The charred animal bone, the chambers of air, preserved since the Triassic period and toxic to humankind today, the 190-year-old seeds, preserved in ice since the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, the crystalline deposits grown and metamorphosed by atmospheric action in an old drawer; the seismic drawings on charcoal dusted paper made by imperceptible movements of the earth all perform themselves. They are like other kinds of paint, growing, layering, removing, creating meaningful surfaces. McDonald recognises that and frames them on the walls.

 

Where Leonardo da Vinci, observed, sketched and pondered the movements of water and wind, land-locked fish fossils, the flight of birds, McDonald, the UN Climate Action Programme’s first artist of the week, (2017), took her thoughts out of the sketchbook and into the public domain. Leonardo had time on his side. But there is a sense of urgency now,  as man’s actions on a global and industrial scale change the nature of the universe, and appear to be hurtling us to an unpreventable catastrophe. McDonald has to work across a wide range of data, using every tool in her scientific and artistic repertory to inform and persuade us that the pace of deep time and geological change may still have lessons for us. Leonardo and his contemporaries believed in the harmony of the spheres, where every organ contributed to the balance and order of the universe. McDonald asks us, instead, to look at the effects of imbalance, to listen to the drips of the dying glaciers, to witness the impacts of global warming in Crystalline, where large panels of sponge, coated in Solar White, a mix of carbon and bone (about to be used on the  European Space Agency’s 2018,  Solar Orbiter). recall frozen wastelands and dried out riverbeds. Leonardo constantly reminded those around him of the inter-dependence of science and art. Nowhere is this more evident than in McDonald’s Solar Skin which combines seismographic drawings on smoked paper, basalt and stretched calfskin. Science may have dictated the seismographic technologies and even the use of basalt, but the calfskin is a direct link to the Book of Kells and a reminder of McDonald’s artistic heritage.

 

For the first time in history man is responsible for climate change. Somewhere along the vast spread of time that McDonald’s work examines, it would appear as if mankind forgot that it, too, is part of the natural world.  Leonardo’s blunt language about human biology, “the tree of the heart has its roots in the dung of the liver,” brings us right back to our roots, to the dust and bacteria that reach far beyond Darwinian and Freudian analysis. The vulnerability so evident in the arctic expedition paintings, or the narratives of cosmic activity in paintings such as her Peter Doig-like Meteorite hits Savissivik 2017 insist on the centrality of change, implied in every living thing. Two-thousand years ago, Ovid, brooding over the way rocks, animals, people and plants  developed, concluded;

 

Thus are their figures never at a stand

But chang’d by Nature’s innovating hand:

All things are alter’d, nothing is destroy’d,

The shifted scene for some new show employ’d.

Then to be born, is to begin to be

Some other thing we were not formerly:

And what we call to die is not t’appear

Or be the thing that formerly we were.[3]

 

Although mindful of the damage man’s actions have caused to age old habitats and processes, Siobhan McDonald’s work, like Ovid’s words, remind us that the seeds of a different future, not necessarily the end of life, are contained in the scientific evidence. It is the emotional energy transmitted through the artworks that will decide how the wider community, beyond the laboratory, engages with that knowledge.

Catherine Marshall, February 2018

[1] This title comes from Tim Robinson, ‘Seism’ in Siobhan McDonald, Eye of the Storm, 2012, “Since the Cosmos and all that’s in it were born of a singularity, all things are related’. P 9.

[2] Conversation with the artist, February 2018.

[3] (Ovid, Metaporphoses,  XV, ‘The Pythagorean Philosophy’ translated by John Dryden, 1747.)

 

Eye of the Storm

Tim Robinson, March 14th 2012

Somewhere on the further side of the globe, two of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust and that carry the continents and the oceans are locked against one another, unable to move in response to the slow convection currents in the magma on which they rest. Tension builds, for decades, for centuries. Then great thicknesses of rock rupture and the plates lurch onwards, accomplishing a few more feet or yards of their blind journey. The shock generates pressure waves that radiate through the interior of the Earth, where they may be reflected off or pass through the inner core, a solid sphere of iron and nickel some 1500 miles across.

There are sheer waves too, that shake the rock from side to side like a dog with a rat; they cannot pass through liquids such as the molten rock of the outer core, so take their way through the crust and the plastic but near-solid magma of the mantle. Both types of waves also travel around the surface of the globe, causing the ground to roll like a slow-motion ocean and to shudder laterally in a way that near the epicentre of the earthquake can topple cities. These various waves interfere with one another and sound out the earth’s fundamental frequencies, and are eventually attenuated by distance until only the most delicate of instruments can detect them.

Before electronics, seismographs used to be elaborate constructions of balanced levers, as poised and focused and skeletal as a praying mantis, that translated the relative displacement of a weight and the casing from which it was suspended into the oscillations of a beak-like pen across the moving surface of a roll of smoked paper; thus an earthquake in Chile or China could inscribe itself into the scientific record by displacing grains of soot a world away. Perhaps an artist, decades later, will transpose the fragile roll into a context that licences new interpretations of its obscure earth-script.

The Earth’s crust is currently unzipping itself, and has been doing so for over a hundred million years, as the plates bearing Europe and the Americas move apart and allow lavas from deep in the mantle to well up and solidify between them, creating the mid-Atlantic ridge. Iceland sits astride of this nine-thousand-mile-long submarine mountain range; hence the island’s hot springs and volcanoes. Near one of these volcanoes lies the husk of a crashed 1950’s Dakota DC3. Over the years it has been layered with volcanic ash; it is on the way to being fossilized. The DC3, once the workhorse of the air transport industry, has been described as ‘a collection of parts flying in loose formation’. Here the formation is slowly degraded as parts drop off, building up a two-dimensional reduction of their previous three-dimensional order on the frozen ground.

Corrosion has opened up numerous piercings in the pitiful hulk. The sun, millions of miles away, blasts forth unimaginable numbers of photons in all directions, enough of which pass through these holes to let it leave its thumbprints on the interior of the plane. As the world turns, these wafers of light creep along the empty fusilage, fade, and are dispensed again with the next unclouded morning. The weightless parade is fractionally different every day as the sun’s track arches higher in the sky with spring and shrinks down again with the coming of winter. The artist observes, records, relates. Since the Cosmos and all that’s in it were born of a singularity, all things are related. The task of the artist is to trace the lines of this universal cousinage.

 

Time Regained

Rachael Thomas, Head of Exhibitions, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats (1) 

In these lines written in 1920, W.B. Yeats meditates on the history of the world – its past, its present and ultimately its future. As a member of the cross-over generation that had witnessed the dying of the optimistic 19th century and the birth of the cynical modern age in World War I, Yeats was all too well placed to consider the cycles of human history. This passage announces a new world order, all the more resonant as we fly forth into the early stages of our new century which has already seen a shift in global economic and political power. In his apocalyptic vision of the future, Yeats creates a bittersweet tone with his depictions of the violent vitality and vibrations of the natural world. Echoing Yeats’s methods, the artist Siobhán McDonald explores the natural world as a pathway, playfully seeking to explore the interplay between the landscape and its representation.

From the beginning, McDonald’s art has been predicated on the natural landscape. The role and function itself of painting, especially in her beautiful handling, affirms her landscapes as being mythic and romantic sites. Siobhán McDonald’s practice is transplanted to the stage of current cultural history, upon which she comments on tradition and influence. By dissolving boundaries between landscape and seascape, surface and image, McDonald creates a certain dystopia. Perhaps this is why the tendency toward nostalgia so often seems to inhabit her art; this narrative of nostalgia is key to understanding the motivation of her work.

The series of works shown here are based on her experiences of the natural landscape in Venice last summer. The use of multimedia and her ‘mapping’ of the city signifies the liminality of historical architectural space of certain districts of Venice and the surrounding lagoons. The layering of scanned images of old maps (sometimes reimagined in Photoshop) with fluid paint, etchings and rubbings-out create a visual tension that hints at the delicate balancing act Venice has always represented.

‘The promise of ruin has been one of the greatest inspirations to Western art.’ (2)

Today Venice is seen as elegantly decaying ruin. McDonald’s mixed-media paintings and series of found woodblocks remind me of impressionistic memoirs of the 18th-century Grand Tours of Venice and Rome. Nevertheless she is recording a disappearing world. The paintings’ similarity to the jewel-like illuminated miniatures of the late middle ages in their unabashed celebration of beauty masks the reality of the landscape’s stoic acceptance of its own erosion and ruin. For Venice is drowning. The recent ‘acqua alta’ (high water) in Venice last week reached a depth of 1.56 metres (5’1”), the deepest flood in 22 years, and the fourth-highest flood level in recent history.

‘In works such as untitled 1, the colours of the blue lagoon seem to rhythmically reclaim the picture plane by enveloping the architecture. Thus, the painting becomes an allegory of the present social and environmental status of the cityscape. This is further cultivated in untitled 2, where the transient and ephemeral become fixed in a highly refined manner. We see faint lines that fill the picture (from a seismograph). Reminiscent of an Agnes Martin painting, we see the use of Minimalist forms and multi-configured grids. Here, they trace the violent disruption of an earthquake, but the sensuous saturated white background makes it all seem initially innocuous. Both Siobhán McDonald and Agnes Martin share a way of pushing an essentially decorative sense of mark-making toward an expressive magnitude.

To Yeats’s consideration of historical cycles, Siobhán McDonald injects a geological and psycho-geographical dimension too. In reflecting on this, we see in her practice a desire to read history through its landscape, with its reverberations and revelations.

(1) William Butler Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’, in Augustine Martin (ed.) The Collected Poems (London: Vintage, 1992) (2) Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001)

 

Resonant Ecologies

Circa Magazine, Jessica Foley, Lecturer in Visual Art Education at MIC, Limerick.

Siobhán McDonald is a painter. A most recent adventure brought her to Montserrat in the West Indies – to Mount Chance, where she worked in an observatory with the scientists. There they record ground movements using seismometers – stations dotted around the base of the volcano, powered by batteries & energy from the sun – their outputs graphed onto lengths of paper for the scientists to decode. “I began to see it as a form of mapping”, she said, “The layers of line & latitude create a visual score, which maps the vibration of the earth’s signals”12. A traveler conscious of new terrain through vibrations & senses – the practice of her making embedded in a deep listening... The visual remains of the paintings powerfully suggestive reminders that the mind forgets the movements and experiences and encounters that give rise to the score – Becoming layered articulations over time – the beginning indistinguishable from the end – right at the centre of an entropy that is not destructive, not futile, but simply is – “...there is no mystery. Purity, simplicity, truthfulness and the absence of pretence or pretention are the marks of sound art, and such art is universally understood, as are simple folk tales and moral stories. Ordinary people know instinctively that art becomes degraded unless it is kept simple.” 13 Falling Silence – 1000cm square canvas – stratified oils & sumi ink – a paling horizon disguising the shadows underneath, the coarser ground hulking through the centre, resting on the still depths of blood red below. And all in between like some labyrinth of pathways, crusted walls rising up around, the walls of the world – an imagining of a landscape suited to the most courageous archaeologist, the most intrepid ecologist – navigating through without a destination in mind, without a summit to attain, without opposition, but with a determined ear – a listening consciousness.

The surface of the paint splattered table once again demands attention – the relief of it pushing softly into the palm – a reminder of someone else’s thoughts; “The ability to listen, which allows us to hold firm and remain vigilant at the borders of obscurity, might be the condition that makes it possible for us to remain open to further linguistic & theoretical fields of concern. We are thus released from those causalistic ‘explanations’ for which we have developed a kind of addictive tolerance: basically, un recognized shifts in the meaning of ‘because’ or, motives are not causes.”14 – a cultivation of listening might be a way towards a cultivation of thinking... The openness of the acoustic ecologist – the acknowledgement of choice – the open ended travels of the painter facilitating a sensory focusing – both recording & compiling; but without that imaginary climax limiting the importance of the process, or hindering the presentation of formalized output. That concern for thinking reestablishes itself – perhaps it should be voiced louder here under these grand oak panels, allowed to reverberate through this ‘teaching’ space – perhaps with one or an other it might resonate at some point in time...

 

Essay for ‘Ash and Ether’ by Conall Morrison, May 2009

Conall Morrison, Theatre Director

The floors in Siobhan McDonald’s studio are scatterred about with jars of bitumen and piles of volcanic ash, tins of oil washes and glazes to be used for staining. The walls are covered in photos, postcards of a Tadao Ando or Agnes Martin, cuttings from newspapers, fragments of mono-prints on Japanese paper, old x-rays, seismographic printouts, scribbled quotations, aphorisms and provocations.

McDonald is an avid traveller, a foreign correspondent who brings back visual reports, filtered into art through her imagination and wide-ranging technique. Her work is compelled by her fascination with the Environment and with environments, from oceans and oil-slicks to rust-patterns and the residue of rainwater. Having absorbed these images, atmospheres and impressions, she transfigures them into penetrating studies on place and human existence.

Part of McDonald's studio pratice is not unlike earth formation with its multiple layering and subsequent erosion. She lays down strata of oilpaint, with sumi ink, ressin - whatever tempts her by its unexpected appropriateness; then, having constructed her own primordial entity, she becomes her own geographer and digs back into the accretions, carefully scraping or scoring away, excavating until the painting has opened and revealed itself.

The end results vary from the darkly apocalyptic to the optimistic and inspiring. And yet she is careful to leave it as if the process were not complete, as if the work and the world it depicts were still in flux, like nature itself; so that a viewer could return to a painting after a gap and feel that the painting had somehow morphed, had altered with the flow of time, that the work was open-ended, like her own processes, mutable and ultimately unquantifiable, like life itself.

Her most recent trip was to the volcanic island of Montserrat in the West Indies. Its volcano, known by some as Mount Chance, erupted in (1995). Only the tops of the church spires are now visible in Plymouth, the former capital. For McDonald, a volcano is not only one of the ultimate forces of the natural world, but also one of mankind's most potent metaphors. The eruptive power - at once devastating and awe-inspiring - reminds us not only of the magnificent violence of nature and the fragility of human life, but speaks to us of hidden forces, chaotic unpredictability, energies boiling beneath surfaces…until the explosive moment arrives. This concept is centrally resonant with the concerns of her recent work - the forces that shape nature and their symmetry with human nature and human experience.

 

The Irish Times

Mark Ewart, September 26th 2007

Many of you, I’m sure will have become somewhat jaded by the disposable, quick-fix culture we live in, Perhaps the contemplative artwork of Siobhan McDonald’s is one way of gaining an antidote to this merry-go-round, as her mixed media paintings are all about allowing the subtle evocative sensations to clear the clutter from your mind and restore a sense of calmness.

This work is technically very accomplished and is executed without a hint of gimmick and artifice, demonstrating a tangible sensitivity to the language of colour and texture. The first impression is that these works are essentially abstract, and indeed, certain pieces do detach from reality and physical representation. By and large, through the influence of landscape is too tantalising to deny. Here, open vistas stretch to the horizon, but the passage to the vanishing point is interrupted by turbulent veils of air and diffuse light. Degradation of the painted surface is a strong characteristic, as layers of texture battle for your attention. At times the marks are bristling with energy and vigour. Elsewhere – and often on the same canvas - there is a delicacy through translucent layers. Filigree fine lines, wax resists and dry textures that all embody the sensibilities of drawing, rather than painting.

These surfaces have an ethereal other-worldly quality, which removes the images far away from conventional, literal interpretations of landscape. The colours and textures are at times reminiscent of the mystical qualities of the French symbolist Odilon Redon, minus the magical forms and characters. This sense of absence provides a stillness and grace that is certainly arresting for the viewer.