Siobhan McDonald’s new exhibition explores peatlands in Ireland with plants, roots and charcoal as well as paintings depicting the changing light recorded in forests earlier this year …
What was the inspiration for your new exhibition “Traces of Air”?
“Traces of Air” is my solo show at Uillinn: West Cork Art Centre currently on view until mid-April. In the exhibition, there are a couple of things that might come across as studies in human breath, and the ability to imagine what is going on inside the vegetal world. In particular, the exhibition features “Sound of Trees,” a series of new paintings exploring plants and trees, from the changing light recorded in forests over the past number of months, to Irish peatlands – ancient landscapes that are the sole custodians of unique plants that have accumulated over many millions of years. I’m also in the early stages of researching a fascinating three year project concerning boglands as repositories of time which was commissioned by Creative Ireland.
Would you say much of your work has to do with time and memory?
Yes, I’m constantly looking to deepen connections and to think across time scales. My fundamental drive is to create artworks that heighten our awareness of the planet and all the life it supports. Understanding that we are not separate from the universe, but are intrinsically linked. One in every five plants in the world is at the risk of extinction. And the earth has lost more than half of its trees since we first started cutting them down. Some of the works in the exhibition explore trees and underground networks as witnesses of history. To me they hold an embodied memory of time, reminding us of how fragile we are.
Later this year you will also present “The Week The Sun Touched The Earth” at the Centre Culturel, Paris. What is this exhibition’s subject matter?
“The week the sun touched the earth” is essentially a work that uses light and projections so it’s very much an extension of my work. It explores the differing scales of impact the sun’s presence has on the earth. Commissioned in response to the Solar Orbiter mission which launched into space last year, the work tells the story of continuity between the state of consciousness, from existence to non-existence to the endless cycle of life. I’ve been exploring the use of special NASA lenses on board the Solar Orbiter spacecraft adapted for the limits of this project. The idea came to me last year while studying solar storms recorded in the rich corpus of Irish medieval chronicles of 600 AD in tandem with NASA images made accessible via digital archives. There are staggeringly descriptive accounts of how Irish people perceived the Aurora Borealis as far back as 700 AD.
For the projection I’m working with film maker Christopher Ash to adapt multiple solar drawing I’ve made using light and silver nitrate to frame distant images of a dancer walking across the Sun. The work aims to capture the phenomenological act of looking and seeing solar storms which occur on the North and South Poles as a double virtual reflection. The movement is portrayed by my dear friend, the late Emma O’Kane. She was a profoundly talented CoisCéim performer of immense passion and grace whose untimely passing in February this year has left us all heart broken. Her exquisite movements explore the sun through dance and point to places beyond our imagination. She literally embodies the movement of light behind the horizon.
You’ve been busy working on these two concurrent exhibitions. How and where have you been working?
I’ve been mostly working from home and finding new ways to consider how I do things. I have the dream studio nearby which I can occasionally access to split my day between painting and researching. At the moment I’m exploring the changing acoustic environment of the Arctic and frozen soil from ancient times for a project at Gluon as part of my current residency for BOZAR [Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels] called “Art meets Science in the Anthropocene”.
Has lockdown unleashed your creativity further would you say?
Yes, definitely. Like everyone, I’ve had to slow down the rhythm of my life to engage with my direct environment. This unprecedented period of global pause has forced me to stop and to remain fixed in one place. The daily act of painting teaches me to be present and in the moment. One thing I’ve realised is that the need for connection and communication is vital. I believe it is important that we take the time to reach out to all those who are suffering under this crisis. I’ve been thinking a lot about the inescapable consequences that our way of life is having on the ecology of the planet. During this period of enforced stillness, I’ve realised that it’s really not a time to be pushing against the tide. It’s a time to surrender to what is. A useful time to stop and just be and to imagine the world that we want to inhabit in the future. For the most part my experience is that Covid-19 has brought the very best out in people.
Need to Know: “Traces of Air” by Siobhan McDonald is at Uilinn: West Cork Arts Centre until April 24; www.westcorkartscentre.com. Siobhan McDonald will be discussing her new exhibition in conversation with Finnish curator Ulla Tapale on Friday, March 26, at 12 noon, which can be booked via www.eventbrite.ie. For further information on Siobhan’s works visit www.siobhanmcdonald.com.
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