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Catalogue Text – Kevin Kirwan ‘Heavyside’, The Lab, Dublin (July 25 – August 08 2015)

July 23, 2015

Heavyside: An Unseen Place

The place became crater on each side, sank down to its first skull, shedding forests, oceans, dried bones and neons, as it fell through time like a forgotten pitted stone.

Anne Sexton ‘Venus and the Ark’ (1981)

I once owned a cheap, plastic, globe-shaped keyring of the moon. It lay unused in a drawer for years, too cumbersome to actually hold keys, and too badly fabricated to study the map printed on its surface. I could just about make out the Sea of Tranquillity, but only because I already knew it existed. When astronauts first landed on the moon, rather than a luminous white entity, they encountered a dark, rugged terrain, the colour of fresh, grey concrete.  The fact is, the moon is only ever illuminated on the side facing the sun. The other half remains in constant darkness, unseen from earth. Orbiting us, controlling our oceans, the moon – in a perpetual state of partial disclosure – has been known to us throughout human history, yet it never fully reveals itself. There is something rather melancholic about that.

By the end of the Space Race, Russian and American satellites, using newly developed cartographic cameras, had captured detailed black and white photographs of the reverse lunar hemisphere. This made it possible to compile highly accurate maps and to develop the nomenclature for designating objects on the moon’s surface – a task undertaken by the International Astronomical Union, which was completed in 1970 with the official naming of 513 lunar craters. One of the less significant craters became known as ‘Heaviside’, named after pioneering British physicist Oliver Heaviside, who also has a crater on Mars named after him.

Using this term as a point of departure, Kevin Kirwan’s exhibition ‘Heavyside’ currently showing in The Lab, conjures a number of oblique connections with these lunar histories, not least in terms of the photographic medium, which epitomises pivotal human ingenuity in the harnessing of light and dark. Using Medium Format and 35mm film, Kirwan’s hand-printed black and white photographs embody a hazy, pre-digital era, and the pensive process of dark-room developing. During exposure of the negative, values in the image can be adjusted and filters can be added, yet the light-sensitive surface still appears blank. Within the processing tank – like the moon in partial eclipse – something tangible begins to emerge: you have captured an image.

The soft, grainy textures retained in some of Kirwan’s photographs contrast with moments of pristine sharpness achieved elsewhere in the series. The jagged, flint-like qualities of petrified terrain coexist alongside the velvety cultivations occurring on moss-covered grave stones. Elsewhere, a peacock’s tail protrudes from the undergrowth, camouflaging the forest floor like a lush, feathery carpet.  An initial preoccupation with surfaces seems to give way to the probing of something deeper lurking below. In Kirwan’s act of close-looking, macro details appear to form landscapes of their own – alien at first, then growing increasingly familiar. A horse’s back appears shiny and veined, like silk pulled taught over a rippling valley.  Gnarled tree branches acquire animalistic qualities, mimicking sharp pincers or gnashing teeth. In a night-time shot, the twinkling spot-lit edges of an ascending road seem to momentarily hover before receding into darkness. In these photographs we encounter attempts to lift the thin veil of landscape, as if scraping into a surface long enough will finally reveal its bones.

Tragic, too, it is to look out at the Blasket Islands and know human life itself is ceasing on them, even if we think that living souls should never shelter themselves at all on windswept rocks… Yet all that seaboard is a silent land, or so we have felt as we walked the roads of it. It is, however, a silence that excites rather than assuages: there are always presences.

Tomás Ó Criomthain,  The Islandman, (1929)

Situated off the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Co. Kerry, An Blascaod Mór (The Great Blasket) is the largest of the remote Blasket Islands, which was inhabited by an indigenous fishing community until their evacuation in 1953.  The islanders’ culture, language and way of life became a source of fascination for Irish and international anthropologists and scholars during the early 1900’s, who encouraged a number of residents to write about their lives or have their oral stories transcribed.  By the 1930’s, an extensive body of literature had been produced on the history, cultural practices and beliefs of the island community, revealing recurrent themes of animism, supernatural occurrences and reverence towards inanimate objects within their story-telling traditions. In the early 1900s, nationalists hailed the isolated community’s traditional, self-sufficient way of living and as ‘representing an authentic Irish cultural identity uncorrupted by the impacts of British colonialism, modernity, or new consumer markets’ (Fennell, 2014). Habiting a remote island, situated off another island, on the periphery of Europe’s North Atlantic coast, the islanders’ perilous position was embodied in their commonly cited adage:

Tá muid Faoi Trócaire an Domhain (We are Under the Mercy of the World)

Another of the seven islands, Inis na Bró (Inishnabro, meaning ‘island of the grind stone’), features unusual natural rock formations on its north eastern tip. Resembling the pre-Christian architecture of a Gothic basilica, the sea arch is known locally as Cathedral Rocks, and is not visible from the mainland. The artist recently travelled by boat to the area, with the intention of making a film, but choppy sea conditions prevented him from completing the task. In the   resulting silent footage – shown as part of the exhibition – the site is captured in flickering glimpses, without fully revealing itself.

Intuitively selected from distinct bodies of work to form a cohesive unit, the pensive landscapes presented in ‘Heavyside’ share a similar language and offer multiple readings of place.  Like Cathedral Rock, many of the locations portrayed in the photographs are quiet, contemplative spaces, from a lichen-covered graveyard near a Buddhist temple in Japan, to a 19th century folly located in the grounds of St Anne’s suburban parkland (site of The Red Stables, where the artist carried out a year-long residency).  Quietly resonating with the spectral traces of recent history barely visible on surfaces, ‘Heavyside’ seems to pose a very human question: ‘What will exist in this place after I leave?’

Kirwan’s monochromatic scenarios also echo images conjured in 20th century horror literature, where a rootedness in local history and psychogeography haunts the reader far more effectively than events of actual horror.  Supernatural themes are further underscored in a sculptural element within the exhibition context. A spot-lit lump of Optical Calcite crystal refracts the printed word ‘before’ as a hallucinatory, double-barrelled proclamation. This artwork serves to reaffirm the geological and celestial themes addressed elsewhere in the show, while also scrutinising the camera’s gaze in activating these inter-connected islands of thought.

 

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in Leitrim. She has previously written for publications such as:  Art Monthly (U.K), Art Papers (U.S), Cabinet (U.S) and Frieze (U.K).

 References:

Chris Fennell, Tradition and Modernity on Great Blasket Island, Ireland (Illinois: University of Illinois, 2014) p. 4

Tomás Ó Criomthain,  An tOileánach: The Islandman, (Dublin: Muinntir C. S. Ó Fallamain [Fallon] 1929), p.p.7-8.

Anne Sexton, ‘Venus and the Ark’ in The Complete Poems (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981)

 

 

 

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