Irish visual artist Siobhán McDonald’s recent exhibition Crystalline: Hidden Monuments at Limerick City Gallery of Art explored geology, archaeology, human intervention, time and climate change through a series of interconnected bodies of work. Running from February 1 to March 31, 2019, the solo exhibition unfolded over several rooms in LCGA, beginning with the artist’s 2017 work Crystalline. The final room of the exhibition was a multimedia enquiry into the Black Pig’s Dyke, an Iron-Bronze Age linear earthwork/monument in the north midlands of Ireland that is currently the subject of an archaeological research project which uses radiocarbon dating as part of its process.
The heart of the archaeological enquiry is to determine the function(s) of this dyke, which was a bank roughly nine meters wide and in some parts six meters high, with ditches of roughly three meters depth each side. Excavations in 1982 revealed evidence of a palisade lining the bank. The dyke crosses five counties, which are now the border counties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. McDonald was commissioned by Monaghan County Council and Creative Ireland in 2017 to research and create new work with the Black Pig’s Dyke as her starting point.
The artist’s practice naturally finds interconnectedness everywhere – particularly when looking at human interventions into nature and the consequences of these interventions. In this exhibition, interconnectedness was highlighted in part through the bringing together of explorations of Black Pig’s Dyke and a formerly hidden monument revealed in the land by a drought in Ireland in 2018.
Much of McDonald’s work is framed by the relationship between Humans and Nature, and most notably by her interest in mapping time: geological time, personal time and how events can repeat, reoccur, echo or act as reminders, signaling to us and being reinterpreted in new contexts. For example, the burning of the Palisades signaled war, crisis point, something being concluded; are we at this point now again? We are in a time of great need: needing to change the impact of multinational industry and demanding that governments support meaningful change – it is not just about individual-consumer impact. The archaeological, scientific and artistic interest in the Dyke shows that after centuries of myopia, our society is willing to look beyond our own time and needs, and investigate the time and needs of others before us.
What is known about the research on the Dyke is that it will not lead to one simple, conclusive answer as to why this was made and then partially destroyed. The Black Pig’s Dyke Regional Project Phase One Report Summary states: “It is evident from the research carried out to date that the linear earthworks can no longer be reduced to just one interpretation.”
An artist will often ask questions knowing that there may be no answers, and scientific research often yields more questions than conclusions. However, our acceptance with not knowing, or our recognition that the Dyke was numerous things at numerous times, is acceptable to us. We can simultaneously know and not know, something that seems at odds with our social media-led culture where someone or something is either held up for praise or mercilessly judged, with no in-between.
Palisades, a row of charred wood, lined the gallery wall, creating a border and leading the viewer to the 4-minute video Future Monuments. Palisades references evidence recorded in an archaeological investigation of Black Pig’s Dyke, which shows that the bank was lined with a wooden fence or palisade that was burned, presumably during a time of war. The artist chose not to present us with images of an intact structure or a wall of flames, but with what is left.
In the center of the square gallery space, the circular charred wood sculpture work What Remains anchored the gallery. Like Palisades, it spoke of what is left: the mark of human intervention on the planet. It showed that nothing ever really “ends” or disappears; things move on and change, usually carrying echoes, scars or memories that inform what happens next. Working with carbonized wood positioned this exhibition in the realm of archaeology and science rather than myth. McDonald unraveled myth from fact but did not destroy the presence of myth: she created a porous context and a liminal space that allowed for these multiple layers to be seen clearly.
While working with the archaeologists in charge of the research project, the artist’s process involved looking at facts, what remains, and what the traces of humans and the rest of nature leave for us to see as evidence. The evidence of the palisade being burned speaks clearly of an “ending.” This is not to say the dyke ceased to function after the burning, but maybe its function, or its meaning, changed.
However, this “ending” is viewed by the artist as the ending of one thing and the beginning of another: What Remains is circular – a motif that was repeated several times in the gallery space and in other works throughout the rest of the LCGA exhibition. This circling, or cycling, was shown in the Future Monuments video by the revealing of a crop circle during the Summer 2018 drought: this echo of the past reveals the damage we are doing through global warming, and reminds us that our time, in comparison to historical time or geological time, is minimal. The contrast between how long humans have been on Earth and the amount of damage that has been done in that short time is explored and presented in a way that we can relate to in our own lives by exposing the cycles, meanings and values within that time, and how they connect to our history and the land we inhabit. We are not apart from nature, despite our constant attempts to distance ourselves from it. We are a threat from within it.
There is a sense that time (in the widest possible interpretation) is running out in Future Monuments, which was filmed in mid-summer in Newgrange and mid-winter at the Black Pig’s Dyke – the Summer and Winter Solstices. These Solstice points remind the viewer of the importance of measuring and mapping the sun in prehistoric eras – and perhaps one of the functions of the Dyke was to measure and track the sun’s activities in relation to place. Future Monuments’ audio gives a suspenseful, cinematic quality to the non-narrative video work. The video itself was displayed on a small screen, with the viewer having to turn their back to the large circular What Remains in order to view it.
This scale could be interpreted as benign as a minimal intervention; rather than leaving her own mark to add to the many layers of human interventions, the artist attempted, in her practice, to leave minimal traces. This was echoed in her minimal interventions into the two locations in the video. The soundscape, however, filled the gallery space and seemed to be the sound piece for the entire space rather than just the video, endlessly signaling and messaging. The gallery became a place for relic, prophecy, consolation and warning – the viewer was at once made calm and uneasy.
We are in a time of great need.
Hidden Monuments will open in Monaghan, Ireland on June 27, 2019. The show will run until July 30. McDonald is also exhibiting some of the works at the International Art Fair: VOLTA Basel 2019, June 10-15.
(Top image: Lunula, 24-karat gold, whole calfskin and smoke using a seismograph to inscribe earth signals onto paper surfaces. 120 cm square. What remains, floor installation: birch, oak and willow. Dimensions variable.)
Maeve Mulrennan is the Head of Visual Art & Education in Galway Arts Centre, a multidisciplinary public space in the West of Ireland. She has written for Visual Artists Ireland NewsLetter, Paper Visual Art, CIRCA and Billion Art Journal and contributed several essays for exhibitions and artists publications. She has an MA in Visual Art Practices from IADT Dún Laoghaire, h.Dip in Arts Administration form NUI Galway, BA in Fine Art from Limerick School of Art and Design, and BA in English Literature, Sociology / Politics & German from NUI Galway.