Saturday, February 25, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications - 3

It would be immodest to mention that I got it pretty well spot on in the second series of games. They were, I suppose, fairly predictable. England were lucky to beat Wales - but this is a poor Welsh team and England just grind out the results pragmatically. This week we can leave England and Italy to one side - England will win and get a bonus point. Ireland should also beat France - although if conditions turn nasty it could become a place kicking contest and I trust Sexton less in this regard than Jackson. Otherwise I think we are too organised for them and it would be a major shock if we lose. The Wales Scotland match is the most interesting. I fancy Scotland to win but Laidlaw is a massive loss. Apart from his decision making and sharpness around the field, his unfailing accuracy with penalties could be sorely missed. As a result it may be closer than it would have been.   

 Ireland could win all their remaining matches and still lose the championship unless they pick up a bonus point today or against Wales, or England. Today is their best chance. If we do so we can end up on 19 points. England will get a bonus point today and very likely one at home against Scotland. This would give them 18 points and if they hold Ireland to a small margin and thus get a bonus point they will also end up on 19 points. Then it comes down to points difference so Englands score against Italy today could be crucial. We'll worry about all this if we beat Wales next week.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Siobhan McDonald - Crystalline

 An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 19 February 2017.

 Siobhan McDonald does not see herself as part of the standing army of Irish landscape painters, abstract or otherwise. Her art is more concerned with science than with nature. Despite some superficial similarities, especially in her earlier work, she discourages any attempts to place her within the landscape tradition. She maintains that her art invokes patterns generated by the invisible forces of nature rather than the visible. “From an early age I’ve always had a love of rocks. Rocks are recorders of time. As an artist who is deeply motivated by geology, the idea of landscape doesn’t fit easily with me and the world I’m looking at is not abstracted – it is connected in time layer by layer.”  She’s more interested in what lies below the landscape and what lies far above it – in subterranean readings and in the vacant interstellar spaces (see Tycho Star in her current exhibition). Her  inspiration comes from seismologists, geologists, cosmologists, and cartographers. Her subject matter comes from field work in Iceland,  Asia, and The West Indies and from museums, archives and laboratories. “I work collaboratively with cartographers, scientists, and composers combining ideas of interaction on the natural world.” She has found in recent years that painting alone cannot convey her vision. “I need to use different forms of expression”. This interdisciplinary approach is seen in her new exhibition which features pressed plants, seeds in glass vessels, ghostly after images of butterflies on antique paper, a series of mysterious white sculptures, a striking work on calf skin, a few small, eerie paintings, and even a short film with an original sound track.   

McDonald has always been a roamer. A cursory look at her CV shows how wide she has ranged with exhibitions over the past 18 years in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Paris, New York, Oslo, and at the European Space Agency in Holland. She has been singularly successful in getting travel grants and residencies over this period and has not been afraid to engage with a variety of disciplines. Her itinerant approach to showing her work is perhaps influenced by her background. She was born in New York of Northern Ireland parents. The family moved back to Monaghan when she was a child, and her accent retains an attractive trace of her Northern roots. She studied art in Belfast and Dun Laoghaire. Her first solo show took her back to New York where she lived for a couple of years and enjoyed some success before moving back to Dublin. "New York was really good to me but I always had this grá for Ireland. I wanted my base to be in Ireland".  

While she has always found inspiration from science (her first two exhibitions were titled Elements and Molecule), two specific events triggered her latest show. In 2010 she joined the Irish Geological Society on a field trip to carry out a geological survey of Iceland. "I really wanted to go just to see the landscape." Camille Souter was also on the trip. "She was so much fun." During the trip their guide took them to the edge of Eyjafjallajökull the volcano that had recently erupted. "It was like we were gazing into the core of the earth. Looking at seismology charts to explore how an earthquake can inscribe itself into scientific records I started to visualise these dark fluctuations as patterns generated by the forces of nature. My subsequent drawings of the unseen world under the microscope brought a new element of alchemy into my paintings".   

Then in 2013 McDonald won an open competition for a residency at Parity Studios in UCD working on a commission for the School of Biology and Environmental Science. “The residency at Parity Studios provided me with a real chance to deepen my interest in geology, physics and plant palaeontology.” This residency led in turn to an Arctic Circle Residency and a voyage on a barkentine (an old square rigged sailing ship) to the Arctic. While on this voyage she was lent a copy of a book about the doomed Franklin expedition. In 1845, Sir John Franklin, an experienced but ageing explorer, set off to discover the North West Passage on two ships, Erebus and Terror. They were never seen again despite a number of rescue missions being mounted. Over the years various traces were found, a letter, artefacts and a couple of graves on Beechey Island. There’s a YouTube video featuring the perfectly preserved bodies that were uncovered. Eventually the two lost ships turned up. Erebus in 2014 and Terror last year. They had become trapped in ice and the crews had died of scurvy, lead poisoning from tinned food (a new technology ironically), starvation and exposure. McDonald was fascinated with the story, "I became very upset about the whole thing. I was in the same waters they had died in".   

The trip to the Arctic also brought a new focus to a lingering unease she had always felt about climate change. She saw at first hand the diminishing ice cap and mingled with members of the scientific community who could back up opinion with hard science. She learnt about the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological epoch which begins with the Industrial Revolution. She quotes a European Space Agency scientist’s dire warning: “I told my children not to have children.” The show that resulted from these journeys is both a tacit and an explicit warning about the looming catastrophe that is global warming.   

There are two key exhibits in the show, Crystalline and Solar Skin. Crystalline is a series of white sculptures that dominate the entrance to the exhibition hall. They are an artistic response to the retreating Arctic glaciers. "This installation is made up of 166 pieces and each one represents a year since we screwed up the atmosphere". She dates this back the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The cracks on the surface represent the damage to the polar icecap. They were originated in a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) last summer and with an Irish company called Enbio. The latter developed the white material coating the surface of the sculptures. This is the protective material made from carbon and bone that will be applied to the surface of the ESA's Solar Orbiter that sets its controls for the heart of the sun in 2018. Another voyage from which there will be no return. The fact that our ice caps do not in fact enjoy such protection from the sun's rays is an irony implicit in the work.   

Solar Skin represents the sun, the hero turned villain. It is a striking piece that dominates the show visually. It consists of a large circular piece of burnished calf skin, a fine layer of woven basalt, and smoked paper inscribed with seismographic markings. McDonald worked with the conservator in Trinity whose brief includes the Book of Kells to garner expertise in this area. A pre-industrial material to balance the super science of her sculptures. She sees the original scars on the surface of the vellum "as a map of the animal's journey". Another doomed voyage.   

Some of the most poignant pieces in the show are small paintings inspired by old glass photographic plates rescued from lost Arctic expeditions. She discovered these in the national library in Oslo and she recreated the faded images in paintings that deliver ghostly intimations of the Franklin expedition. Unknown Landscapes (above) features seemingly lost figures blurred against an Arctic landscape containing ice-locked ships. A figure in the foreground looks out forlornly at the viewer. Her painting skills are evident in Pyramiden, an eerie evocation of the Soviet ghost town on the edge of the Arctic circle. Many other exhibits in the show also contain intimations of lost expeditions. She extracted seeds from plant pressings stored in the Antiquities Department of the Botanic Gardens after an earlier Franklin expedition in 1825. She is involved in a project with Kew Gardens to endeavour to germinate these old seeds. The aim is to produce plants from a period before the Anthropocene began to bite.  “These seeds represent the earth before we fucked it up.” Another exhibit, Silent Witnessing, features melanin traces from the ghosts of past butterflies imprinted on antique paper from an old display case - the original inhabitants  crumbled to dust. The faint traces of the absent butterflies is a metaphor surely for all the beauty and diversity that we are losing.  

 In addition to the paintings, photography, sculpture and found objects that constitute the show an original music score has been written by Irene Buckley to accompany a beautiful and evocative film shot during the Arctic trip. This score is based on McDonald's use of a heliograph, a old device for tracking the sun. She attached it to her Arctic ship to record the sun's track at summer solstice. The recorded pulses as the sun moved across the sky produced the notations used for the score. It also contains the sounds of dying glaciers collected by Professor Chris Bean.   

The sun is central to McDonald's show. The sound score, the large vellum piece Solar Skin, and the sculpture Crystalline all point to a disturbing truth. Since the Industrial Revolution we have been moving towards a situation where the sun has has gone from being the bringer of life to being the agent of our ultimate destruction. We have tipped the balance of nature towards extinction. The melting ice caps are harbingers of doom. Recent events across the Atlantic are not comforting. Artists, who capture the zeitgeist, have a role to play in alerting us in a way that cold science cannot. McDonald's haunting and thought-provoking show reminds us of the fragility of our situation on this vale of tears.      

Centre Culturel Irlandais
Tue-Sun: 2-6pm
 Phone: +33 1 58 52 10 30

 John P. O'Sullivan      

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications 2

While the results of the first series of matches was predictable, the winning margins were not. Scotland and Ireland was always going to be close and a mal-functioning lineout and a slow start cost Ireland a match that they should have won. Oh Jamie, how could you, and at such a crucial stage. I thought Wales would struggle past Italy but they pulled well clear. Conversely I thought England would hammer France but they only scraped home.      The only match this weekend that seems difficult to call is Wales and England. I'm not convinced by Wales, especially their pack so I have a feeling that England might win - I wouldn't bet on it though. It will be very close. Elsewhere Ireland will clearly beat Italy and with the good weather forecast might even grab a bonus point. Scotland puffed up by beating Ireland will be brought back to earth by France. I expect a clear win for the hosts. It may suit us for England to win as otherwise we'll go to Wales facing a team eying a Grand Slam.  

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Six Nations Prognostications 1


At first glance today's programme of matches looks straightforward. England will beat France comfortably, Wales will dispatch Italy with ease and a Joe Schmidt powered Ireland will beat Scotland narrowly. The bookies agree so a straightforward bet won't yield much. So we must look at the handicap odds for value. Even giving France a 13 point start England look worth a bet. But can Wales give a Conor O'Shea guided Italy a 12 points start in a wet Rome (rain forecast)? I wouldn't bank on it. Can Ireland give Scotland 5 points in a similarly wet Edinburgh? That's a hard call. Of course now that there are bonus points available we should expect more tries so maybe that consideration will cancel out the limiting weather considerations. Hmmm.   

Regarding our team, I wouldn't overstate the cost of Sexton's absence. Jackson is a lesser player but a more reliable place kicker and at least we won't have the disruption of Sexton's inevitable early withdrawal. We may be underpowered in the lineout though with both Donnacha Ryan and Peter O'Mahoney absent. There's a huge onus on Toner and little obvious back up - Henderson and Heaslip will have to stretch. Overall it's a strong team but God help us all if Murray gets injured - and the Scots have form when it comes to targeting him.   

 I think the Wales Italy match is the most interesting of the three. What will O'Shea come up with?  The Welsh pack don't seem that strong so maybe he'll surprise us and revert to a 10-man game. Or will he will continue the gay cavalier approach that he was known for at Harlequins. 

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Recent Reads: February 2017


  Guilty Thing - A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson

Don't be put off by the fact that this is a literary biography - it's a rollicking good read. De Quincey was a remarkably unpleasant man and unfortunately ill-favoured (tiny with a huge head). He was a child prodigy speaking Greek and Latin and discoursing with his elders in his early teens. The attendant descriptions of the literary circles in which he moved are fascinating as is the tale of his financial ducking and diving and his unfortunate domestic situation. Wordsworth comes across as a fearful old prig - he ostracised De Quincey because he married his maid. Coleridge meanwhile seemed to spend the whole of his time in an opium stupor - it's a wonder he ever wrote anything. De Quincey himself fell into the same trap but he managed to gain literary immortality by writing about it. Otherwise he produced little but journalistic hack work. It works also as a social history of early 19th Century England. One of the reasons De Quincey had no money was that he was an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. He had to move out of one house as it became completely blocked up with his collection and he continued to rent it as a store for them.

 The Blue Guitar by John Banville

 Anyone familiar with John Banville's public persona and his utterances on TV or at book events will detect that he has much in common with Oliver Orme - the narrator in this novel. That's not to say that he's a thief and an adulterer like the character. It's more a matter of tone. The mordant wit, the bleak view of human kind, and of course the quality of the language. The story is a common place one of lost lust and ageing. Orme is an artist who has quit his calling and after a successful career has returned to his home town to chew over the remains of his life. Hints of Beckett here and there:  "I should stop, before it's too late. But it is too late." Highly enjoyable in an elegiac, bitter sweet way.

 A House in St. John's Wood by Matthew Spender

 This is a curious confection. It's written in a J'accuse tone by Stephen Spender's son Matthew. The gist of his argument seems to be that his father should have got on with his evident homosexuality and not tried to live as a respectable married man. The results of this deception were a litany of increasingly inappropriate and domestically disruptive liaisons and the perpetual misery of his mother. She just wanted a nice marriage to a famous man. Matthew's own life gets a fair share of scrutiny as well and we learn that his wife, the daughter of Arshile Gorky, vowed to remain anorgasmic as she considered sex as rape. Her sexually voracious mother may have had some influence there. Absorbing stuff with cameos from an ash coated W. H. Auden and other literary worthies.

 Curationism: How Curating Took over the Art World and Everything Else by David Balzer

 This book is, to steal a phrase from its introduction, "a poke at the contemporary art world" and especially at the cult of the curator. If you don't know who Hans Ulrich Obrist is you will find out. You'll find out about Documenta and Art Basel and the whole bloated circus that is the international art scene. You might wonder what Art Basel is doing in Miami Beach but that of course is where the rich collectors roam. Balzer sees an end to this phenomenon as artists regain their autonomy and curators fade back into the background. It's an interesting thesis written in accessible language.

 The Best American Sports Writing 2016 by Rick Telander

 I like these American "Best of" anthologies generally. They produce ones for essays, short stories etc.  This particular one is a tad disappointing overall. Too much boxing and fringe sport (rodeo, ice hockey) for me. There's a good essay by Sam Knight on Ronnie O'Sullivan but it's clearly aimed at a US audience who have never heard of him. There's also a revealing look at an off-duty Conor McGregor who's even weirder than he seems from my TV glimpses. The best piece is A Long Walk's End about a hiker nicknamed Bismarck who turned out to be an infamous embezzler and possible wife murderer on the run.

 John P. O'Sullivan
 February 2017