Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings: The "Whitewashing the Moon" Exhibiton in Dublin

This is a still photograph of starlings moving in unison, something called a murmuration, (see my source website, with video and explanatory text:; the film was taken over the River Shannon by Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor-Clive).  Last week, we were visiting County Clare, along the beautiful, rugged Atlantic coast, and our hosts mentioned the murmuration, a word I’d never heard; we had all been discussing swallows and starlings and jackdaws, all of them flying by the window at one point or another, looking as if they were trying to beat the thunderstorm that came a few minutes later.  If you watch the film of the starlings, or have seen them fly in these rapidly-changing patterns yourself, you can then re-imagine all sorts of ways of seeing them: architectural blueprints, graphs, elements of physics and biology, an arc of paint thrown by Jackson Pollock, waves breaking over rocks, and the trust and belief inherent in moving together in a project that has no obvious pattern or end.

The beauty of the murmuration came back to me as I was thinking about having seen “Whitewashing the Moon” at the Project Arts Centre. Taken as a single moment of delight, we know that the murmuration of starlings is beautiful; the art in this show, taken both individually and as a group, similarly compels us to respond and reminds us what art is for.

Five artists, from Ireland, France and Mexico, have created art in "Whitewashing the Moon" that works. The curators, Tessa Giblin and Kate Strain, selected the pieces for this show. I think the art has been chosen because it speaks to our desire to believe in the "impossible," a desire that is central to a short story that is also part of this exhibition, "The Brick Moon," by Edward Everett Hale (originally published in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870, now published in its entirety at ).   In this story, a group of students imagine “the poor little fishermen … the bones of whose ships lie white on so many cliffs” and think …. what if the students could launch an object over Greenwich that would then pass by “the axis of the world” and would then “forever revolve, in its obedient orbit” as “the blessing” of these sailors (and anyone else, for that matter, who wanted grounding).  In order to survive the power of its launch, the object could not be “lathe and plaster,” but would need to be brick, which, sliced through at any angle, would resemble “an immense rose-window, of six circles grouped around a seventh,” all kinds of arches for internal support, but enclosing, mostly, air.  Two gigantic fly-wheels would propel it into orbit.

Eventually, after seventeen years, the students grow up, funding is found and the Brick Moon is begun.  The last months of work is undertaken by a group of some of the original friends and their families; they live in the cavernous center of the completed part of the moon. The fly-wheels are finished.  The hope is that the moon can be bleached white after it is completed so that it will resemble a moon more fully.  But this never happens; the Brick Moon is launched prematurely, with the workers and their families still inside.  The narrator and those who remain on land are in despair.  They cannot see anything in the skies for over a year; but some time later the Brick Moon appears to the narrator as he looks through the lenses of a deserted observatory.  The Brick Moon was “Red no longer, but green as a meadow in the spring” with “hemlocks” visible and his friends were visible, “going and coming on the surface of their own little world.” 

They are able to communicate with the narrator by a series of signals, and he can signal to them.  He hears of weddings, births, Shakespearean productions, and readings of Austen and Thackeray. Much relieved, and sounding rather envious, the narrator says, “The truth is, that silence is very satisfactory intercourse, if we only know all is well.”  Silence -- to the earth-bound people -- had meant only dread of what might have happened; silence from the Brick Moon, it turns out, had meant only contentment.  The narrator says that, having helped launch the creation, he can only say that it now “is there in ether. I cannot keep it. I cannot get it down.”  And, most of all, he cannot visit, something he really seems to regret at the end, as the world of the moon seems nearly perfect.

The art show is simply titled, “Whitewashing the Moon.”  While this final artistic gesture never actually happened in the story, artistic transformation certainly does happen in the gallery, which the brochure calls a “twilit garden.”  And it is.  Walking through this room, we feel that same energy and flow as we would beneath that starling “murmuration.”  Each work of art offers a way of continuing and connecting to the themes begun in "The Brick Moon." There is no “ending” here, in the “twilit garden,” only multiple continuities of the themes (dreaming, scientific discovery, the "negotiation" between artist and material, and reaching -- perhaps too far?) that are also introduced in the story.

One of the pieces I really liked is by Caroline Achaintre, a ceramic, titled “Looney”: 

The piece suggests a mask (both feudal and futuristic) or a rock covered gently with cloth; it offers the fissures of brick, but the shape also brings to mind the green world of the orbiting Brick Moon.  Another work, “Wadder,” seems to spill over, growing outside of its form:

Are we seeing one moment in a rush of water, transparent over limestone? -- this form has stilled movement, is silent, needing us to work through its layers.

In one corner of the “garden” is a spotlit sculpture, cast in obsidian, by Eleanor Duffin, who lives and works in Dublin. Duffin’s website says that she “focuses on the way in which ideas are conceived” and from that she creates a visual “hypothesis.” Here is “Tephra,” both spotlit from above and from an angle close-to:

The five forms seem to lie on the surface of a moon and sparkle like glass. Duffin’s art also appears across the room, in a video installation of a revolving rock, called “Which do you believe, your eyes or my words?”  The rock is oval, smooth-edged, and appears to be both revolving in place and moving towards us and away from us, a perfect parallel to the story’s idea of locating ourselves by virtue of another object.

Barbara Knezevic seems to have taken the idea of Daedalus and Icarus (that also glimmers inside Hale’s story) and created her own cautionary tale, called “An Exercise in Self-Destruction,” below, in a photo from across the gallery, and then in a close-up:

When I first saw this piece, I thought it was a pink-patterned marble, but it is wax, changing shape daily under the heat lamp, dying quietly, in place.  It seems conceptually far away from the sudden Brick Moon launch that we read about in the story. But, as I think about it, the work does call to mind the narrator’s disquiet when he cannot see the Moon or his friends, that quiet moment that we all know happens after a disaster, the moment when no-one can reach out to do anything, because the damage has been done.  This is a poignant piece.

On one wall, a video plays; “Rhombus Sectus,” by Raphael Zarka. The brochure tells us it is a 16 mm film transferred into HD. It portrays the National Library of Belarus at Minsk, a building shaped like a Rhombicuboctahedron, which is close to the shape described for the original Brick Moon. Zarka says that “the real subject of my work” is “the migration of certain forms through space and time” ( which is an apt description of the video, which I won’t try and reproduce here – it needs to be seen in its space. The video has the weight of a documentary, until we see it revolve around that central shape from many angles.

The fifth artist, Jorge De la Garza has created an installation called “Untitled (Missing Links)” – it is both a nineteenth-century “desk” and a twenty-first century objet d’art, quite beautiful:

Each object is placed and lit as if it were a shard of mosaic from Pompeii, or a rare Chinese vase, and these objects are just as elegiac, calling out to us from another time; they wait for us to come and complete them, as a group, and fill them with the narratives we re-construct.

If you are anywhere near Dublin, or can be, the show runs through the 27th of October.  This is art that reverberates, stays with you, demands your attention, rewards thought and participation. A truly remarkable show.

No comments:

Post a Comment