This morning, some Jehovah’s Witnesses dropped a leaflet through my letterbox inviting me to a talk entitled ‘What happens after death?’. By coincidence, Bláthnaid Ní Mhurchú claims that deep, profound questions on this very issue lie at the heart of the work in her recent solo exhibition, The Eagles and the Stone, curated by Jennette Donnelly. Whether these questions are immediately obvious in the work I’m not so sure, but then I have to confess at the outset that I have always found Ní Mhurchú’s work difficult to understand. However, this is not such a bad place from which to start writing, and attentive looking and listening on my part have opened little chinks into this artist’s fascinating and complex world.
The question of what happens after death has preoccupied Ní Mhurchú since childhood and her extension of this wondering to the animal kingdom has derived from her deep and intuitive respect for the tiniest living creature. At a very young age, her reverence for animals, birds and insects led her to collect their dead bodies and ‘hold’ them in keeping for an appropriate time; she would then make a burial vessel for them before interring them in the ground. Ní Mhurchú felt she was honouring the creatures with the dignified ritual they deserved and this thinking is central to the exhibition which is populated mainly by images of birds and animals, mostly depicted in strange bodily combinations with either men, rocks or plants.
In one small pencil drawing, Ní Mhurchú presents us with a terrifying and unthinkable spectacle: an overbearing looking scientist holds up a test jar for scrutiny, its content a single butterfly, apparently the only one that remains in the world at some future time. The butterfly is rendered in various colours but they are so delicate that at first glance the butterfly is hardly noticeable, as if it is hanging on to life by a thread. Underneath, but to one side of this drawing, a torn-out sketchbook page with a looser and more strongly coloured image entitled ‘Buddleia Night Sky’ is propped precariously within a large glassless frame. The fragility of this page and its unsecured placing within the empty frame allude to the precarious and temporary nature of what it depicts: a girl, who inhabits the same future time as the scientist above, manages to bring back some butterflies temporarily to the world, enticed by a Buddleia bush which is supremely attractive to them due to its heavily scented spikes of densely packed flowers.
Buddleia is known for its tenacity and opportunism, appearing as it does in the most unlikely places where land or buildings are left derelict. Here the Buddleia colonises walls and embankments and casts out its perfume into the air; the butterflies come, bringing little fluttering palettes of colour into the grey urban landscape. This was once a common sight in pre-boom Dublin city when Temple Bar and the Docklands were wastelands of dereliction. Post-boom, the Buddleia can find no foothold in the acres of polished limestone and glass-clad facades erected in the city during that time.
Butterfly Conservation Ireland was formed in 2008, coincidentally the official end of the boom, in response to what they termed ‘the alarming decline of most of our butterfly species’ since the 1970s. Urban regeneration is only one culprit, with coastal erosion, over-grazing by sheep, farming intensification and the proliferation of golf links providing some of the many reasons why the flower-rich environments essential for butterflies have disappeared. Apart from their natural beauty and the role they play in fertilising plants, butterflies are, like the canary in the coal mine, vital indicators of the health of the environment.
As suggested by the title of this exhibition, butterflies are not the only winged creatures of concern to the artist. The Eagles and the Stone refer to the two eagles sent by the ancient Greek god Zeus to fly across the world and meet at its centre, the so-called ‘navel’ of the world. The Greeks believed that Delphi in mainland Greece was the spot where the eagles met and they erected an ‘omphalos’ stone (meaning ‘navel’) which was considered to be a ‘Baetylus’, a sacred stone endowed with life. In humans, the navel is an indelible physical remnant of the umbilical cord, the vital life line from the mother supplying nutrition to the growing foetus, and a symbol of a person’s connection to his ancestors. Mankind’s respect for and cooperation with the natural world is the two-way umbilical cord that assures healthy life for all creatures on the planet. Cut off from this cord, the potential for life is diminished greatly.
The vision of life lost through mankind’s uncaring or unthinking ignorance is evident in many of Ní Mhurchú’s works. The very first piece encountered in the exhibition is an exquisite pencil drawing of an albatross chick called ‘Shed Bird’. Again beneath but to one side of this piece is an old brass weighing scales on a shelf, its bowl filled with a colourful mound of bottle tops and other plastic waste. Shed Bird was so named by photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton on Kure Atoll near Hawaii in 2004 because it hatched in the vicinity of their research shed. Concerned at its apparent inability to move from the nest to the water, the photographers tried hydrating the bird but, despite initial improvement, it continued to deteriorate. When it died after some days they opened its perforated stomach to find over twelve ounces of plastic waste. Unfortunately, this was not an anomaly and any Google search for ‘Albatross’ and ‘Plastic’ will throw up a sickening array of images of albatross carcasses, their stomachs full of vivid colours as their foraging parents mistook floating bottletops and cigarette lighters for food. In this previously pristine location, a vast island of plastic waste and chemical sludge much greater in size than the state of Texas has formed in a vortex in the North Pacific Ocean, known as ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Like an iceberg, what floats on the surface is only a fraction of the problem; underneath, the plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller particles that leach toxic chemicals and which fish eat like plankton. As plastic absorbs great amounts of organic toxins, this presents another unthinkable scenario for both the fish and those who eat them.
As if in defiance or accusation for man’s catastrophic mismanagement of the natural environment, four fierce looking birds of prey stare out of the darkness alongside the above two pieces. Painted in richly coloured oils on a dark ground, their lower bodies are transformed into rocks or precious stone, thus rendering their wings useless and coupling them forever with the crust of the earth. Individually and beautifully framed in very dark grey wood (by Artisan Frames), their presentation intentionally references the Dutch Masters and claims their place in the long lineage of portraiture. Once again, however, Ní Mhurchú is highlighting the plight of eagles and other birds of prey which have been brought back from near extinction only to be poisoned by some who do not appreciate their presence. In hybridizing the birds with minerals and rocks, the artist intends to locate them firmly in a history that is much more ancient than mankind; in this way, she believes, she rescues them from victimhood and gives them back their natural power.
Each one of Ní Mhurchú’s paintings and drawings could inspire an essay of their own, as she draws our attention to the fate of butterflies, sea birds, eagles, badgers, abandoned horses, and the interconnection of man and nature in general. But this is no simple eco-warrior or tree-hugger rant. Ní Mhurchú’s work is always conceptually rich and rigorously researched and so there is, of course, much more to each image than meets the eye as she processes these issues through her fertile imagination and undoubted artistic skills. Gaston Bachelard wrote that ‘an image that issues from the imagination is not subject to verification by reality’ and so, tempting as it may be, we might never come to a full understanding of these works. Even writing about them is so difficult as their visual complexity and physical beauty deserve to be appreciated at first hand, with the viewer allowing their eye to wander over the subtle nuances of surface and form that characterise Ní Mhurchú’s work.
For example, one of my favourite pieces is an oil painting with the appearance of an antique tapestry in which a man’s upper body and hands appear to approach from deep within a faceted web of harmonious shards of colour, his lower body lost in a lacy tangle of tentative white curves drawn over the painting. Only the title of the small icon-like painting adjacent to this piece gives a clue as to what these curved white forms might represent. The small painting features a bright yellow exotic bird with the same white web in place of its lower body and the title ‘Chrysolophus Pictus Lacy Stinkhorn’ points to the incredible and exquisite lattice-like skirt produced by the ‘Phallus indusiatus’ or the ‘Netted Stinkhorn’ mushroom. These short-lived fungi flourish on decaying wood and thus they thrive in the rainforests where they recycle the crucial minerals from the dead trees back into the living trees through their extensive network of underground filaments. Their repugnant smell attracts flies to crawl over their slimey crown and spread their spores around the forest, thus enabling them to do their vital work in the ecology of the forest. But why exactly has Ní Mhurchú combined her life drawing of a studio model with a rainforest mushroom? Does it matter to the viewer who has not the opportunity to ask what these forms represent? Knowing satisfies my curiosity – indeed it piques my curiosity to investigate these fungi further – but I was intrigued by the complexity of this painting and loved its glowing patina before I knew anything about it. Given the totality of this large exhibition, it seems Ní Mhurchú is revelling in the wondrous beauty and regalia with which the natural world is clothed whilst also asking work from the viewer in deciphering many further layers of meaning.
An overwhelming feature of Ní Mhurchú’s practice is her exceptional drawing ability, which she has used previously to create marvellously nuanced images of bodies, urban structures and her own sculptural and staged constructions. Until recently, her drawings were usually executed in monochrome pencil, they were cryptic, full of concealment and, by her own admission, “clinical” while she was attending college. However, what has emerged in her months of preparation for this exhibition is a profusion of marvellous colour, its expression facilitated by the discovery of the richly pigmented Carbothello pencils which feature prominently in her recent work. Using these in the life-drawing sessions she has attended in the RHA since finishing college has brought a new depth and sense of expansion to her work. This exploration of colour coincided with a revival of her lifelong interest in animals and plants, an interest that she has indulged with extensive visual and literary research. The revival was sparked by a notebook project for Kildare County Council in 2012 when she worked to a deadline to fill a notebook for a touring exhibition. Without the luxury of time to think, she poured collected images into the notebook, luxuriating in her love of collage and surprising even herself with what emerged on the pages: animals, birds and plants. As if for the first time, all the ideas that resonated deep within her were gathered in one place, in full glorious colour.
In conjunction with her recent introduction of colour, Ní Mhurchú also seems to have achieved a greater clarity by cutting out the clutter and supporting structures from around her subjects. Instead, she has honed in on one hummingbird hawk moth, one eagle, one owl, one man with winged shoulders, one butterfly, one badger, one man seemingly floating in water, a dead bird clasped in his hands. Each of these subjects, amongst others, is given his own clear space in which to be contemplated, his own frame with which to confer dignity on him. In this new colourful work, emotion is more tangible, even in the stern expressions of the birds of prey. Emotion is concentrated in the vivid mixed media collage which Ní Mhurchú created on the back wall of the gallery, combined with a small installation of objects below, with which she created a joyous ‘shrine’ of sorts, suggesting ideas of love, adoration, pilgrimage, prayer, offerings, meditation, and remembrance of a deity or loved persons. It was inspired by memories of childhood places, of homes with little collections of things, artefacts from other cultures gathered by loved relatives that were a source of fascination. For Ní Mhurchú, the shrine is “like a magical drawbridge from the spiritual to the physical world” and this installation was vital to the cohesion of the exhibition, bringing all the ideas back to the simple act of reverence: reverence for nature, and reverence for each other.
In her book ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’, Diane Ackerman describes in great detail the immense insect collection of Szymon Tenebaum in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. She writes: ‘An insect collection is a silent oasis in the noisy clamor of the world, isolating phenomena so that they can be seen undistractedly. In that sense, what is being collected are not the bugs themselves but the deep attention of the collector. That is also a rarity, a sort of gallery that ripples through the mind and whose real holdings are the perpetuation of wonder in a maelstrom of social and personal distractions.’
In this exhibition, it is as if Ní Mhurchú has resurrected the dead bodies of her childhood and isolated them ‘so that they can be seen undistractedly’. She has applied the ‘deep attention of the collector’ and produced a gallery of complex images and ideas that certainly have inspired the ‘perpetuation of wonder’ in this viewer. That is no mean feat and in this world of constant distractions is as worthy an achievement as any. One wonders how Ní Mhurchú will develop these ideas from here. According to herself, she began her work by “digging holes”, recognising a need to start “from the ground up”. Perhaps the heavens are next?
20th March 2013
Top Image: The past is not swept away but included… Oil and Oil stick on canvas_50x50cm
Second Image: Clear Quartz Vulture Oil on paper
Marie Soffe is an Irish artist and writer. She graduated from NCAD in 2009 with a Joint BA in Fine Art (Print) and History of Art, and in 2010 she completed the MA Art in the Contemporary World, also in NCAD.