Natural Histories: Fiona Kelly & Margo McNulty

Fiona Kelly’s The Great Heap, is a large triptych of three vertical wooden boards that display an image of a heap of rubble which has been screen-printed onto the surface using bitumen, an industrial tar. The cheap wooden boards, typical of those used to stud walls, are propped up by a frame made of wooden planks, also used in everyday construction. The title of this collection of re-appropriated industrial materials makes reference to a watercolour painting by E.H. Dixon of the Great Dust Heap in London. This image documents the Victorian process of recycling dust from ash and cinders to make the London brick. With its aesthetic of industry and construction, Kelly’s The Great Heap is also reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s non-sites. Inspired by the excavation of earth and rock from industrial sites around New Jersey, Smithson began exhibiting piles of stones, rocks, and dirt in the gallery space. Kelly and Smithson are both formally and conceptually aligned as both artists are interested in the effects of human activity on nature and the process of entropy – the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system, given visual form in a material like dust.

        Weighting down the boards of Kelly’s The Great Heap are reconstituted bricks made of re-appropriated waste from demolition sites. These bricks also feature in other works such as The Distillation of Detritus, 2015-17, in which we see a pile of reconstituted blocks sitting atop a wooden platform. Kelly’s practice communicates ideas of both destruction and waste, but also renewal and life as all matter comes from and returns to dust. The material of dust features heavily throughout the artist’s work which gives visual form to the word Dustsceawung. This old English word denotes the transience of all things and the contemplation of what has been lost, literally meaning a consideration of the dust.
        Hovering on the periphery of presence and absence dust is a powerful symbol of passing time. It is no wonder, then, that dust plays a central role in the melancholic fiction of W.G. Sebald. In his book The Emigrants, 1992, Seblad describes the practice of an artist called Max Ferber who covers his canvases in thick paint which he then scratches off. The debris falls to the ground and over time the artist comes to realise he loves the accumulation of this dust more than anything else as ‘he never felt more at home than in places where things remain undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness’[1]. Kelly often uses the dust formed as a by-product of artistic processes, such as limestone dust which she collected from Leitrim Sculpture Centre, to create wall drawings such as the one that draws from her aquatint and etching, You Are Only as Strong as the Dirt Beneath You, 2018. This image depicts an uprooted plant hovering above some faintly outlined factory buildings.With a lightness of touch, Kelly juxtaposes human industry with the natural world in a way that evokes Walter Benjamin’s concept of Naturgeschichte (natural history). Benjamin’s Naturgeschichte names the ceaseless and cyclical repetition of decay and emergence describing the process whereby human history passes into or becomes encompassed by natural processes over time. Specifically it refers to artefacts of human history that over time tend to acquire a mute natural being. Here we might think of enigmatic architectural ruins of past time that have lost the meaning that they once had and now become reclaimed by nature, whilst all the while retaining some trace of human intervention.[2]

            The same focus on the passing of time through traces of human intervention on the natural landscape plays out in Margo McNulty’s work, albeit McNulty’s practice has a more political agenda and narrative. This is exemplified by the photo-etching Legacy, 2017, taken on the site of Tintown in the Curragh. Divided into 9 panels, here we see a landscape scarred by the former presence of an old army camp, which was requisitioned for the internment of over 1,000 Republican prisoners. At the forefront of the scene we see the tracks of what looks like a heavy vehicle, an army truck perhaps. Traumatic traces of a grim history are visually present in the ground of the image which remembers the prisoners who were incarcerated in draughty wooden huts in this bleak landscape. Despite the weightiness of the subject matter, McNulty’s focus on the natural landscape seems to soften the subject matter slightly, rendering it more melancholic than reactive.

        This is also true of the related work Archive, a short video work that lasts only two minutes. Here we see the outside gable of a white-washed house which belonged to one of the artist’s ancestors, Eneas McNulty who was detained in the Curragh Camp from June 1940 – 1943. The sky is sunny and a slight breeze blows the branches of a tree whose shadow falls on the gable, becoming the visual focal point of the work. We hear a man’s voice, and it is suggested that he is speaking from inside the house. It becomes quickly apparent that this man was also an internee at Tintown. He was in fact interned there from 1957-9. He speaks of the sympathies for the Republican cause in the 40s, 50s and 60s, before saying that this wave of action will rise again as the need to get the British out of Ireland is still a pressing issue. Filmed in 2009, the anonymous man goes on to discuss the ongoing internment of IRA members in Northern Ireland as being suggestive of this long history of interning political prisoners. The banal image of the gable of a house and the shadow of the tree, speaks of the way this charged and emotive history infiltrates the domestic sphere and the everyday landscape of Ireland even if it is not always immediately apparent. Like many Irish families, McNulty’s family was divided in terms of its political agencies. Despite the emotive narrative which gives the work an undeniable political charge, McNulty’s practice seems to have less to do with political alignments and agendas, and more to do with bearing witness to historical facts and events. It remembers life stories that are fading, yet still very much present, despite the passing of time, and the repression of uncomfortable truths.

        In Archive McNulty juxtaposes the spoken narrative, which perhaps indirectly remembers her now deceased ancestor Eneas McNulty, with the shadow of a tree on the wall. A shadow hovers between presence and absence, between being and nothingness, much like dust. Pliny the Elder also suggested that the shadow informs the very origin of art practice. In a well- known story, he traces the origin of drawing back to the daughter of a potter named Butades, of Sicyon. She was deeply in love with a young sailor who was about to depart on a long journey at sea. Her anticipated grief prompted her to trace the outline of his face, his shadow, which had been thrown onto the wall by a lamp. The origin of drawing, of art, hinges on the shadowy trace of someone/ something that has passed on.[3] The desire to hang on to something that is disappearing, or to make present something that belongs to the past, informs both Kelly’s and McNulty’s work. These artists are also strongly aligned through the central position printmaking occupies in both of their respective practices and these two observations are not mutually exclusive. The shadow as an indexical image, like a handprint, also seems to point back towards printmaking and the physical contact between the printed image’s surface and the plate or screen which presses down to create that image. This sense of touch or contact runs throughout all of the works in the exhibition as fading human histories bring their still-tangible marks to the surface of natural landscapes in these poignant considerations of what is left behind –  the tracks, the traces, and the dust.

[1] W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants. Trans, Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1999) 161/238.

[2] Eric L.Santner discussed Benjamin’s Naturgeschichte in relation to the fiction of W.G.Sebald in On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,  2006) 16.

[3] Michael Newman discusses this story in relation to drawing in ‘The Marks, Traces and Gestures of Drawing’ in The Space of Drawing, Gesture and Act, ed. Catherine de Zegher (London and New York: Tate Publishing and the Drawing Centre New York, 2003), 99–108.