Visions of an Unsettled Earth

Sarah Kelleher

I saw the first iteration of ‘Visions of an Unsettled Earth’ in the summer of 2018 when Debbie Godsell, Fiona Kelly and Sarah O’Flaherty presented ‘Visions of Half-Light’ in the town hall in Macroom, County Cork. So much has changed since then, and the themes of this body of works are even more pressing and pertinent now: a deep concern with the environment, or our fraught connection to place; an exploration of time, of the overlapping temporalities inscribed in different materials, and further, in the agencies and vitalities of materials that surround us.

This show’s title, ‘Visions of an Unsettled Earth’, brings to mind a construct devised by literary theorist Emily Apter, which aptly describes our current moment. Her formulation, ‘planetary disphoria’[i], borrows from psychologist Melanie Klein’s formulation ‘depressive position’ and derives from the Greek dysphoros, which means to endure that which is difficult. It describes ‘an unpleasant or uncomfortable mood: sadness, a downer moment, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, spleen, manic swings, withdrawal … and the total evacuation of euphoria.’[ii] Apter’s phrase doesn’t just describe the emotional experience of pandemic and lockdown, but rather a planetary dimension of melancholia, a ‘geo-psychoanalytic state of the world at its most unquiet, awaiting the triumphant revenge of acid, oil and dust.’[iii]

So, as philosopher Ben Ware wrote, ‘we don’t need to act “as if” environmental catastrophe has happened, or will happen, because – as the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear – the future of recurring disasters linked to climate change and ecological destruction has already arrived – indeed, they are all part of one and the same crisis. Our task is thus not to try to avert the worst by prophesying it, but rather to find ourselves within the current moment of crisis and catastrophe, to take the reality of extinction as our starting point, … and to recall Walter Benjamin’s words that revolutions aren’t necessarily the locomotives of world history, but “an attempt by the passengers on [the] train ... to activate the emergency brake.”’[iv]

But finding one’s feet and knowing how to proceed is not a straight-forward task. There’s a kind of psychic disorientation that one experiences when forced to consider the scale of our darkening situation. The neoliberal onus on personal responsibility, on making changes in consumer behaviour – buying a bamboo toothbrush, carrying your keep cup – is essentially a commodified sustainability, and feels at best ineffectual. Instead, as artist Jonas Staal argues, we must acknowledge that ‘our ecosystem is changing. It no longer consists merely of forests and icebergs, but also of toxic flooding and geographies of plastic. These new forms of agency have to be the start, he argues, of a broader political, economic, and social change. More than preservation, we need transformation.’[v]

So, the themes that link the works in this show are those of connection and transformation. Firstly, the forging of connection to place through an intimate understanding of a specific landscape or environmental system. The artists don’t address landscape or environment as an abstract concept but demonstrate a granular engagement with its specificities in terms of folklore, in terms of memory, in terms of material. This visceral, tactile connection with environment doesn't position land or ecology as something outside of us, but something that we are native to, and one that produces us, even as we – physically, conceptually, discursively – produce it.

These richly divergent works – sculptural scrolls and briquettes of stacked papers, ferns mummified and precariously propped, a fragile ecosystem in a plastic planter – are also linked by a shared engagement with transformation. Transformation is understood here less, or not only, as a manipulation of material, but an engagement with the agency of inhuman systems around us, and the longer histories of which we are part. This enquiry is reflected in a shared interest in material and in process, specifically the process of accretion, the layering, stacking or propping of images, or plywood or plaster.

Debbie Godsell overlays imagery drawn from local folklore, memories and portraits, until each ribbon of images becomes a kind of hypertext, embedded with mnemonic links to other texts, images and ideas. Going Over Old Ground (2018), an epic scroll 25 meters long and printed over twelve months, hangs in swags and arcs over a series of ladders and wooden stands, looped over cradles like washing hung out to dry. The word scroll now conjures the verb rather than the artefact; to scroll meaning to skim through rapidly but perhaps distractedly, with attention divided. As such, it can be understood as relating a sense of our present day experience of landscape as unanchored and disembodied – something that passes by outside the car window, unspooling like film. Godsell’s piece, however, forces us to slow down, to parse her complex image/texts, too unwieldy and excessive to be taken in at a glance.

Sarah O’Flaherty blends the organic and the mineral to investigate temporal states. She dips tangles of bracken in cement, so that they become ossified, bone-like and unfamiliar. The cement encases and preserves the organic matter, but also obliterates it, blurring its shape. The ferns are caught at a specific moment, arrested in their unfurling, trapped in concrete and iron dust, and so the whole collapses wildly different temporalities; the brief lifecycle of a plant, and the incomprehensible longevity of iron  in a deliberately quixotic gesture – to preserve the ephemeral, in a material that is itself gradually disintegrating. In her photographs, close-ups of plants choked in poly tunnels, this timeline has been alarming accelerated, seemingly poised on a knife edge between vigorous growth and immanent suffocation. This series was started in 2018 but the images are newly anxious, not only tinged with apprehension of the increasingly precarious ecology of plant-life, threatened by perpetually diversified political and economic practices of climatic destruction, but also by the aggravated sense of the dangers to life in general under a pandemic.

Entropy proposes that physical systems move towards increased disorder and the dissolution of form; and dust, according to philosopher Georges Bataille, is a necessary and perfectly entropic corollary of overproduction.[vi] Fiona Kelly is interested in the potential of waste, specifically of construction waste, recycled to make new forms. The Great Heap (2017) is an enlargement of an image of rubble and dust printed in bitumen onto plywood sheets. Stone or rock implies permanence, but rubble is more readily understood as detritus; likewise plywood is a cheap composite of fragments, while bitumen is the sticky and dirty by-product of the distillation of crude oil. The frugality of these materials lends her objects a certain sense of impermanence, as if they will, in the long term, crumble and decay and leave no trace. This ephemerality is not melancholy though, but also signals resilience and renewal. that time, when time itself changed(2020), for example, is a crystal of salvaged acrylic glass, based on the molecular structure of limestone – it acts as a glittering habitat for succulents, resting on a disc printed with more rubble. Rubble, as Kelly reminds us, is not just waste, but substrate, a support that can enable life.

Perhaps these works are linked less by entropy than by an assertion of multiple, overlapping temporalities. The scroll, with its layered images; the calcified plants; rubble printed in bitumen – each layering of materials as a corollary to the accrual of time, bringing together competing ideas of decay and renewal, loss and persistence. Leaving aside any romantic notions of alchemy or valorised nature, each work becomes a ‘temporal knot, a mixture of past and present’, revealing what persists or ‘survives’, and proposing new forms.[vii]

Apter’s planetary disphoria describes a melancholic earth and a depressive position characterised by, among other things, disorientation, dejection and an inhibition of all activity. Vitally, the works in this show are not bleakly pessimistic, neither are they falsely romantic or utopian. Instead, they propose subtle strategies of reconnecting with our embattled surroundings, and of imagining new forms through an engagement with local histories, or attending to the unexpected, spontaneous properties of matter, or the inconceivable yet precarious resilience of plant life.

[i] Emily Apter, ‘Planetary Dysphoria’, Third Text, 27:1 (2013), pp. 131-140

[ii] Id., p. 139

[iii] Ibid., p. 140

[iv] Ben Ware, ‘Nothing but the End to Come? Extinction Fragments’, e-flux journal, 111 (2020), pp. 1-11, p. 3

[v] Jonas Staal, ‘Climate Propagandas’, e-flux journal, 108 (2020), pp. 1-15, p. 10

[vi] Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, ‘A User’s Guide to Entropy’, October, 78, (1996), pp. 38-88, p. 82

[vii] Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, or, What’s ‘Contemporary' in Museums of Contemporary Art?, London: Koenig Books, 2014, p. 20