By Ciara Healy Musson
The Victorian artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) believed that certain points in the day—usually twilight—were the times when visionary and spiritual aspects of light in a landscape could be felt most intensely. Allegorical in many ways, his work was often regarded as a lament for things still present, but so clearly on the edge of disappearance that they might almost as well be gone. Through paint, printmaking, and drawing, Palmer channeled the filigree light and energy of these liminal moments in time on to canvas and paper.
Almost one hundred years later, in the Great Basin Desert of northwestern Utah, Nancy Holt’s (1938–2014) Sun Tunnels (1973–76) continued that meticulous attentiveness to the passing of time, to the encroaching night. Composed of four concrete cylinders arranged in an open cross format and aligned to frame the sun on the horizon during the summer and winter solstices, Holt’s work has always been part metaphysical, part practical. Like Europe’s Neolithic ancestors, it has a deep respect for—and knowledge of—the universe and the lessons found within it. Their lives’ works and hers were predicated on an active interest in connecting all that is poetic and esoteric in the land with the mathematics of construction and engineering.
Light and Language at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland presents a selection of Holt’s work from 1966 to 1982, all of which relate to her Sun Tunnels earthworks. The five contemporary artists joining her in this exhibition share her infallible curiosity and desire to connect materials to time, light, space, movement, water, flow, and energy.
Like the alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1591), who once marveled that starlight could be glimpsed in the twinkling eyes of those we love, all artists in this exhibition see the echoes of one thing mirrored in another. Katie Paterson’s delicate haiku-like poems in their restrained forms, titled Ideas (2015–), for example, surround Holt’s large, electrified light bulb installation Electrical System (1982). Cut from silver, the poems shimmer elusive and lyrical on the walls, each small constellation of words illuminated by the yellow glow of lightbulbs on Holt’s large work, transporting the reader to a new way of thinking with each reading.
Not all the work in this exhibition is ethereal and transcendental, as Holt’s and Paterson’s are, however. Produced using a Beckman & Whitley high-speed rotating mirror framing camera operated by engineer and scientist Tim Samaras (1957–2013), Matthew Day Jackson’s Commissioned Family Photo (2013) is a series of 82 photographs of the artist with his family. The “nuclear family” portrait was taken using technology developed in the 1950s for military weapons testing. It was used to analyze the efficacy of explosions and shockwaves from nuclear detonations. The camera can capture over a million frames per second. The resulting image is created by 97,500 exposures. The artist and his family are the only human beings ever to have been photographed by this camera. The resulting images are blurry and unsettling, reminiscent of Victorian spirit photographs, but within the frame there is something more sinister: layers of burnt umber and orange hues obfuscate the small child in the woman’s arms in a way that feels almost radioactive.
Curated by Lisa Le Feuvre, the exhibition invites us to be enthralled by the awe and magnitude of the galaxies and stars, of the earth and the planets, of time and energy. Yet this vast expanse also induces a kind of horror. With a shock, we see ourselves: tiny on this planet. Our fragility and frailties come to the fore in the face of such immensity. We are not alone and yet we are so, so alone in this unfolding dark universe.
Spilling out of the gallery space and into the gardens is work by Charlotte Moth, whose Blue reflecting the greens (2021)—a glass circular blue mirror secured to the castle walls—reflects an otherworldly version of the garden back on itself.
On the lawn is A. K. Burns’ sculpture The Dispossessed (2021) made from mangled chain link fences once used to separate or control a crowd. The fences, now deformed and displaced from their original function, take on a figurative quality of dancers.
The poetry of the everyday, of structures, limitations, and ways of defining space continues with Dennis McNulty’s Boundary Conditions (2021), which maps a network of streets around his home in Dublin.
The textures of light and time, of energy, flow, and movement are made all the more relevant when one considers the location in which this work is situated. Lismore Castle dominates a bank of the River Blackwater in Co. Waterford, Ireland, and since 1753, it has belonged to the Duke of Devonshire’s family. River Blackwater is one of the largest rivers in Ireland, draining five ranges of mountains—the Boggeragh, Nagle, Ballyhoura, Galtee, and Knockmeldowns—as well as thousands of acres of land in Co. Cork. It enters the Celtic Sea in the small seaside town of Youghal and is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) because of the protected habitats and species it nurtures. Tidal mudflats and sandflats, old oak woodlands, freshwater pearl mussel, white clawed crayfish, lamprey, Atlantic salmon, European Kingfisher, and otter are all sustained because of this river.
In Herman Hesse’s (2008, 83–84) iconic book Siddhartha, the river is described as everywhere at the same time:
at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.
These sentiments are echoed most profoundly in Light and Language, in Holt’s intimate connection to nature and the stars. Like Siddhartha, her quest as an artist was to listen to the voice of nature, to give back what was already within. The five artists in this exhibition continue her legacy, but with an ever increasing and sometimes elegiac urgency. Our planet—and our relationship with it—is changing rapidly. Evening soon will come.
Bennett, J. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics. New York: Princeton University Press.
Hesse, H. 2008. Siddhartha. London: Penguin.
Healy Musson, Ciara. 2021. “Light and Language at Lismore Castle Arts.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 20. https://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/light-and-language-lismore-castle/.
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