Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery, Dublin
13 March – 27 April
Moving into semi-darkness in the RHA’s Gallery 1 for Dorothy Cross’ ‘Connemara’ initially feels like entering a museum: silent and still. The only light comes from two video pieces projected on the walls and from overhead spotlights, which pick out the works dotted across the floor and walls. Cross initially went to Connemara due to an interest in scuba diving and, at a glance, this darkened room with spot-lit works calls to mind underwater footage allowing us glimpses of what lies far beneath the ocean’s surface. Yet Cross’s artistic interest lies not in what rests at the depths of the oceans but rather what occurs at that point where ocean and the land that we inhabit meet. Navigating the exhibition, the initial stillness is replaced by a sense of nature’s rhythms.
Cross often works with found objects and materials, a process facilitated by the movements of nature. Skins consists of a selection of man-made objects washed up on the beach, which were cast in bronze and neatly hung up in a row on the wall: rubber boots, insoles and fins. Incorporating found objects into the works brings a sense of where they came from into the gallery, embodying the history of that place.
The shark has recurred in Cross’s work to represent a number of things: our fears, that which repulses us, desire and misunderstanding. In Everest Shark this fearsome fish pauses at our feet and at once appears vulnerable, its fin replaced by a model of Mount Everest. This vulnerability recalls the point made by countless marine experts that sharks are not the mythical monsters we have created and are probably more afraid of us than we are of them, while also positioning the shark, like a mountain, as our long time predecessor on this planet.
In Whale, a whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling, its skull stretching towards a rusted bucket and marble plinth on the floor. This once beautiful sea creature is present in a rather dejected position:today’s catch. Yet the skeleton rises like some kind of totem pole and casts a large shadow on the gallery wall, at once beautiful and ominous. Tabernacle resembles a tiny marine chapel, with a handful of small seats and a currach for a roof. The seats face a video installation projected on the wall, shot from the depths of a cave looking out towards the daylit sea and tracking the water as it surges in and out of the cave. The installation evokes the ceaseless shifting in nature, the ebb and flow, as the water slowly erodes the stone.
‘Connemara’ first opened last year at the Turner Contemporary (Margate, UK) alongside a number of landscapes by Turner and Constable. Shark Heart Submarine, probably the most talked about work in the show, consists of a splattered antique painter’s easel supporting a model submarine, which we are told contains the heart of a shark. This work reflects on a number of things: it juxtaposes traditional and contemporary approaches to art inspired by nature; it aligns art history with natural history; and presents a shark to us from a different viewpoint, its tiny heart encapsulated like the engine in this shiny machine.
Throughout Cross’s oeuvre death and loss are transformed; once living beings and inanimate objects are reborn in a new context. A collaboration exists between artist and the natural world, which reflects on man’s interaction with nature. In Basking Shark Currach, death is turned into something new, as a shark skin is used in the place of a traditional cowhide to line the overturned boat, the fin resembling a boat’s keel. The currach represents a way of life closely linked to, and dependent on, nature – an increasingly rare occurrence in many parts of the world.
Despite the sea being the show’s primary inspiration, it makes only a few fleeting direct appearances – the two video pieces and a print – and is for the most part conjured up through the objects accumulated. This subtlety forms an important part of many of the works on display, where an impetus is in place for the visitor to reflect on our position in and relationship to the natural world around us. But for a richer experience our understanding and imagination are encouraged. This stands in marked contrast to art inspired by nature in more sensational or direct ways – think Damien Hirst’s infamous shark.
The exhibition offers a chronological path to follow, which I choose to do in order to see if there was some sense of story to how the works were ordered. Sapiens, the final piece, consists of an adult skull on an antique tripod; as you move around the work, you find a baby skull protruding from the back of the larger one. Perhaps this work considers our place in the world characterised by its transience amidst the ultimate cycles of life and nature. ‘Connemara’ offers but a glimpse of Cross’s extensive collection of works that respond to what the natural world offers her in terms of source material and inspiration, but it’s enough to affirm an artist working with a wealth of curiosity and sensitivity to explore encounters on the threshold where man and nature collide.
Roisin Russell is a writer based in Dublin and her work has featured on Paper Visual Art Journal, Vulgo and Circa.