VAN Critique September/October 2015: Ruth E. Lyons at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Co Wicklow

paul tierney
Ruth E Lyons, ‘The Sea, The Sea’ 2015 exhibition view, image courtesy of Paul Tierney

Ruth E. Lyons
The Sea, The Sea
31 July – 5 September
Mermaid Arts Centre, Main Street, Bray, Co Wicklow

I first encountered the great chunks of rock salt that appear in this exhibition at the artist’s rural Co Offaly studio, a former hay loft located in a soft and yielding bog land landscape far from the ancient sea where these salty boulders originated. The rock salt is a remnant of the long lost Zechstein Sea, a landlocked body of water that once stretched from North West Europe to the East. Mined in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, it is now commonly used for de-icing roads.

Historian Mark Kurlansky has written extensively about the immense historical and social importance of salt (Salt A World History 2002), associated with everything from human sexuality to trade, wealth and power. The search for salt has had an impact on landscapes across the globe, from the development of salt mines to the otherworldly appearance of salt refineries. Salt has been a highly valuable commodity for thousands of years.

Landscape and the changes wrought upon it, both naturally and through the actions of mankind, is a recurring theme in Lyons’s work, which often explores how industry has altered and shaped our domestic landscape.

Here, though, the ocean is the focus, with the exhibition ‘The Sea, The Sea’ offering a mini survey of sorts, drawing together a collection of five recent works. The rock salt chunks I first encountered in Offaly have been worked and sculpted. They’ve been transformed into bowls and vessels to create Zechstein – Antrim (Ire) (2014), a collection of receptacles resembling alabaster or marble. The quartz-like translucence of the salt contrasts with veins of dark red clay marled through it. Smaller pieces retain their natural forms and have been allowed to crystalise into brilliantly white frothy forms.

Presented throughout the show on small wall-mounted shelves, these smaller parts of the work are proffered as items of value and status. The larger pieces, laid out on the floor, have neatly hollowed-out hemispheres – like fonts waiting to be filled. These objects are in a temporary state, where changes in atmospheric humidity will either cause them to dissolve or reconfigure into yet more crystals.

The interconnected issues of a disrupted landscape and its resources are joined in Learning to Swim with the ESB (2015), three spalted (moss / lichen encrusted) beechwood structures, each topped with a pool of water suspended in a sheet of tautly-stretched PVC. Standing beneath and looking up, the trapped water creates a crude lens that reflects the viewer and the wooden frame like a kaleidoscope, this interaction activating the piece to become an outsized scientific apparatus of indeterminate purpose.

The third new work included in the show is Stormglass (2015), a recreation of a type of early barometer that was developed by Admiral Robert Fitzroy, a contemporary of Darwin’s who joined him on the famous Beagle voyages. Composed of a glass case filled with water and a chemical solution, crystals form in response to the temperature. These were thought to forecast the weather according to their density and position. On the day of my visit the crystals formed a dense layer on the bottom of their small glass tank, indicating ‘frost’ according to the key – not exactly accurate, but perhaps a wry comment on the Irish summer.

Amphibious Sound (2012) is a carpet of neoprene fashioned from decommissioned wetsuits. It acts as a kind of link between the works in the way that the ‘sound’ of a body of water does. The final piece is a series of photographs, titled The Pinking on Sea (2014). These document an installation of bright pink buoys held by chains on the seabed. The work was commissioned as part of the Kinsale Arts Festival in 2014 and was a re-visioning of an earlier, gallery-bound piece, where the buoys were suspended from a ceiling.

In the 2014 iteration of The Pinking Lyons made a video work of the view from the middle of the buoys’ anchor up to the surface, where the light can be glimpsed meters above. This suggestion of a portal, or a gateway to another realm, is an idea she revisits often, infusing the examination of the industrial and the scientific with a sense of the otherworldly.

There is a sense with Lyons’s work that she is pursuing a greater truth or an answer, almost in the way that that scientists of the enlightenment in the eighteenth and nineteenth century sought to find a balance between religious beliefs and the growing body of scientific experiments that indicated forces beyond the divine. Despite their explorations in ‘natural theology’, thinkers such as eighteenth-century scholar Reverend William Paley saw advances in scientific discovery as evidence of the existence of God, not the opposite.

In ‘The Sea, The Sea’ this same feeling of wonder at the natural world is coupled with bids to push its boundaries and see what else it might have to tell us, even through the interference of human endeavour. But in the secular context as offered by Lyons, this power does not need the caveat of being both natural and divine, when this duality is already present.

Anne Mullee is and independent curator, art writer, filmmaker and researcher.

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