VAN January/February 2013: Unpredictable Rhythms of the Earth | Siobhan Macdonald on Residency Experiences


Smoking technique performed on drawings for The Dock, image by Siobhan McDonald.


“Before electronics, seismographs used to be elaborate constructions of balanced levers, as poised and focused and skeletal as a praying mantis, that translated the relative displacement of a weight and the casing from which it was suspended into the oscillations of a beak-like pen across the moving surface of a roll of smoked paper; thus an earthquake in Chile or China could inscribe itself into the scientific record by displacing grains of soot a world away. Perhaps an artist, decades later, will transpose the fragile roll into a context that licences new interpretations of its obscure earth-script.”

Tim Robinson, writing on Siobhan McDonald’s work on the occasion of her solo exhibition, ‘Seism’

Much of my research over the past three years has been developed in Iceland, where I have studied the diverse volcanic and glacial environments of the southern region. Following a self-initiated residency in Iceland in 2010, I took part in a formal residency at the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists (SIM), Reykjavik, in 2011, where I spent a month making art in an abandoned aircraft at the foot of a volcano in Iceland. This got me thinking about how to record the ephemeral occurrences of the earth’s rhythms and their fluctuating nature. To satisfy my curiosity on how to understand the deep structure of the earth, I jumped at the chance to do a residency at the Historical Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert in Gottingen, Germany, in August 2012. Funded by the Arts Council’s Travel and Training Award, I embarked on the fellowship just weeks before my solo show ‘Seism’ at The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon (7 September – 27 October 2012).

The story of the Historical Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert, which is nestled away in an old forest, is an interesting one, and a great example of how a group of tenacious and philanthropic individuals managed to preserve and restore an important observatory, handcrafted instruments and the memory of an exceptional era before computerisation. All of the seismometers on site have been working continuously for more than 100 years. The University of Gottingen decided to abandon this institution and to scrap the historic pieces. In response to this, a small group of citizens and scientists decided to form a federation to buy the place and keep it in operation.

Founded in 2005, the federation is called Wiechert’sche Erdbebenwarte Gottingen. Wolfgang Brunk is an outstanding individual and was my main point of contact in organising the trip. In time I met most of the members of the Federation (Udo Wedeken and Wolfgang Beisert to name but two) who were all gracious hosts. I was the first person to use the instruments in an artistic context and they didn’t know quite what to make of me at first!

Seisometer and drawings, Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert

My aim was to try and figure out certain earth processes and how they influence the geological evolution of our planet, making visible the invisible based on observations of the physical world as it slices through millennia. My practice employs an interdisciplinary approach and manifests in many forms including painting, drawing, photography and collaborative-based projects. I am interested in the changeable nature of landmass, historical events and their interconnection to human experience. This was an exceptional time for me, as I got to work in what is possibly the oldest observatory in operation in the world. It was not a residency in the traditional sense of the word, more of a designated time where I was invited to learn certain ancient techniques.

Big Bang, circa 1920, courtesy of the Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert

I found out about the Historical Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert purely by chance at a meeting in 2010 with Tom Blake, Director of the Irish National Seismic Network and seismologist at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). Blake introduced me to an immense collection of Jesuit seismograms from the early 1900s, which had been buried in the Antiquities Department of DIAS on Merrion Square. The surfaces of the drawings are covered in layers of soot. I was interested in using this ancient process in a series of paintings I was making, which were based on the primordial state of chaos that is contained in the moment of explosion.

As it turns out, the Historical Seismic Observatory of Emil Wiechert is the only remaining place in the world reproducing this virtually forgotten and undocumented practice. Very specific techniques, using kerosene, are required to blacken the recording paper so that a glass prism can scratch out traces of the line and signature of the earthquake. During the residency, this traditional process was passed on to me so I could then develop contemporary artworks. In the short time I was there I tried to grasp at the vital elements of this ancient knowledge. Through this process, I was pulling in so many things: light, fire, the earth and god knows what else. It was not by chance that I became astutely aware, in my drawings, of the tension between randomness and control, between accident and intention.

The seismometer was built by human hands, but the drawings it creates are independent of it, made by the movement of the earth. It seems to me that the scribbled line – a record of the earth’s movement – is also a measure and symbol of the general mutability of nature. Seismograms are objective scientific data but also function as images of change or catastrophe; they transmit information but, within their patterns and structures, it is as if they represent a mystical notation of the rhythms of the earth’s past, present and imminent future.

The aliveness of being in the countryside so close to installing my exhibition enabled me to make the site-specific piece for Gallery 1 at the Dock. The observatory proved a superb location to contemplate geological time. It is perched on a lush hilltop called ‘Measurement Valley’, where geo-scientists have spent over 100 years trying to figure out the nature of the earth’s movements. There is an inscription over the door of the vault that reads: “The trembling rock brings knowledge from afar”. I felt this echoed the values of the numerous scholars in their endeavours to understand the phenomenon of the earth’s activity. Every day I worked on the ground of the forest; this setting allowed me to completely utilise the environment, which bore witness to the explosions and inventions of its former years. The work I made for The Dock comprised tree resin from the surrounding forest and elements of the smoking process, which I tried to push to reveal the full possibilities of their nature. I also made a series of pieces exhibited subsequently in November at Taylor Galleries, Dublin.

Abandoned Dakota DC3 aircraft, Iceland, 2011, image by Siobhan McDonald

This residency has given me an opportunity to reflect on my practice, learn new skills and to integrate recent research with some of the new ways in which I find myself working. My current projects seek to open a space to take us beyond our immediate surroundings, and to consider the larger context in which the earth exists. In the early 1900s, the Jesuits in Ireland were documenting vibrations of the earth by hand, and I want to understand what they were really doing in greater detail. My feeling is that they were uncovering much more than the unpredictable rhythms of the earth, and I am currently working on projects with a composer to render these notations into musical scores. Alongside this, I have been awarded one of the Artist in Residence positions at UCD, 2012 – 2013, and throughout this time will be further expanding on the projects I began back in Iceland and producing work for a solo exhibition in 2013.

Siobhan McDonald predominately works with paint, sound and drawing to explore processes of entropy and geological time. She has recently exhibited at VUE, Taylor Galleries and The Dock.

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