Fading Into Another Dusk, Roscommon Arts Centre 2019/20
Fading into Another Dusk, 2019/20
Introduction written by Mark Garry
This exhibition is made up of a series of vessels and plates that are created by fusing vitreous enamel onto copper. They each have a beautiful evocative lustre both controlled and uncontrollable. These work reference history on a number of levels. Materially they engage enamelling, a process that involves the fusing of a thin layer of powdered glass to both protect and embellish a metal object, that was developed in Cyprus in around the 13th century BC. These works also reference a more recent history, as Mannion is from Northern Ireland; a remarkably beautiful, complex and subtle place.
The starting point for these works was a novella entitled Proxopera by Benedict Kiely, which is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles. In this novella Kiely posits the idea that water could retain memories. This intrigued Mannion and she felt that perhaps water could also retain imagery, that water was a living entity with a wilfulness of its own.
The works subtly reference water both as a material or surface and as a conceptual device. Water has a number of distinctly paradoxically dualistic characteristics; it is both a container and something that can be contained, it is instantaneously both a surface and a body, and it can simultaneously absorb and reflect. When water is observed in a lake it is both held by, and a mirror image of the land that surrounds it, defined by the shoreline and topography. We, as humans, are also defined by and a reflection of the landscapes we encounter. We are subtle, complex echoes of the places we come from.
These artworks simultaneously reference water and mimic its material properties as both container and reflector. They act as subtle receptacles and articulations of meaning and possibility. They reference the land and are made of copper, a material extracted from the land, but they also engage a conversation about the role landscape plays in the formation of meaning and act as a container of memory.
These works by Mannion made me think of a remarkable book by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki entitled In Praise of Shadows. In this book Tanizaki discusses traditional Japanese aesthetics and the role of contrast and transformation in the formation of an aesthetic. He encourages us to, “Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.” These artworks are beautiful forms that reference a geographic location and a complex social space, and the light and darkness that encompasses that space.
Fading Into Another Dusk: Elemental Alchemy, a text response to my exhibition by Joanne laws
Across the smooth mercurial surfaces of Susan Mannion’s plaques and vessels, a durational harnessing of the classical elements is evident, bound up in the unpredictable processes of alchemy. The opaque enamel surfaces recall the burnished veneer of intaglio prints, or the shadowy emergence of a photographic image, during chemical immersion. Flat and raised copper is coated with layers of powdered glass, which will liquify when exposed to high temperatures. In keeping with the metallic principles of combustion, volatility and solidity, these colours are most vibrant when first emerging from the kiln. In this moment, the composite particles have not yet hardened, but remain liquid. They glow as luminously as lava, before exposure to the air causes them to solidify, forming a skin of glass. Areas of bare copper that have become blackened in the kiln, provide a fire-scale ground, into which the artist makes her marks, in many cases echoing the time-worn motifs appearing on prehistoric tombstones.
Copper is a naturally occurring metal, often found within volcanic rock – terrain produced through the hardening and solidification of the earth’s mineral strata over time, through exposure to heat, water and air. Historically, copper was the first metal to be mined and smelted, while alchemical innovations during the Neolithic Age allowed it to be alloyed with other metals. The artist’s use of additional materials excavated from the earth, such as pigments in powdered form, make these artworks feel very much of the landscape – not least in terms of their textures and natural colouration. Macro views of sedimentary rock are widely discernible across her plates, with blisters, cracks and marbling attesting to the fiery drama enacted upon them.
As a classical element, earth represents all things solid. Yet the earthly realm is permeated with vast ambiguity and mystery, periodically made visible through the extraction of ancient artefacts, as the ground discloses its treasures, like some forgotten reliquary. Accruing intimate knowledge of a site’s history, archaeologists can discern complex cultural narratives from their incidental findings: burnt bones may illuminate ancient funerary practices; a stone axe may attest to shifting geo-temporal conditions of the immediate terrain. Perhaps most thrilling of all, might be the discovery of the maker’s fingerprint, embedded in an earthenware pot, fabricated thousands of years ago. Archaeological methods deeply underpin Mannion’s work, evident in her tactile and durable surfaces, resembling the vitreous coating found on ancient decorative artefacts – from brooches and buckles, to tiles and liturgical vessels. In some ways, Mannion’s semi-abstract, granular layers conjure visual connections with the electromagnetic
imagery generated by archaeological technology, such as Ground Penetrating Radar, employed to examine subterranean features. Perhaps even more significant, is the square composition of the plaques, which subconsciously echoes the grid formation traditionally used in excavation sites, to demark horizontal and vertical exposures.
While the ochre and sepia colouration of these pieces seems to channel the dusk-like shades of an autumnal landscape, more specific tonality can be identified within Ireland’s wild bog lands. Within the hidden lakes and bog pools of rural hinterlands, turbid water gathers, discoloured by excess sediment and dissolved peat tannins. The antibiotic properties of sphagnan moss, prevalent across Ireland’s raised bogs, create optimum acidic conditions for the preservation of organic matter. Ancient bodies have been retrieved intact from the upper portions of bogs, some as skeletons, others with clothes, hair and skin as tanned as leather. Often these naturally mummified remains show evidence of criminality, execution or even ritualistic human sacrifice, while cadavers from the medieval period indicate the purposeful denial of Christian burials. Many peat-preserved bodies have been accompanied by votive offerings, presumably intended to appease supernatural forces, thus smoothing their journey into the afterlife.
Perceived by ancient cultures as an elemental body – even the life force itself – water has historically been attributed miraculous powers and spiritual importance, with many waterways being named after goddesses. In Irish mythology, lakes, rivers, springs and holy wells were viewed as celestial portals into the Otherworld. Pagan water deities became an important focus of worship, with treasures being thrown into sacred waters, as offerings to the gods. Formed by glaciers over several millennia, Ireland’s rivers and lakes have been widely used to demark geographical borders and territorial boundaries. Mannion suggests that we might consider the landscape as bearing witness to generations of violence, such as war and famine. One may conceive the land as being tainted by, or even implicated in, these violent histories. If water, like glass, has the capacity to reflect its surroundings, fusing all other material surfaces into one expansive membrane, then it seems possible that cultural trauma might be retained somewhere in these murky depths, where a darker energy prevails.
Joanne Laws is an arts writer and editor based in County Roscommon.