Conor McFeely at WILD TULIPS
with gallery notes by Darran Anderson, below
Exhibition runs 30 / 10 / 21 – 27 / 11 / 21: Thursdays to Saturdays, 12 noon to 5pm
Image Credit: Conor McFeely, 2021.
Gallery Notes by Darran Anderson, 2021
‘Speak, memory’ are the first words of The Odyssey. No-one really knows who composed the tale. A name reaches us across millennia; Homer, a blind poet who sat listening to ‘the wine-dark sea’ but this is shrouded in hearsay and could well be mythological (at least seven places claim to be his birthplace, if such a man even existed). It could be that there was no single origin and that these tales were passed down in the oral tradition and changed by innumerable storytellers. ‘Speak, memory’ resonates across the expanse of time, because everything we encounter tells us a story, and everything we create contains a story. The memory is built-in, allowing even silent inanimate objects to speak.
In the 2nd century, the Ancient Greek writer Lucian of Samosata wrote one of the earliest works of science fiction, A True Story, in which a ship is lifted spinning up into a whirlwind and into space. It’s an image that reoccurs in literature and folklore, the stuff of childhood dreams, sailing to the moon and the stars. Given we are creatures of narrative, it’s formed the basis for how we perceive space travel. Echoing the Age of Exploration, where adventurers and invaders charted where the oceans led, interplanetary exploration is represented nautically – Jason had his Argonauts, NASA their astronauts (‘star sailors’) and Russia their cosmonauts (‘universe sailors’). Space probes were named after seafaring peoples (the Vikings) and individual explorers (Ferdinand Magellan). Even the fantastical stories spun around outer space were rife with characters (smugglers, pirates, leviathan etc) from nautical tales or were directly inspired by ocean-going vessels (Star Trek’s Enterprise was named after the WW2 aircraft carrier of the same name).
There were ten Mariner space probe missions. Three failed (the first due to a single mistaken symbol in the computer program) but the others managed to measure the solar wind, scan the atmosphere and magnetic fields of Venus, and photograph the ‘canals’ of Mars in the first flypasts of planets beyond our own. The series was concluded in 1973, being replaced by the Voyager series. The probes themselves were left derelict in space, orbiting the sun as flotsam or space junk (one orbiting Mars is expected to crash into the red planet next year), sailing through interplanetary space like ghost ships. They ceased to exist, yet they continue.
Mariner II is the next instalment of the curtailed program. A solarised probe fallen to earth. Its qualities are futuristic but a future that has passed, an ancient future. The pieces you find here are a technological reliquary. They contain stories, just as the earlier Mariners contained data, accounts of exploration and disaster. The photograph of a rock found on Kinnagoe Bay speaks of earlier misbegotten voyages; it is the site of the wrecking of the Spanish Armada vessel La Trinidad Valencera. The presence of neodymium (‘an element formed by cosmic ray spallation, also known as the x-ray effect’ and the most powerful natural magnet) indicates not only a rare earth metal inside turbines, recording equipment and hard drives but another sea tale – that of the Lodestone Mountain of Arabian legend, a dreaded natural feature so magnetic it would pull out all the iron nails holding ships together causing them to disintegrate. Other stories, of attraction and loss, are contained deeper within. Mariner II is as much an archaeology of inner space as outer.
The magnetic fields within Mariner II hold its constituent parts together. It is the stuff of childhood marvel – watching iron filings move and reconfigure, mirroring the vector field. We owe our very existence to the presence of the earth’ magnetic fields which deflects the sun’s solar winds which would wash away our ozone layer. The aurora borealis and australis are dazzling signs of this process, ripples of colour dancing in the magnetosphere, preventing an apocalypse. We owe our knowledge of the earth to explorers and cartographers who ventured out onto the wild seas, reading the earth’s magnetic field with compasses to guide their perilous journeys. All the stories that followed, glorious and terrible, came from the simple revelation of north.
In the 1930s, with the US, Soviet and Nazi rocket industries still in their experimental infancy, a black Alabama student by the name of Herman Poole Blount experienced a vision where he was taken to Saturn by extra-terrestrial. The experience changed his life. He became a conscientious objector and then a jazz musician, changing his name to Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, creating music with his Arkestra that reached back to Ancient Egypt (and his namesake the son god Ra) as well into an interstellar future. Many utopian dreams are born amidst dystopian realities. ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’ Auden wrote of Yeats. Mad America hurt Herman Poole Blount into space. It’s not just a spirit of exploration that take people from one place to another. Some are forced. Others escape.
Many utopian plans are born amidst dystopian realities and return to that state. All of the leading forefathers of rocketry, from the US to Germany to Russia, entered, or rather created, the discipline because of a childhood fascination with science fiction literature, primarily the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their work would enable humanity to reach across the solar system and land on the surface of celestial bodies only previously seen through telescopes. Their work would also lead to V2 rockets, ballistic missiles, and countless deaths in innumerable conflicts. With the invention of atomic weapons, the threat of self-induced annihilation hung over mankind. And yet this too emerged from curiosity and wonder – Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the dream that mankind could somehow master the power that fuels the sun and allows us to see stars from distant galaxies; the same sunlight and starlight that shone down on the golden sands and turquoise lagoons of pacific atolls before they were vaporised and irradiated by nuclear detonations. The detonations leave behind dazzling relics like the glass Trinitites scorched on the desert site of the first nuclear test and terrible icons like the blast shadows of vaporised human beings flash-bulbed onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki walls and steps. For all the technological ingenuity involved in atomic science, there was something of the primeval caves to what it left behind, insinuating we are still those creatures.
At the heart of Mariner II is the relationship between existence and entropy (‘lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder’). This is evident in the work and acknowledged by McFeely, who sees Mariner II as “a combination of objects, images, media and materials that are points of departure for the engagement with experiences that merge the personal and the public. In some cases, these are represented simply by the use of a material or an image whose function forms part of the work’s syntax. The totality of these forms create their own biology. These references, or prompts are often implicit rather than explicit. Lights, images of lights and light particles, perforated objects, the granular and the solid merge with liquid and vapour; a manipulated sound recording of an empty room, the drifting and transformation of matter collide to form a conceptual core sample, cutting a path from the compacted bedrock below the surface soil to the upper atmosphere. The notion of entropy is always there, in as much as I understand it. I am certainly no expert in these matters, more of an interested observer trying to grasp ideas and developments in other fields that have parallels with Art. So, if entropy is a physical system moving towards disorder it is also a measure of uncertainty and randomness. I saw the rock images as burials of a sort… solids forms disappearing back into the infinity of the surrounding sand. I had my own ‘experience’ at Kinnagoe. It’s difficult sometimes to strike the balance between revealing one’s inner life and thoughts and keeping the focus on the outside world that others live in. One feeds the other.”
It is worth considering another process – atrophy – in relation to the interstellar themes of Mariner II. There are several possible states the universe is moving towards. One is an inverse of the Big Bang – a Big Crunch, which may be a final point or just a step in an endless cycle of expansions and contractions. Another is the end point of atrophy – heat death. Everything slows and depletes energy until not a single atomic vibration exists. This raises an interesting issue regarding not only the existence-entropy/atrophy dynamic in McFeely’s work but the personal-public interaction. Our lives are everything to us and yet we know they are ephemeral and one day, when the lifeforce or soul departs or brain activity ceases to exist, we return to being simply physical material of the universe that gradually vanishes. Yet we know from the law of conservation of mass that nothing can be truly created or destroyed, only changed. The transitory nature of life and the persistence of matter seem easily accepted by materialist scientists except for the question of consciousness, which is still and may always be a mystery. A prominent influence on McFeely’s work has been another explorer of inner space, the countercultural psychedelic ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who asserted that we are consciousness but also that it is something far larger and more enigmatic than simply electrical signals within the skull of a mammal, “I don’t believe consciousness is generated in the brain any more than television programs are made inside my TV. The box is too small.” If this is the case, perhaps nothing is ever really lost, which brings us back to the improvisational aspect to McFeely’s work, echoing the ‘Nothing Is’ of Sun Ra’s album. Citing the inspiration for Don DeLillo’s Mao II (when the writer noticed two unconnected photos on his wall – “one of JD Salinger finally tracked down by a tabloid photographer and the other a mass wedding of 6000 couples in Korea, followers of Sun Myung Moon of the Unification church”), McFeely is open to chance encounters, unintended meanings, overlaps and coincidences; all of which are, in the schemes or chaos of the universe, as valid as intention.
What Mariner II finds will be different things to different people. Perhaps it charts, or encourages reflection upon, the magnetic fields and the atmospheres, the discoveries and losses, of our lives on earth. Perhaps it is a kind of modern fossil, telling us about our lost past, technocratic hubris, the memory of utopianism. Perhaps it is a collection of space junk, reminding us that the items we’ve left floating in space, littering other planets or fired out beyond the solar system like the Voyager probes might very well outlive every treasure and monument on Earth. Every piece of flotsam and jetsam lost in the ocean of space contains a story and, for now at least, we are the only known creatures capable of deciphering them.
Darran Anderson 2021
Photographic Documentation by Paola Bernardelli
WILD TULIPS presents Mariner II, an exhibition by Conor McFeely with gallery notes by Darran Anderson.
This new installation at WILD TULIPS Gallery by Conor McFeely is a development of the Mariner light-installation designed for the graveyard at St Augustine’s Church, Derry, commissioned by Art Arcadia.
Mariner II considers the desire and need for the exploration and expansion of both our inner consciousness as well as the outer physical world. The title of the project references the NASA space missions of the early 1960s developed to probe and explore uncharted cosmic terrain, some of which were failed experiments. NASA in turn had appropriated the nautical term, mariner, to convey the impression of travelling great distances to remote lands. This work incorporates a wide range of processes, from sculpture to photography, video and audio in a combination and manipulation of ‘material’ in the service of finding new relationships.
Conor McFeely was born in Derry, N. Ireland, where he now lives and works. Conor McFeely’s previous exhibitions include The British Art Show 5, Hayward Gallery London, touring Edinburgh, Southampton, Cardiff and Birmingham; Something Else, Contemporary Art from Ireland, touring Finland; Dogs Have No Religion Czech Museum of Fine Art, Prague; The Case of the Midwife Toad, The Douglas Hyde Gallery Dublin and Void Gallery Derry; Four cycles of the Weathermen projects were shown at NKD Dale Norway, 126 Gallery Galway, Franklin University Lugano Switzerland and The Golden Thread Gallery Belfast; The Prisoners Cinema, Corner College Collective Zurich and the Milan Art expo; His Pioneers project was shown as part of Tiny Deaths at CCA Derry. A further cycle of this project was shown at QSS in Belfast. As a member of the Void Gallery curatorial board, he curated solo shows by Andrei Molodkin and Andres Serrano. His project Mission Station was shown as part of Leviathan at MCAC Portadown. In 2021 he was commissioned by Art Arcadia to create a site-specific light installation for St Augustine’s Graveyard Derry.
Darran Anderson is the author of Inventory, which has been shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize, and Imaginary Cities, chosen as a best book of 2015 by the Financial Times, The Guardian, the A.V. Club, and others.
His writing has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The TLS, Frieze, The Architectural Review and Wired. He has given talks at the likes of the V&A, the London School of Economics, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Melbourne’s Robin Boyd Foundation, and the Venice Biennale.
He has co-edited The Honest Ulsterman, 3:AM Magazine, Dogmatika, and White Noise.
WILD TULIPS is an initiative of Clarendon Street Studios C.I.C. in Derry, supported by Derry City and Strabane District Council. This exhibition, commission, and publication with text by Darran Anderson has been supported by Derry City and Strabane District Council Artist and Cultural Practitioner Award 2019/20 and Clarendon Street Studios C.I.C.