Curated by Sheena Barrett
September 03 - November 08 2015
The LAB is delighted to present this exhibition of new and recent work by Armagh-based artist Emma Donaldson. Emma’s objects, as she calls them, rather than sculptures, are the result of explorations of memories and experiences of the past through materials available around her, the ‘stuff of now’; domestic material, stained cotton, painted papier-mâché and gloss paint. These objects appear human in scale, inviting close conversation. Closeness creates an unease, however, owing to the vulnerability of these swelling forms, standing upright on their delicate armatures. Emma’s work invites you take time to connect with the artist’s objects as constructions that mediate between her inner world and the physical world around us.
Emma Donaldson (born Belfast, lives in Armagh) studied Painting at Wimbledon School of Art, Royal College of Art, Graduate School of The University of Houston and Histories and Theories at the Architectural Association in London. Her mixed media practice incorporates drawing, writing presented visually, The Light Project and more recently object-making. She has exhibited in the US, UAE, Europe and UK; recent exhibitions have included trouble = progress at MCAC, 2013 Portadown, Futures ’13, RHA, 2013, Dublin and The Past is Unpredictable at F.E. McWilliam Gallery & Studios, 2014, Banbridge and a major solo show at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries, UK, 2014.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a commissioned text by Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll.
The universe, stretching some 13.8 billion years in time, beckons and invites on a never-ending voyage of discovery. Gazing into the light of a long gone star, we contemplate what has made it possible for us to become who we are. We search for the memory of our origins – the origins of the world – as if by looking into the life of the past we can define our identity at this point in time. How did we get here? We look for answers by tracing the light of dead stars; we re-discover to remember.
‘When I consider the small span of my life absorbed in the eternity of all time, or the small part of space which I can touch or see engulfed by the infinite immensity of spaces that I know not and that know me not, I am frightened and astonished to see myself here instead of there... now instead of then.’
On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft took off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a long journey towards the dwarf planet of Pluto and its moons. When the spaceship finally circulated around its target last July – nearly a decade later, it allowed us to glimpse at previously unseen edges of the solar system. With every poetic image transmitting down to Earth: of the planetary sphere backlit by the sun, of its mountainous, living landscape, our knowledge of the universe and its limits expanded, our imagination awakened. The volcanic beauty of Pluto’s surface opened up a possibility that somewhere out there, we may eventually come across signs of other life; that ultimately we are not alone. For an instance, infinity flickered before our eyes, for once we became separated from the fear and anxiety it usually instills in us. We were in awe.
‘Art is a form in which we attempt to express infinity. ‘The work of art . . . is a form, namely of movement, that has been concluded; or we can see it as an infinite contained within finiteness’.
At first glance the objects made by Emma Donaldson (she distinctly refers to them as objects rather than sculptures) fit neatly into this cosmic narrative. The infinite swirls of their form and the protuberant lumps on their surface allude to the outer reaches of the solar system – bristling with activity. Yet here they are, standing tall and lean in the gallery space, of human proportion and presence. Their upper bodies rest on long, limb-like plinths, their hollow faces stare straight into the eyes of the viewer. These alien, strangely shaped figures bear little resemblance to us but somehow they feel familiar and recognisable. As suggested by the titles: Trunk; Body; Her, they are intentionally body-like and connecting to the body. They hold our stare in a bold confrontation to make us acknowledge their anthropomorphic state. But a careful examination of the works, like the studying of the stars, reveals a set of complex physical properties that stretch far beyond the impressions of the initial encounter. The fascination with the structural configuration of the objects – the way they are constructed and how they physically occupy the space – gives way to a preoccupation with their material composition. Made of simple everyday fabrics and resources such as old bedding, bandages, hosiery or papier-mâché, the artworks suddenly stop feeling otherworldly, and cross over from the field of cosmology into the realm of the domestic.
Donaldson deliberately employs materials that are low-fi and originating from what she refers to as ‘the stuff of life’: ordinary things of everyday use, things that are banal and mundane. The reason for this is two-fold: first, such materials illustrate the marks of daily wear and tear, the traces of usage that reflect the passing of time; second, in Donaldson’s case, using these materials as medium becomes a visceral and labour intensive process– they ‘require an immediate engagement with the artist’s body in order to come into existence and take form’. The artist’s movements are firmly recorded and easily traceable in the material history of the objects. We can imagine her folding, layer by layer, the cloths that constitute the hollow sphere of Body whose empty eyeball follows us in astonishment. Looking into it, we can see a stratum of foam of varied density that holds to the memory of its shape. Nearby, the tumour-like Untitled is a blend of different patches of fabric, including medical dressing, pieces of hosiery, and muslin cloths, all hand-stitched haphazardly in an effort to contain this growing malignant mass. Each stitch evidence of the artist’s earlier gesture – a tangible memory of her body movements made at some point in the past. Through the act of observing, we are simultaneously recovering them and bringing them back to life. We are the link between the past and the present.
‘The whole of time is held within our gaze. Infinity opens our eyes, the blink of an eye snaps it shut. Eternity is just forgetting.’ Our desire is to remember.
The idea of ‘body memory’ plays an important role in Donaldson’s art practice, that as much as the brain, the body too is capable of storing memories. Accumulated somewhere at the cellular level the sensations and events that we have once experienced live on. Donaldson, through the physical act of making her objects, charges them with the memory of her movements. They become the embodiment of her body memory, taking on the role of a chronicler that references the history of the maker. Far from being autobiographical, the objects are rather a manifestation of the concept, whose indefinite and intangible layers are now stored within the limits of the artwork.
There is no limit to how far back, how deep in time we can reach. Our bodies are the link between now and then, and like the stars that connect us to the origins of the universe, they too, can be studied and analysed to carry us to the beginnings of who we are and what made us who we are today. By connecting to the body, we are able to uncover indefinite layers of memory and release previously unknown histories about ourselves.
The voyage of the New Horizons continues and much like the memory existing in the cells of our bodies, it will endure long after we’re gone. By travelling into previously unexplored territories on the edge of our solar system, it reaches out to infinity and in doing so, reflects it back upon us.
 Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989, 21.
 Alissa Kleist, Catalogue essay for The Past is Unpredictable, a group show with work by Deirdre McKenna,Emma Donaldson and Ursula Burke at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, August 2014.
 Heinz-Norbert Jocks, ‘The Magic of Infinity’, in: In-Finitum, ed. Axel Vervoordt (Ghent: Vervoordt Foundation, 2009), 59.