April 20 - June 20 2015
Informing Gabhann Dunne’s practice is a widespread influence of literature, social commentators and ecologists such as John Gray, Mark Rowlands and Emma Marris. Painting is not used analytically but to interrogate how different forms or techniques can be used with each other to create tension, power and the sacred. Imagery leaks from the canvas onto walls and floors, anchoring the work in the space of its showing, a loop of flowers, a small pillow to break the fall of a painted animal. While the subject of the work may seem overly dark and nihilistic, there is humour here; and compassion, apology and a desire to protect. Magenta Honey is the result of Dunne’s Residency on Bull Island, which has been designated since 1981 by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. It is the only Biosphere Reserve entirely in a capital city in the world.
“Gabhann Dunne is one of the best painters of his generation … Dunne moves easily between abstraction and representation, borrowing intelligently from both to create coolly disruptive, confident paintings without any hint of bravado. Superb.”
This exhibition was accompanied by a specially commissioned text by Nathan Hugh O’Donnell, writer and editor of Paper Visual Art Journal. See below.
Nathan Hugh O’Donnel
I meet Gabhann on a sunny day in March at his studio on Harcourt Terrace. Flowers have begun to show: cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, acacia. We spend a few hours sequestered in the studio he occupies on the third floor of a large Victorian building, originally an ‘Asylum for Aged Governesses and Unmarried Ladies,’ designed by James Hargrave Bridgford in 1879. The building retains many of its original features: tall windows with decorative stained glass, and ornate staircases, though it is mostly in a state of semi-dilapidation. Over cups of tea we talk about Gabhann’s work. Hanging opposite us is a large circular painting, or ‘tondo’ (as Gabhann informs me), a study for the large wall painting which will feature as part of his show in the Lab. It has the look of a globe, but with the earth reconfigured to a tiny sliver of dark land encircled by the most vivid blues: cerulean, cobalt, sevres, ultramarine, royal blue. At first sight, it seems like a forecast of a world almost subsumed by water. This, and the accompanying paintings to be exhibited at the Lab, represents the latest of a body of work he has been developing for ten years. He has difficulty articulating any neat starting point. Instead, he talks me through the colours with the fervour of an enthusiast: the metallic source of each blue, the effect of each glaze. He shows me, behind the painting, a deep pink reflection. By painting the underside of the canvas rose, he creates a hidden frame, to restrict the viewer’s focus and hold their eye. This invisible frame is reflected in another vein of red along the lower right hand side of the canvas. To me, who doesn’t know how to paint, this has the feel of a trade secret. It is the first of a number of entry points or ways in to this submerged, dream-like body of work.
2. Star of the Sea
Bull Island in north Dublin has always had a bit of Mad Max about it, for me, a touch of the apocalypse: the sand dunes, the clear horizons, the odd ranch-style golf-house building or isolated farmhouse at what seems to be the end of the earth, the towering Madonna on her pedestal, the Star of the Sea, and across the bay the obsolescent hulk of the Poolbeg Generating Station with its iconic towers. On a sunny spring day, it feels worlds from the city that surrounds it. I take a stray path into the dunes. Amongst the grasses I come across dandelions and orchids, bumblebees, butterflies. I am struck by the quantity of birdsong: skylarks, wrens, linnets. The further into the vast network of dunes you wander, sand under foot, the calmer things become. You get a sense of the most unexpected isolation, and with it an exhilarating feeling of freedom. I almost expect to step through a clump of marram grass and find a couple copulating. There is that sense of wildness. Instead, I turn a bend and am faced with the sight of a shuddering white Labrador, retching into a corner. He looks almost ashamed, heaving and vomiting, his face buried in the grass.
3. The Bull Wall
The truth is this is not wilderness. There is no wilderness. Bull Island is the result of relatively recent engineering interventions in Dublin Bay, undertaken in the interests of mercantile expansion. Silting had been an ongoing problem for the Port, which construction of the South Wall in 1795 had failed to eradicate. The Bull Wall was built between 1820-25, leading to the effective deepening of the mouth of the Liffey and, as a by-product, the formation of Bull Island from accumulations of silt. It was an important military base during the First World War. Later, plans were developed by Bord Fáilte to turn it into a theme park. At the same time, awareness of its ecological significance was growing: in 1914 it was designated a Rothschild Reserve, and in 1931 it became the first National Bird Sanctuary in Ireland. These days, with UNESCO and EU designations, it is a site of careful environmental management. Invasive species of flora like Sea Buckthorn have to be routinely removed to ‘conserve’ the ecosystem of an island formed entirely as a result of a recent, colossal feat of civil engineering. We tend to imagine conservation and progress at odds. It is not so simple as that. If nothing else, we choose the point from which a thing will be conserved. What are the ethical ramifications of that choice?
There is no wilderness. Even the wildest land is a product of countless human interventions. Hundreds of years of farming have reshaped every patch of scrub, every trail, every available land surface in this country. Even the apparently wildest land is a patchwork of land divisions, imported and invasive plant species, throughways, commonages, the careful accretion of centuries of minor agricultural contingencies. Prior to human migration, our flora and fauna records are of a much narrower diversity than today. As Gabhann says, ‘if you liked brown trout and juniper berries, you were in luck. Otherwise…’ He’s exaggerating, of course. But his point stands. Our ‘wilderness’ is almost entirely the product of human activity. So what is nature and what is not?
5. The Dublin Water Supply Project
It was recently confirmed in an Irish Times report that the controversial Dublin Water Supply Project, which will see enormous reservoirs built in the midlands, to extract water from the Shannon, and pump it to the capital, will be in operation by 2021. Gabhann is impressed by the sheer audaciousness of such a monumental remodelling of the environment. He mentions the Roman aqueducts. There is an elemental grandeur about water which makes the sheer bravura of our efforts of mastery seem equally grand in scope. Yet we need not see it, he argues, as ‘unnatural’. He talks me through an example. If wolf populations are introduced, they frighten deer away from exposed riverbanks. This allows saplings to grow by the rivers, which beavers will use to make dams, and river formations will be altered as a result. For him water is both monumental and humdrum. He tells me how he used to swim in the Liffey, where it passed through his hometown of Celbridge, when he was a child. On one of the small postcard-sized canvases is painted a freshwater pearl mussel, a bulbous inert mollusc with a life expectancy of, on average, 200 years. This exemplar of pure survival seems to point to something fundamental about Gabhann’s work. It is imbued at once with awe and with a keen sense of the ridiculous: that this very mussel should have lived through the Famine!
6. Magenta Honey
In Ribeuville, Alsace, in 2012, beekeepers discovered their colonies were producing inedible honey in a startling variety of colours: bright green, blue, violent red. Honeybees can produce nectar out of a variety of sugars, natural and otherwise: these bees had been mistaking fragments of M&M shells, produced at a nearby Mars plant, for flowers, and processing honey from the sugars they could extract, making honey of extraordinary, unreal, lurid colours.
7. Bombus Distinguendus
Gabhann tells me how he will garland the exhibition space with bumblebees (in particular the endangered great yellow bumblebee which survives in small numbers in County Mayo) and threads of the wildflowers, like red clover and flaxen, they need to pollinate, painted in gauche on the gallery walls. Moths will flock around the exits. Coils of invasive plant species, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam, will circle the central tondo. We talk about the legacies of colour. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the most famous of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, first published between 1830-33, is one of the most well-known works of Japanese art in the world, seeming to western observers to exemplify a distinct eastern tradition. The fact is, as Gabhann informs me, Hokusai had trained in Europe, and used distinctly European techniques – and a distinctly European blue – to produce his master work. It is a work of multiple meanings: migration, invasion, the blurring of east and west. We see it now through the accretion of minor contingencies, mis-adaptations, misunderstandings, which are the stuff of legacies: ecological, environmental, cultural, architectural, art-historical.
8. Morrigan, Durragh
One of Gabhann’s postcard-sized paintings is of his son’s face; another, his daughter’s foot. He talks of how protective they make him. He talks about the future. He worries what accretions we will add to the legacies of the future. He worries about the future.
He also talks to me about sleep. We are not programmed to simply sleep through the night and wake during the day, he tells me. Rather we are programmed to live on a pattern of broken sleep cycles. It was Plato who argued for a regulated sleep pattern: monophasic sleep, as it is known. It is now the norm of most of the western world. That a philosopher should have exercised such power seems to me unfathomable. I ponder it long after I leave the studio. I imagine a world in a kind of perpetual semi-sleep. And as I think about it, I feel it materialising around me: a sort of soporific fug. I take the bus home early. I can’t concentrate. Sounds are either muted or extremely loud. I find I have a temperature. I go to bed. I lie there hallucinating about these canvases of water and wildness, in bold cerulean and lapis lazuli.
But what have I to do with anything? I am not the painter. We talked about writers in Gabhann’s studio, and he mentioned Michel de Montaigne, the first essayist, the first champion of the ‘I,’ for whom the exploration of the self was not an egotistical exercise but the most honest means of inquiry into the internal workings of man. There is the I, the present I, but underneath there are unconscious forces. There is the quietly pervasive, almost evolutionary, force of legacy. I don’t know how else to translate the slow process of painting: the unconscious exploration of it, the laborious mechanism of it, the slow forging of connections, the slow agitation of the machinery, the gradual, unconscious cross-pollinations.
11. Entry Points
For a little over two hours, I sat with Gabhann, joined for a period by the show’s curator, in the ex-governesses’ boarding room with the stained glass panels on the windows, where we shared an extremely sweet marzipan cake. After I left I spent three days in bed with a flu. When I spoke to the others afterwards I discovered they had done the same. It seems fitting that, while we talked about cross-pollinations and interconnections and ecological invasions, we should have been incubating. It seems even more fitting that I should have gone and spent three days hallucinating these vivid blues and greens, this sense of water, this idea of continuity. In 1924, Virginia Woolf wrote a strange essay, ‘On Being Ill,’ a sort of manifesto for semi-sleep, dream, fever and hallucination: ‘let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable.’ I could not find a single brand new word which might explain my sense of Gabhann’s work. I could find no single thread, no entry point. I have instead presented twelve.
12. ‘St Sebastian and the Honey Bee’
On another of the small postcard-sized canvases is painted a bee, mid-flight, pierced by two arrows. ‘St Sebastian and the Honey Bee.’ Gabhann tells me about its sources. St Sebastian was a common subject for renaissance painters, something of a renaissance trope: an opportunity to investigate the male form at the moment of martyrdom. Painters would depict him in chains, being struck by arrows. Which is accurate, up to a point. Only that, according to legend, St Sebastian didn’t die from his wounds. The arrows were not the end. The truth is that the pictorial interests overrode the veracity of the scene. Gabhann is interested in these pieces of hidden knowledge, these obscured corners of the historical record. These deviations – these discontinuities – become, in Gabhann’s work, a source of desperate optimism. The bee is endangered, that much is not in doubt. All the foundations of agriculture as we know it are under imminent and grave threat. Annihilation is anticipated. But perhaps, by some quirk of legacy, through some quixotic sense of hope, Gabhann seems to suggest, the arrows might not mean the end.