Sustainable Futures at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh

By Luke Clancy

Sustainable Futures, 2018, installation view. Courtesy Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh

The town of Cobh, the original departure point for transatlantic steamships (such as the Titanic and the Lusitania) leaving Ireland, was once known as Queenstown, after its then-ruling British monarch, Victoria. As such, it’s a frontline witness to the advances and retreats of empires and industries, a rich text on the restless networks that humans create, destroy and rewire. Sirius Arts Centre, housed in the gorgeous eighteenth-century villa built to house Royal Cork Yacht Club, is an example of what those changes have meant. On a good day its bright galleries, perched on a steep bank above the lapis slop where the River Lee becomes Cork harbour, spritz everything with Venetian radiance. But scan carefully through the windows and you’ll also see the plumes of some of Ireland’s heaviest industry, while enjoying the erratic drone and clank of earthmovers shaping the mysteriously dark soil across the bay.

Sustainable Futures, featuring four Irish artists, interests itself in this kind of picking and unpicking, especially in processes that could occur without us, but which, for the moment, are made to happen in our wake. Even the media enlisted here have a tang of commentary, or at least hint at an awareness of the real cost of making these environmentally engaged interventions in the gallery.

Fiona Kelly seeks out ‘waste’ materials to turn them into sculpture, often with a wry humour in which monumentality engenders a smirk. So, for To Be Considered (2017) she gathers limestone dust to use as writing material, gluing it to inscribe, in roman font, an archaic word for dust across the gallery’s brilliant walls. Nearby, in The Distillation of Detritus (2017), a rubble of reconstituted concrete lozenges (inspired by Tetris bricks) develops a similar jest with different weights and measures. Méadhbh O’Connor’s Biosystem IV (2018) floats high above that fray, a series of hanging-basket-type orbs of reindeer moss, air plants and other specimens, which advertise an immense and impressively self-directed planet immune, in the long run, to our attentions.

Earth, in both senses, has literal importance in the work of Sarah Lincoln, whose ceramics play with the material’s deep-buried origins as mud, as well as its familiar reappearance as archaeological pottery finds. Skin Contact (2017) features a series of spiral-surfaced plates, some covered or half-covered in silver paint, suggesting alien artefacts uncovered during a dig on Earth, while Digit (2017), a small collection of tubes in raw terracotta, fine china, metal or bone, suggests a taxonomy of fingers, each slightly evolved (or devolved?) as though by the changing pressures of an environment whose details have been lost from the records.

David Thomas Smith’s photographic project Anthropocene – two parts of which are here, 1000 Chrysler Dr, Auburn Hills, MI, United States and Silicon Valley, CA (both 2009–10) – has the largest industrial footprint on show, offering the least sustainable practice in Sustainable Futures. Smith’s images take as raw-material terabytes of Google satellite images showing financially and industrially significant landscapes, which the artist digitally collages together until they form supersized abstractions, their symmetries evoking everything from MRIs of tumorous tissue to carpet patterns or polished gemstones, this latter effect heightened by a presentational medium (giclée prints mounted in liquid acrylic) that glistens almost obscenely. 

Perform due diligence in your environmental accounting here, tot up the costs of the satellites, rare earth metals and petrochemicals without which these images are impossible, and any critique might already be stymied. If, that is, the code of practice under which such work is made were settled, if it were certain that good eco-ratings made good art and that those now producing art without accounting for its planetary impact must produce its opposite. For the moment, thankfully, impact is still being calculated in more diverse fashions.

Sustainable Futures at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, 8 February – 1 April

From the April 018 issue of ArtReview