Dorothy Cross: life, death and magic on the Connemara coast
The shore, and things found along it, including the washed-up, broken and dead, feature large in Cross’s exhibition
Dorothy Cross’s exhibition Connemara was on view at Turner Contemporary in Margate in January. Now she has reshaped the show for the RHA’s cavernous main gallery space. It is dramatically different and tremendously effective in terms of content and installation.
Make your way through the entrance lobby and you find yourself in a darkened, seemingly limitless interior in which individual works are picked out in pools of light, and two looped video projections flicker on opposite walls.
Still garbed in utilitarian overalls and making a final, ruthless edit of what to put in and what to leave out, Cross provides a concise account of what’s on view and the genesis of the overall project. “I’ve lived in Connemara for about 12 years now. Most of the work [in this exhibition] I’ve made in that time, and a lot of it is specifically to do with Connemara.”
The curator at Turner Contemporary was, she notes, a little surprised that it wasn’t more conventionally about Connemara “in terms of the landscape, and so on – the classical notion of Connemara. But I don’t do that, I don’t paint landscapes, and quite deliberately so.”
She didn’t go to Connemara for the scenery. She is Cork born and bred, and, as her two-volume visual memoir Montenotte and Fountainstown makes clear, her links with the city and its environs are deep and inform her work in many ways. She went to Connemara to dive in the sea around Inishbofin, Inishturk and Clare islands, found that she liked it a lot, and bought a field that tumbles down to the sea on the south side of the mouth of Killary harbour.
She built a shed, the first of several (it’s no exaggeration to say that she has a passion for sheds). One thing led to another and she bought a small house across the road, felt at home and built a studio. The setting is spectacular but it is a raw, elemental landscape, in the face of the ocean. Has she found it tough living there? “Strangely enough I haven’t. I find it tougher to be in the city. It’s getting harder to make that transition, to adjust to the city when I have to go there.”
The shore, and the things you find along it, including things washed up, broken and dead, feature large in the exhibition. As Cross points out, she doesn’t make pictures of things, on the whole. She prefers the things themselves, or photographed, or perhaps cast from life.
Tabernacle is an installation that dominates the centre of the room. It’s a kind of small chapel, a rough wooden structure containing three rudimentary stools. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a shed. Its roof is a worn, upended currach. A bottle of holy water is attached to the prow by nylon string. “I didn’t add that,” she is quick to explain. “It was there.”
The structure points towards projected footage of tidal water lapping into a cave. “I found this cave at the end of my field. I didn’t know it existed until I discovered it by accident.”
Her tabernacle presumably harbours something sacred. Life, perhaps? “It’s a place where the body can reside, I think. The word has a wide range of meanings once you look into it. I was thrilled to find that it can refer to the carved groove into which you slot the mast of a sailing boat.”
The cave and the boat: spaces that preserve and protect life. Also, perhaps, metaphors for the body itself. Such a continuity of meaning is more than implied in another work, Basking Shark Currach . As often with her, the title is simply a description of what it is. Working on a set for a production of Vaughan Williams’s opera based on JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea in 2008, she came into contact with Meitheal Mara, an organisation that teaches traditional boat-building techniques in Cork. They made the currachs for the opera. “I saw the skeleton of this small currach in their workshops, and I said, ‘Can I buy that?’ ”
It sat in her studio for ages. Then she came upon the remains of a basking shark, washed up on the shore. Racing against the tide, she sought help in removing the skin of the shark. Eventually, she realised it was a neat fit with the currach hull, and now it is part of it, a grey, gnarly, papery expanse, and the currach’s fin keel is a real fin.
This idea echoes a series of small life casts that greet you when you enter the gallery: flippers, sandals and feet. “I came across them along the shore, these bits of things.” She equates the enfolding form of the footwear with the skin of the foot.
Heart of the matter
Perhaps the strangest, but also most striking expression of the concept is encapsulated in Shark Heart Submarine . An anthropomorphic, paint-spattered easel cradles the sleek form of a nuclear submarine. She commissioned a model of a submarine, gilded in white gold, a sleek, seductive but menacing object. There’s a drawer built into the belly of the craft, and in the drawer is a shark heart – from an accidental catch off the Irish coast – in a glass specimen jar. “You wouldn’t even know it’s there,” she notes. “But it is there.” It’s a rather magical, surreal piece: Cross at her best.
There is another shark in the exhibition, Everest Shark , originally made for a show in Croft Castle, Shropshire. “It’s close to Darwin country. Excavations nearby showed that the site had once been part of the ocean floor.”
She obtained, from a fishmonger, a two-metre blue shark. “Quite rightly, it’s illegal to try to catch them.” On the bronze cast of the shark, in place of its fin, is a scale model of Mount Everest.
“Sharks evolved to their present state 100 million years ago,” she says. They were perfectly suited to their environment and have not changed. Everest, the highest point of our world, the pinnacle of aspiration, is only 60 million years old.”
In 2009, Cross’s dog Louis (he has since died) led her to the carcass of a Cuvier’s beaked whale on a shingled piece of shore. “It had been washed up dead. It was scarred and scored.” She enlisted a neighbour with a mechanical digger to lift the whale on to her land. “It took three years to rot away to the skeleton.” That skeleton, reassembled and held together, is suspended vertically from the ceiling, its nose directed into a galvanised bucket that sits on a marble base.
“I seem to pursue this dialogue between the sacred and the profane,” Cross says. She is not being disrespectful towards the whale. “I thought: it is so beautiful, the vertebral structure. I had this idea of the whale skeleton as a splendid architectural column. But then, the dying, the rotting, the way life is cast aside. It’s beautiful but it’s an abomination as well. Hence the rusty bucket.”