'Like a bird learning to sing'


ART:Dorothy Cross’s installations never fail to challenge and delight and next wee the video of her latest work, ‘Stalactite’, can be seen in Cork. AIDAN DUNNErecommends it

WHEN DOROTHY CROSS was researching work for a sculpture competition for Chichester Cathedral in England, she had in mind the idea of creating a stalactite within the cathedral.

She realised that to do this with anything relating to the natural process of formation would take rather longer than the usual timescale devoted to creating an artwork; but she liked the idea. Then, in the course of her research, she discovered that the Great Stalactite in the caves at Doolin in Co Clare is the second largest in the world.

The Doolin stalactite is: “A unique, giant, white spectral object that has grown in solitude over thousands of years,” as she describes it, and what’s particularly intriguing about the Doolin stalactite is that, rather than being one among many, as is often the case, it exists in the cave in splendid isolation.

The Great Stalactite in Poll an Ionian was discovered in 1952 by members of the Craven Potholing Club. They recorded the event in suitably dramatic terms: “Scrambling over boulders we stood speechless in a large chamber . . . As our lamps circled this great hall we picked out a giant stalactite over thirty feet in length . . . It is really majestic and poised like a veritable sword of Damocles.”

The Great Stalactite is now accessible to visitors and Cross set out to have a look for herself. From this visit came a remarkable video installation work, titled simply Stalactite, completed last year and initially exhibited a couple of months ago at Frith Street Gallery in London.

Some time back in 2004, with Opera Theatre Company, Cross had devised and directed a performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in a cave on Valentia Island. The soloists included a trumpeter, a soprano and a counter-tenor. At the time a working slate quarry, the cave had been a Marian grotto and Cross was initially struck by the statue of the Virgin perched high in the cliff-face. She set out to convey something of this striking combination of the everyday and the transcendent.

Stalactite could well be a sequel to Stabat Mater. Cross again opts to use the human voice in relation to an imposing natural amphitheatre. And, again, singing is involved, though not an existing work by any composer. She enlisted the teenage singer Ben Escorcio, a contender in the All-Ireland Talent Show. Despite his youth, he has a considerable amount of experience in amateur musical productions.

At the time a boy soprano, although his voice has since broken, Escorcio occupies the cave floor directly beneath the huge stalactite – something that prompted more than one slightly uneasy joke about the glass-shattering potential of the soprano voice. There, dwarfed by the pointed form poised high above him, pale and unearthly in the darkness, he sings. What exactly, though? “I have tried to work out what aria he is singing,” says Rachel Thomas, who has curated the installation, “yet it seems composed of both strange and beautiful chance notations.”

It is, indeed, chance. Cross did think of using a more structured musical score, but in the end stuck with her impulse to have Escorcio sign “absolutely random notes”. Her idea was to try to convey a pre-linguistic state, that the singer would try out his voice, so to speak, making “beautiful sounds” but not providing us with anything like a recognisable melody. He could be like a bird, learning to sing. That kind of novelty and strangeness was essential.

Stalactite will be installed in the huge space of the Beamish and Crawford Brewery on South Main Street in Cork from dusk till dark – well, from 4pm-9pm – on July 15th, under the auspices of the Crawford Art Gallery. It is an off-site component of an ambitious group exhibition, Gravity, which opens at the Crawford the same day. Gravity considers the ways that artists have dealt with gravity and, you could say, the way gravity has dealt with them as, for example, Bruce Nauman fails to levitate above his studio floor in his 1966 work. In the main body of the exhibition, Cross’s large-scale Whale explores the power and suspension of gravity.

Stalactite, which features a vulnerable figure tempting fate, clearly has a gravitational element. Formed by flowing processes combined with gravitational effects over thousands of years, and with the appearance of a flow captured and frozen, stalactites are very fragile structures. Cross sets up a curious convergence between boy and stalactite, both formed through incremental growth processes on vastly different timescales.

The stalactite, she points out, forms drip by drip, as calcite progressively precipitates in the lime-rich water and is eventually liable to break under its own weight. The singer’s voice, she notes, broke shortly after recording in the cave. And she chose him precisely because his voice was on the point of breaking. Hence the curious tension in the installation, as the human being and the natural, geological formation symbolically converge under the impetus of time and gravity, towards a moment of dramatic change.

Stalactite, a video installation by Dorothy Cross, curated by Rachel Thomas, is at Beamish and Crawford Brewery, South Main Street, Cork, on July 15th, from 4pm-9pm