DeadFall - Porcelain, Copper and Wood
File Note 2018
Mark Clare spent his two months in Fire Station producing a single porcelain work. In his studio at the NCAD Annex on James's Street, I get to see it, a complex assemblage of geometric porcelain pieces balanced on a wood and copper frame: a reconstruction, in this delicate material, of a Siberian fur trap. Scattered around its base are a few stray porcelain bits; at first, I don't realise that these bits of jetsam are also part of the work.
DeadFall will be exhibited as part of Clare's solo show at Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, a month hence; it fits within a body of the artist's work focused upon ecological disaster. Previous work has been engaged with systems of exchange value and the nature of a shared public space, whether real or imagined; Clare is a pointedly political artist. He has also always had a very multiple, open approach to the disciplines and media through which he makes work: animation, video, photography; public intervention; collaboration; site-specific sculpture. What unifies his work is a set of ongoing preoccupations with the economic interests that underpin how we interact and
co-exist. As he explains to me, his is not a materially- driven practice, or at least it hasn't been, up until now, though it seems what he's developing for Sirius may mark something of a departure. Still, as he makes clear, it is the idea that comes first. The material matters, but only insofar as it serves or relates to some conceptual framework. The materials in this case have particularly rich resonances; they have been assembled in part because of their commodity value. There is, of course, the fragile preciousness of the porcelain itself, though Clare's use of copper - a stock market basic material - is also pointed. The form of the work, too, plays upon connections between natural resources and the unnatural voracities of international capital; the Siberian fur trap is a traditional device of a particular region of northern Russia, but it is also connected to an enormous, stratospherically lucrative global market for Siberian furs, sables mostly. In this way the work alludes, gently, to how folk tradition can be co-opted by global capital.
Clare talks to me about the show for which he's preparing. The body of work to be exhibited at Sirius will attempt to reckon with multiplying threats of environmental devastation, dangers that have been amplified for the artist - as for all of us - by alarming political developments in recent times. Clare wants to pursue and illustrate some of the invisible ecological processes through which habitats are being destroyed, the pressures upon the polar ice-caps but also less widely- known natural systems that are under threat, as for instance the channelling of algal dust along an aerial wind tunnel between South American and the Amazon basin, a natural (and endangered) valve for the rebalancing of the earth's resources, essential for life to continue. Sitting in his studio we talk about the Paris agreement, which Trump has recently repudiated. We talk about the irony of this situation, how all criticism of the Paris agreement is apparently being washed away in a gesture of strategic retrenchment: in the face of a radically re-energised right, the previously -compromised middle ground of political centrism - as represented by suddenly-glorified statesmen like Macron and Trudeau - suddenly seems like 'enough'. There is little awareness, in the commentary on Trump's actions, of the fact - previously widely agreed - that the Paris agreement was itself an unsatisfactory compromise, a political fudge calibrated to appease industrial lobbyists while simulating ecological 'progress'. 'The economics are inescapable.'
We talk about some of the other works in the show. If Not You - from which the exhibition at Sirius takes its name - is an installation that has been developed over several iterations now, a mounting arrangement of radios, more than 30 of them at this stage, on a steel structure, transmitting stories about the unseen processes of self-regulation through which the world's ecosystems are sustained, about the Amazon basin, about aerosols: about the economics of our assaults upon our own environment.
Clare distinguishes in his recent work a trajectory away from what he sees as a certain didacticism in some of his earlier work. Nowadays, he says, he imagines a sponge-like role for the artist, absorbing ideas rather than laying out an argument. In the case of Deadfall, for instance, all extraneous matter has been reduced. It is, he explains, probably the most abstract work he has made. But he is dissatisfied with his own phrasing. 'I mean, it has very little framework other than itself.' All that is conceptual here is contained in the object. Its fragility is its basis. It has been reduced to its function. Everything else in the show will have a more established foundation. Deadfall is less connected, more self-contained. But he is not happy with this phrasing either. There is something here that he wants to articulate, some aspect of the work he has difficulty putting into words - a difficulty I share. Perhaps it's this difficulty that marks the work's departure.
One of the points of origin for DeadFall came from watching a Werner Herzog documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), which focuses upon the lives of Siberian trappers in a village on the Yenisei River: their interactions with his environment, the traditions within which they work, living in line with the land, yet connected, umbilically, to the fur trade, dealing in the exchange of a luxury good within a complex network of global commodity capital, with all the fiction and risk that entails.
Clare remembers being fascinated with the portrayal of this way of life; nevertheless, it has taken a long time for DeadFall to develop. For two years now he has been making these small traps, working on the form, making sense of it. And at the end of this long painstaking process, the work in the gallery may simply break.
For Clare, it is important that this work is breakable - that it might actually crack and collapse in the gallery. He hasn't yet worked out how this aspect of the work will be conveyed to the viewers. Will its breakability be announced? Or will this alter public interactions with the work? And if it does fall and smash, what then? Will it be cleaned up, removed, or just left on the gallery floor, an illustration of its own fissure? At this stage, he hasn't decided. He only knows that the gesture must be sincere. If this is a work about commodity systems - the impartation of value to materials - then the possibility of its breakage, its loss, must be genuine. Deadfall is a work imbued - like the financial superstructure of which it is a metonym, like the natural environment from which it derives - with risk.
Writer Nathan O'Donnell, commissioned by Fire Station Artists' Studios to profile awarded artists in residence to make manifest the type of thinking and calibre of experimentation that takes place.
DeadFall - detail