Cosmic Dust

Visual, Centre For Contemporary Art, Carlow

By Jennifer Redmond

Cosmic Dust, install shot, VISUAL Carlow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Cosmic Dust, the current group exhibition at VISUAL, Centre For Contemporary Art, Carlow, tackles the subject of cosmic perspective. In creating this exhibition, curator Emma-Lucy O’Brien has assembled the writings of Ágnes Dénes, Sir Thomas Browne, Caleb Scharf, Paul Scheerbart, John Cage and Philip Larkin. These writers shared a common interest, in that they were all engaged in a process of realising nascent possibilities for seeing the world anew.

VISUAL, Centre For Contemporary Art is an imposing building, the gallery spaces are monumental in scale and placement of the work is judicious. Eight Rudolf Steiner chalk drawings have been installed, they are preserved blackboard diagrams or visual aids that attempt to explain the universe¹. These drawings were included in the 55th Venice Biennale as part of an exhibition entitled The Encyclopaedic Palace at the Arsenale, where they were intended to reveal approaches to visualising knowledge through the representation of abstract concepts and the manifestation of supernatural phenomena. They were also intended to blur the boundaries between professional artists and amateurs or outsiders, in an attempt to reveal expressions of the illusionary, of the imaginary, and of the visionary. Indeed chalk diagrams have always been used as a method to resolve problems by astrologists and astrophysicists, and while they might not be considered as artworks in the traditional sense, they do illustrate how images are used to organise knowledge and to frame our experiences. At the Venice Biennale, thirty six Steiner drawings were shown, in contrast to the eight on display at Carlow, and so the impact of these curious and eccentric works is somewhat diminished. There is however, no doubting the integrity of their making. The feverish marks are exciting and fresh even though they were made in the early 1900's, and despite the fact that they are obscured slightly by the heavy glass framing that preserves them. A handsome wooden bench with a custom made slot containing five slim volumes of Steiner’s esoteric writings, has been provided for the comfort and contemplation of the viewer, thus transforming the gallery space into that of a reading room-provided you are the kind of reader that can be oblivious to the footfall and chat of other visitors.

Cosmic Dust, install shot, VISUAL Carlow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Directly opposite the Steiner drawings, as if in conversation with them, is a chalk drawing by Remco de Fouw. In contrast with the Steiner work this is a drawing by an artist, it looks more scientific than the Steiner drawings, describing the rings of Saturn and its moons. De Fouw has also placed a chalk installation, entitled The Unchurning, (2015) reminiscent of the chalk circles of Richard Long, onto the polished concrete floor. The circle four metres in diameter, is composed of thousands of sticks of white chalk leaning upon each other, some upright and some recumbent. Such a fragile circle echoes the recurring circular patterns in nature, and interacts delightfully with the drawing of the rings of Saturn. The chalk dust and fragments suggest the cosmic particles of our beginnings and the dust of our remains. This is successful because it demonstrates effectively, that all of our scientific achievements, spiritual leanings, and philosophies will come to naught, and that naught is but a tiny, delicate and insignificant speck in the cosmos

Mark Cullen is revealed as a versatile artist in many media. His drawings; Five To One, (2015), Purple And Wine, (2014), Star Seven, (2014), Mandala Arcs, (2014) and Quasi Crystal Mandala, (2014) are reminiscent of the drawings of Ágnes Dénes. Created in coloured pencil and referring to star systems and mandalas, they are very precisely rendered but they seem to be caught between functionality and creativity, like architectural drawing or map-making. The vertical format of the display, makes the hang  difficult to engage with. Placing the drawings on a horizontal viewing table, for example, might dissipate this sense of disconnection - this body of work is dense and requires close scrutiny.

Cullen’s solar and DC powered LED Sign, Star P*wer, (2007) is a more intriguing work; not only does he invoke a note of disrespect for the modern vernacular, by placing an asterix where the ‘o’ should be in the title, suggesting an expletive, but he also links the work to the earth’s energy source, our guiding star — the Sun. This installation points to the finite nature of our planet’s existence and the earth’s heavy reliance upon the power of the ageing Sun. Further questions emerge regarding the choice of the blue, white and red colour scheme, a reference perhaps to one of the worlds greatest superpowers, the USA, a sometime reluctant signatory of environmental agreements, and contender for the laurels in the so called ‘space-race’. 

Brian King’s bronze and metal sculptures refer back to the systems and symbols of ancient civilisations. His works in this show are entitled; Cummeen Mound, (2005), Anthropocentric, (2003), Alhambra Waters,(2002), Neuth, (1998), The North Ship, (1997) and Dark Matter, (2005). Individually each of these pieces carry a message and I suspect, are designed to be considered independently of each other. Grouped in this way, they flatter the use of the gallery space - a good curatorial strategy, but consideration of the works as individual objects is compromised. The sculptures as a group become a different piece of art; the ideas and symbols of ancient civilisations that they convey interact powerfully with the Steiner drawings and with the with the astral drawings of Mark Cullen, with whom they share a close proximity.

Geology no longer concerns the study of the Earth's rocks alone, rocks are found throughout the universe, and indeed the geological debris from other planets make up the bulk of what we classify as ‘cosmic dust’. Geological time scales and the rhythms of planetary formations offer different perspectives on how we see our place in the cosmos. Ruth Lyons has made an installation that explores the significance of geology by explaining our surroundings to us as links to the past and legacies for the future. Entitled Afterings, (2014)² the work is composed of red rock salt sculptures³ in the form of ceremonial Tibetan and Buddhist ritual or begging bowls. These are placed on a series or plinths of varying heights, and on the floor. The primal bowl shapes and their mineral composition call to mind the bounties provided by the Earth, which are diminishing rapidly as our commodity driven culture gobbles natural resources at an alarming rate. Geology will document the evidence our rapacious nature.

Anita Groener’s work Frequency, (2005) is an oil painting on four panels which describes the state of flux in time and space in which we are all suspended. She conveys this by means of ‘crawling ant’ marks. Groener uses these marks as a metaphor for the figure or the individual. The lines are like rapidly passing road markings, and are designed to question our perception; do we see one individual amongst many, or a large grouped unit? This idea is pursued further in the accompanying animation Somewhere Else, (edit 2012). The tiny monitor, dwarfed by the expanse of the wall upon which it hangs, forces the viewers attention to focus on a myriad of falling objects, and on the random nature of subjects all of which are suspended like specks of dust in a continuous time loop. The sense of stasis, of being beyond control and beyond time and beyond classification is clearly articulated in the most light-hearted way.

Martin Healy’s HD video projection and silver-gelatin black and white prints of the film set are entitled Aether. In this film Martin Healy continues his exploration of utopian ideology; he has placed a model of Scheebart’s device inside a purpose built set, and has filmed the machine contemplatively in an effort to chronicle the authors attempts to produce a machine that would give the world a free energy source. An ominous voice-over tells us that, “We can never see the thing itself only the effect that it has on other things”. A lone human (the narrator) appears on a tidal landscape, beautifully filmed and composed in communion with the elements of earth, water (sea) and air (sky) gazing out to sea. The narrator sets the tone and rhythm of the film and makes associations between the original search for aether, the composition of matter, and the drive to understand the natural phenomena that affect human existence. States of matter, in classical thought were classified as; earth, water, air, and fire. Aether was the quintessential element.⁴ We are the Aether - the fifth and most nebulous of the elements; the unifying, intangible and often mystifying human spirit that has for better or for worse, characterised the era of the Anthropocene.⁵

Cosmic Dust, install shot, VISUAL Carlow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

The ideas of Paul Scheerbart are further explored by the writings and drawings of Chris Fite-Wassilak. There are three texts located throughout the exhibition space in the form of illustrated pamphlets, beautifully printed and positioned on custom made shelving, like found offerings. The pamphlets contain the fictional or real (it is, I suspect a deliberate ruse to avoid clarity on the matter) correspondence between Fite-Wassilak and members of the Crystal Chain Group who were contemporaries of Paul Scheerbart and influenced by his writing.⁶ Looking back on those letters, the time in which we are now living should be the utopia to which the Crystal Chain were referring, and Fite-Wassilak disorientates us by being ambiguous about the authorship of the letters and the historical timeframe in which he has situated the work. The letters are dated; August 22nd 1922, but the correspondence is modern, thus suggesting a parallel reality or time travel. The final document in the sequence of these letters tells us that the correspondence will be held in an archive of the future; the mysterious ‘Garden Globe Allobeous in orbit of Harren’ circa 2122. It is impossible to appreciate these writings unless one is prepared to abandon the comfort zone of the present, and of modern information networks and submit to a world of cosmic connectivity and magical thinking.

Cosmic Dust is thoughtfully curated, it raises many questions about our place and the perception of self in a cosmological context. It is an exhibition that demands participation from the viewer. An audience more accustomed to passive viewing will probably miss a great deal. The enormity of the main gallery space is problematic, the ceilings are exceedingly high with the consequence that work displayed tends to appear diminutive, and though all of the artwork is carefully positioned so that it connects or interacts with adjacent work, objects and viewers, there remains a void between the ceiling and the artworks, whether they are wall hung or on plinths.

Where Cosmic Dust excels; is in providing a productive context or re-inventing older works such as the Brian King sculptures, or Anita Groener’s painting. It has also presented a raison d’être for new works such as Ruth Lyon’s Afterings or Remco De Fouw’s Unchurning and how the weaving works of art with non-art then prompts the question — what is really going on here? Am I looking at art or tackling a complex idea?

The most noteworthy thing about this exhibition is not the artworks, it is rather, the ideas that they channel, and it is the way in which they are presented. ‘Cosmic anxiety,’- the feeling of being part of the cosmos and not being able to control one’s destiny within it - is one reaction that is generated. After all, the position of the Earth in the cosmos determines the conditions under which living organisms can survive on its surface, and cosmic events are uncontrollable. Once the anthropocentric⁷ position is abandoned however, one can appraise the works with a more open mind. Ideas of magical thinking that are inherent in the 1902 silent film by Georges Méliès; La Voyage Dans La Lune, (projected onto the wall of the link gallery) and in the writings of Paul Scheerbart, Rudolf Steiner, and Sir Thomas Browne all seem quite plausible once the constraints of the Cartesian frame of mind are disengaged. That is the place where the imagination can flourish, and this would appear to be the main message of the show.

  1.  Austrian Philosopher and polymath Rudolf Steiner, developed the philosophy of Anthroposophy, which postulated the existence of an intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to man through inner development. It aims to develop perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through a form of thinking that is independent of sensory experience. The results of such thinking are to be rationally verified.Thus bridging the gap between art/the humanities, the spiritual and the sciences.
  2. The title Afterings takes its name from a word used by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe how the sacred is revealed by repetition of words and actions.
  3. The salt has been mined industrially from the Zechstein sea, a salt seam that stretches from Northern Ireland to Russia.
  4. In classical thought Aether or quintessence is a material that fills the universe above the terrestrial sphere,and it was used to explain many naturally occurring phenomena such as gravity or how light travels. In the medieval concept of the cosmos,earth water air and fire,were to be found on the innermost spheres of the cosmos, while celestial bodies inhabited the outer spheres and floated in aether.
  5. The Anthropocene is the era in which man’s impact on the earth has become the single force driving change on the planet —— giving shape to nature, shifting seas, changing the climate, and causing the disappearance of innumerable species, including placing humanity on the brink of extinction.
  6. In The Perpetual Motion Machine, (1910) Scheebart’s manifesto describes his efforts to create a machine that would harness the gravitational pull of the Earth to power a perpetual motion machine. He speculated that the consequences of such a machine would be a solution to all of the world’s energy and labour problems and would thus usher in a ‘golden age’ of fecundity, or what he termed a ‘Percept-Future’.
  7. Viewing and interpreting everything in terms of human experience and values. 

Curated by Emma Lucy O’ Brien


Rudolf Steiner, Anita Groener, Martin Healy, Brian King, Chris Fite-Wassilak, Ruth Lyons, Mark Cullen, Remco de Fouw.


Featuring Le Voyage dans La Lune by George Méliès.