Text written by Cliodhna Shaffrey
It’s simple isn’t it, to pick up stones? Take clumps of soil out of the earth, stand on land or in landscape, kneel, haunch low or sit and press a hand down, digging, digging into earth and pick up stones. Humans have collected stones for ever. Stones and bones, and shells and buried objects, whole and in part. Taking them out of the ground like treasure. Possessing them, arranging them to give visual aesthetic pleasure. Treating them like works of art. A basic human action, a gesture, purposeful and simple. Fetching up and bringing to light - touching, grabbing, holding a piece of time, slowed and stayed, in tangible, portable forms.
Humans are mineral bodies made of matter. Rocks, stone, clay lure us to thread our line downwards and find at molecular levels a miraculous link to our past - deep and ancient, across millennia - that we might touch, that speaks to us like silence. Into the ground we bury the dead, hide secrets, dispose toxins. Into soil we plant trees – the basis of our life - our food. We cut the earth to mine, quarry and extract ingeniously and in the name of progress. But oh, so disturbingly and violently too. In the mountains, those eternal rock peaks that rise out of deep earth and withstand great spans of time, we find solace. We are and always have been in relation to our world. It’s a wonder to think how it all holds together. It’s a wonder to think we don’t often fall through it into nothingness.
Clay, rocks and stones are Vanessa Donoso Lopez’s main medium. One writer commenting she is ‘indebted to the earth’. Clay and stones are malleable and portable for an artist who lives in two places. She can carry it lightly between here and there. Dublin to Spain, Spain to Dublin. Dealing with different language, different culture, different soil. She is attuned to the liminal edge, laying a track to the touching points of connectivity, overcoming rifts, veiling gaps, nourished out of this mutual interdependent life in two places. For this materially invested artist, there is something raw and direct about working with clay. It guides how she makes, how she thinks and what she researches. It innately attunes her to earth’s forces and has brought her practice into accordance with the unknown and speculative territories of an ancient past, archaeological sites of discovery and to the roots of the violation of our fucked up world. Oh the Anthropocene! It has fixed her stare downwards, as much as across. She has already created a work around the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest of underland stories, inscribed in cuneiform text on tablets of clay, written 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
And when we were forced to stop moving around and had to stay still, Vanessa’s patterns take out words ‘of existence’ (like all of ours) were cut. Containment permitting a simplification of everything, a relishing of the small. So while fixed to a land and a location, she continues her earthly experimentations researching further into what lies beneath, this time to see into stones.
For this exhibition she implies an archaeological site where fictitious playfulness is brought to bear. Five hand-crafted sculptures are displayed as’ finds’, mimicking the form of once buried objects, particles of rock and stones, shapes like vessels and fragments of buildings. Assorted into distinct sculptural groupings defined by colouring, they seem as if only recently plucked out of earth. Coloured sediment swirls like marble, where a mix of earthy tones combine with a fluorescent vividness closer to the hues of synthetic pollutants. The reference is a cave in South Africa that yielded a vast human record dating to the early Stone Age (2.6 million years ago), and including in its finds, the Makapansgat Pebble, a stone in the shape of a human face considered to be the first work of art, considered early evidence of the human need for symbolic thinking. A pebble not shaped by a human hand, leading us to our ancestors. What secrets does it hold?
It is with awe and lightness that Vanessa Donoso López touches into this ancient world. For one thing, she can only conjure it through research and imaginings, fixed as she is to her home town in Spain. Science and craft are part of her strategies and the promise of what a handful of clay can offer. Trialling a 17 th century technique called Stucco Marmo (polished plaster) she brings together base elements of earth, animal and pigment, skilfully mastering a challenge to create rock shapes and vessels. She sets them out to perform as relics, as if of something made a thousand years ago, of something once splendid.
The paintings and drawings depict coloured stones, displayed on shelves or strewn against a single colour background, like a chart of birds. Though each stone or particle is legible in its own right, appearing almost 3D, sometimes as if hovering over the painting’s surface, the impact is of a collective dazzle. Transparent and glassy, delicate and glowing. Finding liquidity in something mute and solid. The colours are as those in her sculptures, taken from polarised filters used by archaeologists to see into the chemical makeup of rock.
Vanessa Donoso López’s work is nurtured out of crossing boundaries and places of transition. Here she brokers downwards into the elemental, touching the mezzanine that threads time between life and death and death and life. As she playfully relishes in the mysterious, she hints too at the fragility of all we are and all we create.
And after I hang up from my call with Vanessa, I hear a beat ring in my ear,
Put on your Hugh Masekela record
Dig out your Heaney poems
Fetch those passages from Virginia Woolf’s on networks of subterranean caves and, her story ‘Solid Objects’
Scavenge the pages of Robert McFarland’s Underland
Search for Suzanne Simmard’s book about the wood wide web
Swim one more time to the rock
Swim one more time to the rock and touch it and know for a moment that we are in unison with mysterious rhythms of roots and rocks and stones, water, and light and waves, the cosmos above and the core below and the innards of our invisible world.
Clutch a handful of dust and feel it squish and fall through your fingers and paint with its residue the outline of your hand
Clutch a handful of clay and roll it to make a ball.