Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Danny Osborne's "Red Hot Lava Sculpture" in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada.







Red Hot Lava is the Message

One April morning, just hours before news broke of the capricious Icelandic Volcano Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced "AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-uh"), photographs of a team of men scooping red hot lava out of the flow rolling down a Guatemalan volcano landed by email onto my laptop in Dublin. As if by some sort of magic, this powerful, timely message arrived through cyberspace from “painter, sculptor, natural historian, filmmaker and traveller”, Danny Osborne in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Later, on the national radio news show “Morning Ireland” , the capricious, unpronounceable Icelandic volcano paralysed airspace with its belching plumes of volcanic ash, and entered our consciousness for the first time. Lava dominated every news headline from New York to Singapore. Showing off my hotline to the zeitgeist, I immediately posted my fresh red hot lava images up on facebook, and on twitter.

Coincidence? Yes and no. Osborne has been patiently and meticulously observing and immortalising geological phenomena now for close to four decades. Thirty years ago, the title of his 1980 exhibition in Dublin’s Taylor Galleries on Ireland’s treeless Beara Peninsula, where he and his family lived on the edge of a cliff, spelt out his primary obsession quite clearly: “Geophysical Phenomena in West Cork”.

Sensational overlap between Osborne’s unfaltering attention to the geological, and that self-same natural phenomena holding our planet to ransom was bound to occur sooner or later. Similarly his patient, meticulous Arctic work – he has been painting lonely icebergs, and unseen landforms since his first Arctic trip in 1977 - may not necessarily be “about” climate change, but nonetheless can’t but intersect with it when some apocalyptic flood, moody volcano, or hungry polar bear under whom the ice is sensationally melting become a top news story .

The day I received those images of Pacaya, the Guatemalan volcano, lava sensationally, but organically pushed its way up to the tip of everyone’s tongue in the Western World. Especially people in airports, with their heads upturned towards the departures board, and all those waiting for them, both at home and at work. Across the globe, people who had never given lava and its properties a second thought, were humbled by its mighty, and - as many peoples of the earth have believed throughout the ages - its supernatural power.

At very least, phenomena like Eyjafjallajokull (I doubt it will become a household name), are nature’s way of reminding us how insignificant we are, in the greater geo-physical scheme of things - which Osborne’s work is unfalteringly tuned into.

Critic Aidan Dunne has described Danny Osborne as “an idiosyncratic descendant of pioneering 19th century amateur naturalists. A singular combination of artist, craftsman and scientist, Osborne has a meticulous technique that is very much in the service of equally meticulous observation” . Osborne apprenticed himself to volcanoes a long time ago. It’s the fruit of that long acquaintance which is laid bare here in the affable hats of “Red Hot Lava” – the first time a method has been developed to cast sculpture from molten lava coming out of an erupting volcano.

Osborne’s intimate first-hand acquaintance with volcanoes was set in motion in an arduous 1983 expedition to the Andes of Northern Chile with his wife, Geraldine, who is a medical doctor: “We looked at a small atlas, found the greatest concentration of volcanoes in the world, and decided to do this 6-month trip there”, he relates. They travelled with art supplies, the heavy film equipment of the day, and acquired 7 Llama to carry them up the volcanoes.

“We climbed three of them [volcanoes]. I slept for a night or two right on the rim of Lascar , which was actually erupting at the time. According to the literature it hadn’t erupted for a hundred years. But there was a lot of debris coming out, and a lot of noise and smoke and stuff. A couple of weeks later the whole top of it blew off. Because it’s in a very remote area, it was only noticed a while later when this huge ash cloud was floating over Argentina, 500 miles away. So NASA was very interested in getting some up-to-date material and photographs from us”.

The expedition was politically fraught too, as their trip coincided with the aftermath of the Falklands war, which saw them sleeping out in the middle of a minefield.

Osborne’s ensuing 1985 “Halfway to Heaven” exhibition at Dublin’s Taylor Galleries, comprised drawings with titles like “Volcanic Missile Crater and Cerro Aguas Calientes” and “Lava Flow”, as well as hard-won oil paintings entitled “Lascar Crater” (a 5-foot long canvas painted from the top of Lascar’s crater), and “Solar Haloes over the Andes”. There were watercolours with titles like “Spotty Ignimbrite” and “Volcan Pili from Northern Penitentes” too. But no lava sculptures yet. Osborne had mostly been sculpting in smooth materials like glass, or exquisite, precise, polished porcelain making birds and little people, which earned him the reputation for being an extraordinary craftsman. His early nude sculpture, “Jane”, for example was lauded and longed for as a legend of perfection among Irish art critics. Meanwhile, slowly but surely squaring up to lava, Osborne had not yet attempted to cast sculpture from it.

Over decades, Osborne’s quiet and steady obsession with lava slowly developed into an intimate knowledge of the primordial, mythic substance. “The whole world was lava at one time”, he explains, “from the magma coming up to the surface. So to me it’s a very symbolically pure material, because it’s the substance of the earth, of the whole world. Historically volcanoes are very important, because lava is what the world consisted of before it metamorphosed into various other elements and minerals.”

While most of us are psychically plugged in to the destructive side of volcanoes – think Pompei, and that aforementioned audacious Icelandic volcanic ash daring to interrupt our daily lives and our travel plans – Danny Osborne sees it differently. In parallel with his work on the erosive processes associated with icebergs, and the freeze-thaw patterns of the Arctic climate, he associates volcanoes with fertility, and growth. He also equates volcanoes with Morrigan, the Irish triple Goddess, “a death and creation Irish goddess often associated with violent sex and death - a fertility and battle thing. She’s often depicted as a raven, eating the dead after a battle. She’s known as the winner of every battle. I see a volcano a bit like that. They have these incredibly destructive powers but they also build landforms and provide extremely fertile land. ”

Perhaps it was her, Morrigan, who made him tinker with lava again in his homemade furnace in West Cork in the late 1990’s. After an epic Arctic interlude in 1989 to Grise Fjord, one of the most remote communities on our planet, (with Geraldine and their three small children), Osborne and his family found themselves back living on the remote tip of the Beara Peninsula. It was there, after completing his best-known public artwork in 1997 – Dublin’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture - that Osborne’s mind wandered again to “grappling with the fundamental substance of the earth”. From Oscar’s spectacular symphony of polished stone: pink thulite from British Columbia; nephrite jade from the Yukon; blue pearl granite from Norway; black granite from India; quartz from Wicklow, Ireland, and porcelain (soon to be replaced by white jade from Guatemala), Osborne’s focus turned again to scientific experiments with unruly lava in his homemade furnace.

Lumps of lava were hand-delivered from the Canary Islands by a neighbour, who had married there. “I asked her to bring back bits of lava to experiment with ”. She did, enabling Osborne to carry out “a lot of experiments in crucibles. They were just little lumps of lava - almost obsidian-like. I’d melt it into crucibles, and then pour it out into moulds. I had a lot of problems with it. Unless you are dealing with quite a big quantity of lava, it cools down extremely fast. When you are only half-way through pouring it, it has gone solid. I knew I had to go to a real volcano” . That would take another decade. It was on a trip to Guatemala in 2008 looking for white jade to replace Oscar Wilde’s damaged porcelain head that Osborne stumbled upon the mighty Pacaya.

“I was buying some white jade to do the Oscar Wilde head in Guatemala two years ago, when I heard about this volcano. It had been erupting. I took a day off and made a trip over to see it. It was really beautiful. There was no actual lava coming out but there was a lot of smoke and beautiful fresh lava formed. I thought I would like to go back and do some work” .

SCULPTURAL PHENOMENOLOGY & UNDIMINISHED WONDER

Since 2001, the Osborne’s have based themselves on Baffin Island, Nunavut - another geologically naked, sparsely inhabited place, not unlike the Burren, County Clare (during summer months), first dubbed by Queen Elizabeth the 1st as “Meta Incognita”. Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher first sailed in to the bay that would be named after him in search of the Northwest Passage, armed with a copy of Mandeville’s Travels, and driven by the Parallel Theory that was in vogue at the time. Osborne plugged into their sense of wonder at being the first Europeans to set eyes on this landscape in his 2008 Iqaluit exhibition of Arctic Landscapes entitled “Meta Incognita” which translates, romantically, to “the uttermost bounds of the unknown” . What Aidan Dunne referred to as “an intense, undiminished wonder at the way things are” in response to Osborne’s 2001 show “Rock” at Dublin’s Taylor Galleries, had intensified, if anything.

In what could be sculptural phenomenology, Aidan Dunne has invoked Goethe in relation to this overriding sense of wonder inherent in Osborne’s work: “Do not try to get beyond the phenomena. They themselves are the doctrine.” This is the quiddity, the whatness, - the lava - of us all, and of Osborne’s direct approach to it.

“I like working with materials that have symbolic significance”, he says. “I have done carvings out of meteorites, and used dinosaur bones. I’ve used a lot of materials like giant amethysts and crystal because of their symbolic nature. That’s why I like the idea of using lava” .

“The organic nature of this very natural material is pretty fascinating to me as a contrast to the previous materials I’ve been working in. Except for whalebone. I’ve carved a lot of whalebone. That has a similar appearance in some ways – with the little holes going through” .

“Not all, but a lot of the earth’s processes up here in the Arctic are destructive”, he says over the telephone from Iqaluit to Dublin. “The freeze-thaw process is actually destructive. Then you’ve got the glaciers as well actually cutting away at the mountains. Whereas the volcanoes are actually building them up.”

Since the early 1980’s his Arctic paintings have concentrated on erosion “I was doing paintings of all those wearing away processes”. Balancing that out, volcanoes and lava embody a positive life force: “Well it certainly builds it up. It creates mountains and landforms, rather than taking it away”.

His discovery of the live, complex volcano Pacaya, which erupted violently in 1965 and has been smouldering and erupting continuously since then led him to “revive this project which I started 12 years ago about casting lava”. The lush, fertile earth around it illustrates how “[lava] makes the ground very fertile. They grow coffee. It’s very good for growing corn - it’s very nutritious soil… It’s amazing to see how quickly the vegetation grows over fresh lava. Once it’s broken down, after a few years with a bit of rain, it releases various elements. Vegetation loves growing on it.”

Osborne’s experiment began simply in January 2010, by poking lava around with a stick. “I was taking lots of lava out of the lava-flow, putting it on the rock, and pushing bits of metal and stuff into it. Just to try and form it – to get a feel of the material”. His team grew to six people, “plus three horses, and four other people for carrying stuff up and down the mountain. So I had a small army at the end of it.”

“We had a long pole with a couple of bits of metal welded onto the end of it. We’d stick it in and then fork out a lump of lava and throw it on the ground, and I’d try sticking things into it. To get the feel of how it moves around. That was useful. So I kept a few of those pieces – just as beautiful abstract forms which have been manipulated.”

Gaining the necessary proximity to the boiling lava itself was of course an extremely perilous procedure, explains Osborne: “fluctuating pressures within the volcano causes the flow of lava to move to different places every day, so we had to walk on recently solidified lava to get close enough to the flow. We could only work for a few minutes before having to retreat because of the intense heat and fumes. Twice my shoes caught fire, but we came upon the idea of using thick leather mats to stand on which helped prevent this .”

As for the material itself, “within one minute the outer skin had gone dark grey. Then it would be still red hot in the centre. So you could still push it and deform it, but it would hold its shape”.

Eventually Osborne jettisoned his initial approach for his moulds using high-tech collidial silicate (developed by the space industry for fixing ceramic tiles onto the wings of the space shuttle), for bronze moulds cast in a local foundry – which worked a treat. The lava did surprise him: “I thought that it was going to be more gassy, with more bubbles on the outside. But there were a lot more bubbles inside the centre of the lava than on the outside of it – which became more stringy. Little tiny knots and things like that.”

Osborne’s explorer’s urge to be the first to put the flag in a place that is hard-to-get-to, and his scientist’s urge towards discovery, come across in his delight at being the first to figure out how to cast sculpture from Lava. “It’s never been done before. That was one of the things that made it even more enticing to do – because it was a totally new area to work in. I suppose the physical difficulties of doing it was one of the interesting things as well”.

There is always a real element of danger to Osborne’s intrepid forays out into the extremes of our planet. For example, a guide and his client were buried in lava on Pacaya two days after Danny and his team left the area. As I write this the Guatemalan president has declared a state of “Calamity” after the death of three people, missing children, and the closure of Guatemala’s international airport from volcanic ash due to renewed violent eruptions from the volatile Pacaya.

Putting himself at the mercy of nature’s extremes – painting in subzero temperatures, or from the crater of an active volcano, or sleeping outdoors in a Chilean minefield, for example - is somehow intrinsic to his artistic practice.

Not unlike site-specific nature-collaborator Andy Goldsworthy and land artist Richard Long, these expeditions are all part and parcel of Danny Osborne’s practice. “These are guys who are not content to just stay in the studio”, Osborne points out. “They want to get out there, and they want to get their hands dirty. Really have contact with the work they are doing, with the subject matter. I see myself as part of that area” .

Osborne has always had a deep connection with nature. Before being drawn, almost magnetically to the Beara Peninsula in West Cork where he moved in 1971, at the age of 22 (he would eventually take out Irish citizenship), Danny Osborne grew up in Dorset, England. His father, a pilot in the British Air Force, and an artist, died tragically in a plane crash when he was just seven years old. Surrounded by nature at home, Danny recalls that his mother’s life “revolved around dogs, the dog kennels and dog shows, where she used to judge”. Crufts, (regarded as “the world’s greatest dog show”) “was always a big event on her calendar” . In 1989, Geraldine and Danny kept their own team of huskies when they lived in the remote Inuit community at Grise Fjord. The adventurous young family travelled long distances across the ice (and even attempted to travel to Greenland), pulled by their huskies. This kind of apprenticeship to nature with a view to discovering possibilities for organic collaborations with it is a constant throughout Danny Osborne’s artistic journey – from years out on the land with icebergs in the Far North, to bouts with volcanoes in the South.

THE SCULPTURES

Mirroring his 1977 show “Three Months on the Land” (Neptune Gallery, Dublin), for this new work, Osborne spent three months in Guatemala “grappling with the fundamental substance of the earth” , figuring out how to cast sculpture from lava. But what about the actual sculptures themselves?

“When I set out to do the work, the actual finished sculpture and the process of making it were two different things”, he explains. “The medium is the message – the material is part of the subject.” .

A quirky continuation of his porcelain people and ornithological birds – these porous, sculptural hats, made of lava are quite a surrender to the material, to nature and its mysterious processes of creation and destruction, heating and cooling, liquid and solid. The sculptures, beautiful in and of themselves, are an intense collaboration with nature and embody a triumphant humility before essential processes deep within planet earth itself. Just in the same way that hats often succumb to the shape of their wearer’s head, one can’t help feeling that Osborne’s sculptural surrender to the mythic material that is lava is partly “the message” here.

Considering “the hat” in general, and these organic, characterful hats in particular, as extensions of the head, these sculptures could perhaps be seen as an addendum to Osborne’s 1994 show “Making People” (Taylor Galleries, Dublin). “I wanted to make something specific to that part of the world, and the hats people wear in Guatemala say a lot about the owners’ status, culture and personality”, he offers. “I love the idea of the hat being like a mould of the head, and I often look at the skull as a mould of the brain”. As they tend to take on the shape and character of the wearer, hats (as opposed to helmets, which are also represented here), are often idiosyncratic and expressive of the wearer’s personality.

“One of the hats is a very old festive one with rotting coloured ribbons on it, which I had to take off”, he elaborates. “The other a field worker’s hat. The third, a Conquistador's helmet - they outwardly formed every facet of the country into what it is today.”

Ultimately you get the feeling that this is a watershed moment in a larger work in progress – Osborne’s life work. “I’d love to do more complicated moulds with a number of pieces in them. I like that type of work. But I kept it simple. Each mould. Just in order to develop the method. If I ever did go back there, I’d do more complicated piece-moulds. Four sides to the mould, or something like that. ”

The projected film element of this exhibition invites the viewer into the actual process of grappling with lava, and its hazardous, contrary nature. Filmed with a digital video camera by Geraldine and their daughter Orla, it picks up the thread of “Halfway to Heaven”, their film documenting that epic Northern Chile expedition. “The equipment is a lot lighter” declares Danny, sounding relieved to have arrived in the 21st century, where camera equipment doesn’t require a team of 7 Llama to lug up the volcano anymore.

Not unlike a migratory bird himself, Osborne’s instinct-driven travels, patient observations, and studied interventions into materials like whalebone and lava – from the extremes of West Cork to the Canadian Arctic, down to Northern Chile and Guatemala – have something of the inner programming of the Arctic Tern, or the Canadian Goose about them. Osborne himself is like one of a rare species of nomadic creatures tuned into mysterious, instinctual, migratory patterns, on a wavelength that is inaudible to most. That’s the wavelength of powerful phenomena below the earth, and mighty sparks and plumes of smoke up in the air that might stop us in our tracks at any moment, and may have NASA calling again. As the aforementioned synchronicity with the contrary Icelandic volcano demonstrates, we’d all be wise to start attending to what Osborne is attending to.

But in the meantime, we can just enjoy the “quiddity” of Red Hot Lava, a mysterious, beautiful message straight from the Volcano by the intrepid Danny Osborne.

BY DEIRDRE MULROONEY, June 2010.

Footnotes have been removed from this excerpt of Danny Osborne's 60 page hardback publication, which accompanied his exhibition in the 2010 Alianait Festival, Nunavut, Canada.
To buy a copy email me & I'll pass on the message via Arctic Tern.