Exhibition Statement – Foksal Gallery

I have always been attracted to places without people. The unique psychological quality of aloneness within such places allows me to experience a sense of existence in its most truthful form. Where nature still holds her power, where the influence of mankind remains weak, we find ourselves rightfully insignificant. At the same time we can truly and powerfully connect to the deep forces of our nature, a state of connectedness to the natural forces we embody, rather than our usual state of separation. This desire to look closely, and find in the images and sounds of natural forms some kind of psychological mirror underpins most of my work. The idea of the sea-cave and of spending time on the uninhabited island of Staffa itself, devoid of people and disconnected from the world, had an irresistible appeal.

The idea of the journey that took me to Fingal’s Cave arose in part out of my friendship with Richard Demarco, Edinburgh’s great art impressario. Richard Demarco had introduced Joseph Beuys to Scotland back in 1970, taking him on a trip to Rannoch Moor and Loch Awe. Yet the journey they made was left incomplete, standing as they did, looking across to the mountains of Mull, the departure point for the uninhabited island of Staffa and Fingal’s cave. Richard Demarco describes it:

“Beuys had been inspired by this world of Fingal the fabled giant and his son Ossian when he explored the shorelines of Argyllshire’s Loch Awe and experienced the quintessential Hebridean sunset over Oban, the place of embarkation for the journey over land and sea to Mull, lona and Staffa. This ‘Road to the Isles’ is celebrated in Scotland’s folk songs, it leads “…over the sea to Skye.” Beuys used these songs and tales in his sculpture in praise of the Celtic world. Knowing full well that Felix Mendelsohn had already paid musical homage to ‘Fingals Cave’ Beuys was inspired to make his own music in collaboration with the Danish sculptor and composer Henning Christiansen. This sculpture was entitled Celtic Kinloch-Rannoch, The Scottish Symphony. It was performed twice a day for the first week of the 1970 Edinburgh Festival as a part of the exhibition with the thought provoking palindromic title ‘Strategy: Get Arts’ .”

I have always found the cult of personality surrounding Beuys more interesting than his actual work. So it was not Beuys himself that began to draw my interest, but this sense of incompleteness, a journey left hanging on a thread of desire to connect with Staffa and the mythological meanings held within its sea cave. Once I began to contemplate this, the imagined world of Fingal’s Cave, almost as powerful as the reality I later found, began to take hold. Initially, it was the association with Fionn mac Cumhail, Finn, or Fingal, the legendary Irish warrior hero of the Fianna (and occassionaly a giant), who lived around 250 AD. Fingal represents a bridge between the Celtic traditions of Ireland and those of Scotland. The ancient Celtic connection between Scotland and Ireland is also reflected geologically, between the remarkably similar basalt columnar formations of Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and Scotland’s Fingal’s Cave, linked by legend. Finn, the Irish giant, was said to have built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland in order to fight his Scottish rival Benandonner – both the Giant’s Causeway and Staffa can be imagined as remnants of this bridge.

The mouth of Fingal’s Cave also opens directly upon a view of Iona, the centre of early Celtic Christianity founded by the Irish monk Columba in 563 AD. Added to this mix was the intriguing fact that so many artists, poets and musicians had been inspired by the strange power of Fingal’s Cave. These included William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Felix Mendelssohn, and JMW Turner. Both Blake and Turner in particular have deeply influenced my thinking through certain periods of my creative life.

However, on my fist visits to Fingal’s Cave, a 45 minute journey by sea from the Island of Mull, I immediately let go of these thoughts. The environment itself is perceptually overwhelming and ones first impressions overpowering, creatively debilitating even. One writer described the cave as a ‘cathedral of the sea’ and I can think of no more accurate description for a place that so defies intellectualisation. The Atlantic swell of the sea moves rhythmically in and out of the cave as if in a long slow breathing motion, matched by an incredible and equally rhythmic roar which echoes through the cave like thunder. The towering sculpted columnar walls and roof were long held to be man-made, or created by giants, or held up as proof of a divine creator. One myth suggested that the cave was the abode of a nine-headed sea monster, another that the Devil himself were buried beneath the island. The last inhabitants of Staffa, around 1790, left the island after the pot on their stove shook so violently during a storm one night, that they believed “nothing but the devil could have shook it that way.” It can be a wild, moody and inhospitable place.

I visited the cave, with my camera and sound recording equipment, seven times in all, on visits lasting anything between one hour and 24 hours. Each and every time its mood was different. At times, when the sea is calm and sun low, the light begins to hit the inner columns and reflections from the water surface light up the roof surfaces, revealing an incredible and unnatural looking array of reds, pinks and greens upon the surfaces of the grey volcanic columns. The irregular shapes of the remarkable many sided columns, formed by the slow cooling of a lava flow 60 million years ago, were dramatically accentuated. At these times, the cave consumed my attention in a play of light, colour, form and contrast, taking on an almost ethereal aspect, very much like being in an empty cathedral. At other times, when even landing upon the island was challenging due to the forceful Atlantic swell, the cave took on a truly frightening countenance. I perched precariously upon the columns with my camera as the sea roared in and out past my feet, boiling, angry and relentless. I could do nothing then but attempt to record simply what I saw and heard, without thought. The words of John Ruskin to “go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing” are often present my mind.

With each visit my experience deepened and my desire to stay tended to last longer. I began to think of Fingal’s cave as my territory, while equally it had begun to take its possession of me. When I was not on Staffa, I was invariably looking at it, or filming it, from the shores of Mull. One night I spent alone on Staffa; a kind of seductive aloneness one very rarely experiences in modern life, characterised by the absolute certainty that one will not be disturbed or intruded upon, save by nature’s own interventions. It is possible to walk the circumference of Staffa in one hour, surrounded completely by the ocean, so the sense of being on an island, alone, is very profound. I felt, at the heart of this aloneness, a sense of great completeness, as if life could be no better than this, and that to live on an uninhabited island was my destiny and rightful place. This was my last visit to Fingal’s Cave, though I am certain I will yet return many times.

During my times in the cave I filmed six hours of material. The experience of being in the cave itself was often so intense that it was not until subsequently reviewing the material I had filmed that certain visual aspects came into focus. This necessitated further visits to the cave, following lines of visual enquiry that were often thwarted by conditions – often conditions were better than I wanted, sometimes worse. In the end, I distilled the experience to the 12 minutes of material in this exhibition – sound, water, rock, movement and light within the inner cave. Beyond certain manipulations of time, every image is un-manipulated, exactly as I experienced it in the cave. No artificiality of light or colour has been introduced.

Ultimately, Fingal’s Cave is not a conventionally beautiful or comfortable place to be. It contains a powerful and dramatic sense of desolation that leads most visitors to spend no more than a few minutes within it. After the initial sense of awe, one can sense a growing unease in people as the atmosphere of the cave begins to penetrate them. At this point, many people turn away, back toward the bright light outside. In its way, Fingal’s Cave demands that we accept into ourselves a kind of desolate inner pathos, a demand I was more than happy to surrender to.

I would like to thank Iain Morrison and his crew, of Turus Mara, for ferrying me back and forth from Fingal’s Cave with great fortitude and goodwill. Thanks also to Richard Demarco for his ongoing inspiration and Alexander Hamilton for his support and encouragement. Special thanks to Jaromir Jedlenski, Katarzyna Krysiak, Lech Stangret and Wieslaw Borowski at Galeria Foksal for their unshakeable faith in art and artists. I also owe a great debt of friendship of Krzysztof Noworyta, Anna Mroczkowska and Aneta Prasal-Wisniewska.

Richard Ashrowan, for the Foksal Gallery, Warsaw.

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Notes / Images

Exhibition text by Richard Ashrowan, Artist, Fingal’s Cave
Foksal Gallery, Warsaw.
Poland, June 2008

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