When Daniel Defoe created the archetypal shipwrecked castaway in Robinson Crusoe his fictional character was in a battle for survival. He grasped whatever he could salvage from the flotsam and jetsam washed up from his stricken ship to eke out a life.
But what if he had also possessed the inherent eye of an artist? Whilst struggling to live he also took time to consider the hidden meanings in the wildness of his new world.
The artist Dorothy Cross possesses that unique insightful eye. She applies it to create weird and wonderful objects and encounters at her new exhibition in the RHA Gallery in Dublin. Cross is an explorer of the littoral zones between those of the human and the worlds of animals and sea creatures. As a scavenger collector and beachcomber she gathers up the detritus washed up to her in Connemara and invests her finds with shamanic qualities.
She goes down to the seashore with the eye of an artist, scours and collects, and imbues the skins, carcasses, carapaces and skeletal remains to create re-assemblages with vivid new meanings.
An enormous suspended whale carcass assumes a totemic quality as its skull floats above a pail set on a marble base. The large centrepiece of the exhibition formed from an upturned currach has the sensation of being inside a small church. It is a shrine and evokes a submariner quality as you sit within it on old wooden benches sailing silently in the faint light. Looped films from inside sea caves and eerie shell encrusted rooms add to the sense of entering a water world.
There is a constant call and response between the shapes of man and those of the sea and its creatures. So an upturned boat with the stretched skin of a basking shark mirrors the floating shape of an island on the horizon. The flexing shape of a shark is cast in perpetuity in bronze. The heart of a whale is bottled and secreted inside the sleek gold covered model of a modern submarine balanced on a 19th century artists easel.
There is reverence in these exhibits for the life-force that inhabited all these creatures. The fatigued, rubber shoes and lost flippers from humans are presented as latter-day memento morii. There is an awareness of the essence of life in all the pieces and the need for protection of animal and human self.
This exhibition was first seen in Turner Contemporary Margate but the addition of the subdued lighting in the large space at the RHA adds an air of adventure and mystery.
Take a walk on this imaginary shoreline and experience the wonder of beasts.
Dorothy Cross, Connemara, continues at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin until April 27th.
All images courtesy of The Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.
RHA install photos by Bryan Meade.