David Upton’s Earth Station, 2011 explores the site and history of the Earth Station at Elfordstown in Middleton, Cork, which houses a 32-metre satellite dish, designed and constructed in 1984 to carry transatlantic telecommunications traffic to Europe and North America. Upton’s fast-paced and shaky camera leads us around the site scanning the pump house and the length and breadth of the station’s largest listening device. A second film depicts the inside of the Earth Station, while a narrator monotonously reads out an article from the Evening Echo dated September 16th 1988. There is tension between the voice of the narrator describing the station as a state-of-the-art listening device and the visual element of the film, which shows us the seemingly abandoned and obsolete site as it exists today. Strangely, these films are juxtaposed with another showing the conservation of an early 15th century Russian icon painting entitled The Miracle of St George, depicting St George slaying the dragon. The link between this icon and the Earth Station seems tenuous and unclear, although upon reflection a link can be forged between the satellite which probes the skies and the figure of St. George, whose origins can be traced back to the Phrygian Sabazios, a nomadic god on horseback who was also known as the ‘Sky Father’.
Icon paintings were intended to produce healing or consoling affects or to otherwise convey a miraculous benefit in order to transport the spectator into another realm. Upton’s concern with deep space and time brings to mind the work of Robert Smithson who, in his essay ‘The Artist as Site-Seer; or A Dintorphic Essay’ (1966-7) writes of a type of transcendence evoked by ataraxic landscapes which have a soothing or tranquilising quality. Smithson references George Kubler’s concept of the Prime Object, which produces a chain or series of copies and replicas which refer back to it (The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, 1962), adding that the detection of such primes (which are often buildings) produces heightened aesthetic affects. An icon painting also exemplifies Kubler’s concept as the figure of St George can be linked to a chain of other figures, such as the aforementioned god Sabazios. An icon is also an enduring symbol that may be duplicated, replicated and copied while still referring to the same prime object, figure or idea. Smithson, however, writes of the ‘megalith’ which appears in several of J.G. Ballard’s science fiction stories, where it functions as a memory trace of the prime object of the Tower of Babel. Ballard’s megaliths have language at their root as do most primes, according to Smithson: the importance of the invention of the telephone, for instance, resides in its capacity to make one conscious of prime form. Ballard’s megaliths are giant receivers like Upton’s Earth Station, which is also a silent tower surrounded by the echoes of ‘millions of utterances’ and the ‘noise of history’ (‘Artist as Sight-Seer’).
For Kubler, the appearance or detection of a prime is comparable to the perception of the light of a dead star, he writes ‘[w]e know of their existence only indirectly, by their perturbations, and by the immense detritus of derivative stuff left in their paths’. This metaphor of the light of a dying star seen from Earth resonates further with Upton’s project, which anticipates the re-opening of the Earth Station – due to start a new life as a deep space radio telescope, capable of detecting a range of phenomena such as exploding or dying stars.
Ma Bice Bolje (It Will get Better) (2002 – 2005) is an installation combining photography, video and text by Swiss duo Goran Galic and Gian-Reto Gredig. The project explores the residual impact of the Bosnian war on both the landscape and on those who were directly affected, being comprised of a series of photographs of differing sizes, that document the visible scars and fractures left on the landscape. These images are accompanied by a series of five documentary-style films. There are many overlaps between the films and photographs: in one film, for instance, we meet a photo journalist who was witness to a massacre in a market place (his portrait hangs among the photographs). The photographer explains that he did not feel it appropriate to photograph the aftermath of the massacre, and instead helped clean up, shockingly sweeping a human brain down a drain. Although he didn’t take a photograph he adds that this image remains forever burned into his memory. This story illustrates an ongoing concern of Galic and Gredig: the gap between personal memory and the portrayal of events in the media.
While this project draws attention to the still visible remnants and traces of the Bosnian war, possibly more disturbing than the war itself are the anaesthetised relationship the country has to its own recent past. In one photograph we see a portrait of a woman in overalls smiling for the camera in a muddy landscape partitioned by tape. Accompanying text by the artists informs us that the woman is a forensic scientist working on an exhumation site, attempting to trace some of the 30,000 people still missing. It recalls the strangely relaxed atmosphere among the workers on site, who were laughing and cracking jokes whilst digging up the remains of children killed in the conflict. Ma Bice Bolje oscillates between these highly painful and personal eye-witness accounts of the conflict, and an almost complete detachment and divorce from it. Galic writes of the photograph of the forensic worker, ‘I had the idea to photograph the grave the way most Bosnian Serbs saw it – meaning not at all, looking past it’.
Both works were on view at the former P+D Furnishings store, Perry Street, Cork, November 19 – December 15 2011.