Kathy Prendergast: The Furthest Place from the Centre of the Earth

Kinsale Arts Festival
Kathy Prendergast: Red vein - human nature (2013). Painted wood, motoring atlas, sponge. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery.
Kathy Prendergast: Red vein – human nature (2013). Painted wood, motoring atlas, sponge. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery.

Kathy Prendergast’s solo presentation was one of the centrepieces of this year’s Kinsale Arts Festival. Curated by Tessa Fitzjohn and on display at The Mill, the exhibition was organized into three rooms, each one discrete but coherently related to the whole. Throughout, over-drawn maps were presented alongside sculptural found objects similarly altered by the artist. The show’s title was borrowed from that of a recent work consisting of a three-metre-high net curtain hanging loose against the wall and bearing the words, ‘The Furthest Place from the Centre of the Earth’. The letters wave and fragment as the fabric sways in the breeze. The place to which the words refer is the peak of Chimborazo, the Ecuadorian mountain which, because of its proximity to the Equator, beats Mt. Everest to that title; indeed, Prendergast’s coloured map drawing, Chimborazo, 2013, was hung adjacently. While this pair of works encouraged us to remember often-forgotten aspects of the physical constitution of the Earth, it is rather the entanglement of physical and specifically human geography that most engages Prendergast’s practice.

In the first room, placed on a small shelf below two altered maps of Minnesota (Afraid/Not Afraid, 2005), was a compass whose needle, instead of pointing N, S, E, or W, instead aimed towards one letter of the word LOST (Lost Compass, 1999). Made on the cusp of the digital age, an age in which it has become increasingly difficult to actually get physically lost, this diminutive compass might signal less an absence of geographical orientation but rather of ethical, philosophical and political bearings and perspective. In this sense Prendergast’s exhibition becomes a modest tool to help recognize and navigate such rudderlessness.

One way in which Prendergast does this is to insist upon the deep entanglement of the measurement and classification of the natural world, and human processes of domination and violence. This dialectic was most explicitly signaled in the three-part work, Blood Lakes (1995), in which the lakes on maps of three adjacent territories in north-west Minnesota (and specifically around the Leech Lake Reservation) have been filled in with crimson red ink. The resultant pattern resembles a gruesome blood spatter, a simple and powerful strategy to plug cartography back into the brutal circuits of colonialism (an operation also performed in different ways by Afraid / Not Afraid and Red Vein – Human Nature, 2013).

As schematic and conventionalized representations, maps involve high levels of abstraction. Substituting dynamic and ungovernably complex terrains for a standardized system of lines, shapes, figures and colours, maps cut away the qualitative particularity of their objects in order to enable measurement and classification. Maps, then, do not operate like transparent windows through which one might come to know a section of nature neutrally or directly, but rather they are opaque surfaces on which a system of signs with their own history and rules of articulation are arranged. This observation relates to what seems to me to be a key principle for Prendergast: don’t move too quickly past the material signifier to the idea for which it stands; and don’t try to rush past the artwork towards a supposed verbal ‘message’ without attending closely to its material form and aesthetic qualities. That is, while a critique of colonialism is surely crucial to Blood Lakes, receipt of that message should hardly be where an engagement with the artwork ends.

Indeed, Prendergast does not often communicate explicit judgements regarding history or politics in her work, despite often using readymade materials loaded with these kinds of connotations. Rather, specific maps are used to open up a field of concern with which the material, conceptual and aesthetic complexities of the works can reverberate. For example, in Mt. Fuji (2008-2012) alternate contour bands of a 200 x 150 cm map of Mount Fuji have been filled in with brown acrylic, setting a frenetic and somehow corrosive pattern – anxious, enervated, fizzing – against the tranquility conventionally associated with this unusually symmetrical peak. Here, then, awareness of the interminable labour involved in making the work, its arresting visual impact, and a recognition of the geological, cultural and symbolic associations of Mount Fuji intersect in a way that is both open and precise.

Kathy Prendergast: Chimborazo (2013). Watercolour on printed paper. 37 x 55.4 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery.
Kathy Prendergast: Chimborazo (2013). Watercolour on printed paper. 37 x 55.4 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery.

The invitation for the viewer to engage with complex material surfaces was perhaps most insistent in the third room of the exhibition, which included five examples from Prendergast’s Black Map Series, begun in 2009. Here, international motoring maps have been almost entirely overdrawn with a black marker pen, except for the white circles denoting human settlements, which remain untouched. Together these white dots form constellations amidst the blackness, their pattern and density varying dramatically depending upon the geographical location concerned. Here the inky surfaces of the maps are full of interest and incident. The de-skilled repetitious pen strokes of the marker give visibility to the labour of making, and their reflective surfaces reveal each ridge, fold and crumple of the paper support. Opaque from a distance, when seen up close the ink does not totally obscure the underlying border lines, place names and other coded symbols, shadows of which can still be made out through the sheen and smudge of the pen-work. Such elements are difficult to translate directly into a communicative message, but instead hold attention to the complexity and variation of a heavily worked material surface, which turns out to be as fascinating as the compression and schematization of the cartographic practices themselves.

This for the most part sensitively curated exhibition, then, marked a welcome return for an artist whose practice has held an important place in Ireland’s visual culture since the mid-1990s. While the Irish landscape itself was not figured in the work in the show, Prendergast’s concerns with cartography, colonialism, and geographical margins resonate with Ireland’s national history; indeed, Kinsale having been so briefly but crucially woven into the fabric of that history, the exhibition maintained a satisfyingly oblique yet pressing relationship to its social, historical and physical situation.