The title of this collection of works by Oona Hyland, Myrmecophytism, refers to the relationship she observed between specific plant and ant species, where food and shelter are provided by a particular organism to insects who reciprocate in the form of defence and/or nutrients, thereby protecting their habitat. This phenomenon was observed during her recent sojourn with the artists’ collective, Nine Dragon Heads, in Brazil in a collateral project during the 33rd São Paulo Bienal. The series of events and experiences for the artists associated with the group, involved immersion in local cultural communities and physical environments including the cities of Belem and Manaus, the Rio Negro tributary and the Amazon rainforests, a programme that conforms to the nomadic experiential strategy of the NDH artists’ group. Their activities and artwork are particularly directed to their concerns for the natural environment, and the dilemma of man’s relationship with it, and while Hyland’s work seems initially to comprise a diverse exploratory and philosophical range, contemplation of its features and motivations reveals that it collectively reflects this core issue in various ways.
This time in Brazil proved a rich resource for Oona Hyland whose current body of work, under the unifying concept, Myrmecophytism, emerged from this immersive experience. She is fascinated by mutualistic relationships, and has responded to the eusocial behaviour exhibited by ants, bees and termites. Eusocial colonies are described as cooperative organisations operating at the ‘highest’ level of animal sociality. However, they perform on a ‘caste’ system that involves specific roles for identifiable groups within the colony; a controversial notion when translated into human terms. Hyland’s practice involves the observation and representation of groups whose mutualism provides a compelling, yet often unequal set of relationships, that is where one participant or group may be more dependent than another, or where the benefit/consequence balance is not synchronous. While the works are presented without judgement, they prompt the observer to consider the nature of symbiotics in practice. Hyland has observed too the dissymmetry of exchange that such interactions generate; they reflect the interests and concerns that are fundamental to the meaning of her work that infers the parallels that are suggested within human hierarchies and the uneven nature of their dependence on, and utilisation of, the resources of the planet.
As a point departure, Hyland was drawn to the particular mutualistic relationship as described between the cecropia plant and the Azteca genus of native ants, a phenomenon that has been the basis of substantial scientific research. The São Paolo experience provided for the artist included time for reflection in both senses, on the banks of the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon river, identified as the largest blackwater river on the planet. Hyland experienced it as visually impenetrable, observing its potential for both nutrition and predators, and was fascinated by its seductive beauty and reflective surface. She has responded with an ongoing series of work addressing the profiled and mirrored forms, of nature and culture within its environs.
The dark water was used both as a medium for some of her experiments, and also as a trigger to utilise inks as black as oil, to experiment with techniques related to drawing, painting, print and photography, to produce a series of monochromatic works that play, among other things, on the potential of the silhouette and the distortions of mirror images. The characteristics and uses of the objects and substances inform her representations and supply materials and supports in their own right. For example, the plant-based string and jute, dipped in ink to form bilateral prints on folded paper, or the wet-plate collodion prints – haunting monochromatic images utilising a substance with a provenance in surgical dressing. A print functions as a kind of ‘alter ego’, an identical opposite derivative of the originating ‘plate’; a reverse copy. They may suggest a ‘Rorschach’ type image, like the inkblots pressed within a folded page, to produce a bilateral form, that approaches (but falls short of) perfect reflection symmetry – a kind of visual duality alleged to prompt revelations of psychological states.
Prints and rubbings were made to emulate the delicate pattern of veining in leaves found in the forest. Some exhibited lace-like perforations made by insects, cutting through the green membrane in repeated patterns of punctures. The cycles of renewal require both destruction and re-creation, and the remarkable constructions of termite mounds has provided a body of imagery to reflect their complex social structures.
Hyland’s discovery and display of the unfolding spiral of vine bark, a kind of vibrant relic of the forest, becomes especially relevant in this context. She relates how these vine bark strips are harvested by locals and used while green to make a vernacular musical instrument; her found example was seemingly abandoned and had consequently passed its usefulness as a material for its original purpose, in turn translated into a new one as visual art, a kind of reverse or asymmetry of cultural extinction.
Hyland produced also a series of black-and-white photographs of the dense clusters of trees, their thin parallel trunks striping the image, and seemingly elongated by their sharp reflections in the still surface of water. Placed on their sides, the photographs dislocate from their role as a record of reality, translating into disorientating, horizontal bands of dark and light, from the tangible and logical, into a dense, impenetrable maze, a mesmerising abstraction.
Hyland is drawn by all aspects of nature, in particular the relationships and conditions that have given rise to the era of the anthropocene – that is, where man’s acitivites are understood to have left an indelible mark on the planet, detectable in the geological layers that determine the time periods that are used to benchmark the evolution of the earth.
Oona Hyland’s array of works in her participation with artists’ collective, Nine Dragon Heads, for the São Paolo Bienal, comprises the bronze cast of one side of the recently-found antlers of a fallow deer, together with ten raw steel plates from her Things Fall Apart series, each etched with a perforated design of ancient lace or remnants of hieroglyphic language. The single antler prompts imagination of its ‘missing’ counterpart, and the corresponding asymmetry, while the steel plates are read in terms of the light permeating the perforations, and forming shapes defined by the cast shadows on the wall behind. As participation involved also the group’s nomadic processes of research and communication, of discovery and display during a period of around three weeks, an unfolding scroll of vine bark, found abandoned in the undergrowth was hung spiraling from ceiling to floor, a natural material emulating the flexible strength of thin metal.
‘Relic’ refers to something surviving from an earlier time. It infers historic interest, and ranges on one hand from an object of reverence to things or people relegated as outmoded on the other. The fallow deer is recognized by recent genealogical research as a living descendent of the extinct Megaloceros Giganteus, the Great Irish Elk of myth and history. While extinct creatures may leave their traces, their relics, they are understood to be beyond recovery. As such they may evoke veneration as a potent symbol of an irrecoverable past, an asymmetry of existence. The title of the 33rd Bienal, Affective Affinities, was intended to provide greater autonomy to participating curators and artists through the avoidance of a defining overarching concept. It plays on the title of the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, published in 1809, that explored ideas of relationships, of loss and of restoration. Goethe, as a polymath, was also fascinated with the sciences, and published influential texts exploring evidence of growth and development in plants, manifest for him in the spiral as evidence of movement and therefore dynamic life – which in turn inspired artists like Paul Klee, whose own work abounds with spiral motifs in nature. Hyland’s discovery and display of the unfolding abstract asymmetry of vine bark, a kind of vibrant relic of the forest, becomes especially relevant in this context. She relates how these vine bark spirals are harvested by locals and used while green to make a vernacular musical instrument; her found example was seemingly abandoned and had consequently passed its usefulness as a material for its original purpose, in turn translated into a new one as visual art, a kind of reverse or assymmetry of cultural extinction.
Hyland’s participation with the Nine Dragon Heads group emerges from her shared concern with man’s relationship with the environment, and for the consequences of human domination of the resources of the planet, evidenced in the residues embedded in geological layers and giving rise to the epoch of the Anthropocene. Among the associated consequences, extinction places species ‘Beyond the Horizon’ - literally and metaphorically out of sight. The experience of barriers and boundaries, physical, visual and emblematic, and the asymmetries of experience reflected in the artwork described above, are part of the fascination with that which is out of sight, but which remains potent in the memory and the imagination. While a horizon in visual art has a provenance of suggesting the juncture of life and death, as indicated in examples by Casper David Friedrich, it functions also as a symbol of aspiration and longing – death/extinction reconstrued as the ‘next life’. This is conceptually similar to the fallow deer, the scale of whose antlers were perhap a more practical adaptation of the impressive protrusions carried by its ancestor, the so-called great Irish ‘elk’, actually a huge deer that inhabited Ireland and Europe thousands of years ago, but understood to have succumbed to the effects of contemporaneous environmental factors.
The São Paolo experience provided for Oona Hyland included time for reflection in both senses, on the banks of the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon river, and the largest blackwater river on the planet. With a watercourse that is visually impenetrable, filled with the potential for both nutrition and predators, Hyland was fascinated by its outstanding beauty and reflective surface. She has responded with an ongoing series of work addressing the profiled and mirrored forms, of nature and culture within its environs. She produced, inter alia, a number of black ink drawings, as well as a series of black-and-white photographs of the dense clusters of trees, their thin parallel trunks striping the image, and seemingly elongated by their sharp reflections in the still surface of water. Placed on their sides, the photographs dislocate from their role as a record of reality, translating into disorientating, horizontal bands of dark and light, from the tangible and logical, into a dense, impenetrable maze, a mesmerising abstraction.
The relationship with place is also an assymmetrical reflection. Occupants and habitations may be symbiotic but out of synchronicity. The teeming natural world experienced by Oona Hyland on the banks of the Rio Negro – of alligators and piranhas, of tarantulas and ants – proved both fascinating and revealing. She learned of the qualities of the cercropia plant, with its capacity to abrade and to heal. But especially of its myrmecophystism – referring to the relationship between specific plant and ant species, where food and shelter are provided by a particular organism, while the insects reciprocate in the form of defence or nutrients. While Hyland is fascinated by such mutualistic relationships, the assymmetry of need – where more insects may require this benefit than there are plants available to support it – reflects the interests and concerns that are fundamental to the meaning of her work.
Hyland is drawn by all aspects of nature, in particular the relationships and conditions that have defined the anthropocene – where man’s acitivites are understood to have left an indelible mark on the planet, detectable in the geological layers that determine the time periods – the epochs, eras and eons – that benchmark the evolution of the earth. She instinctively detects the ‘myrmecophytism’ of man’s relationship with the planet, and evokes apprehension at the assymmetries of cause and effect.
MYRMECOPHYTISM MONOPRINT SERIES