The Land That… is an extensive video and mixed-media project based on Frances Hegarty and Andrew Stones's engagement with a ten-acre plot of land in Co. Donegal, Ireland. Over a period of five years the artists recorded actions and interventions devised to explore and test the land in various ways, considering it from their combined personal perspectives, and as a miniature territory in a wider discourse about “land” and "lands".
The work incorporates many views and transits across the Donegal plot, and video sequences suggestive of a multi-disciplinary inquiry using improvised tools, old laboratory apparatus, and consumer technology. Hegarty's actions draw on personal memory (the house adjoining the land is her childhood home) and her sense of acquired custodianship of the land. An overview emerges of a terrain from which human narratives are being gradually erased by vegetation, animals and weather – running counter to the supposed trends of an anthropocene era.
Exhibited in full, The Land That… consists of a single-screen video film with immersive surround sound (projected in a large, self-contained space) and a suite of smaller, interlinked installations combining video, sound and other media (in adjoining spaces).
The looping, single-screen film is formed around performative interventions by Hegarty. Her role is both explicitly gendered, and an expression of a very personal relationship with the land: carrying a white kitchen chair out across it, surveying it from a vantage point on a derelict outbuilding, watching over it at night. In other scenes, she holds up a defunct satellite dish, as if searching for an optimal reception point on the land, probes a deeply clogged drainage ditch with a pole, and kicks the ‘look-out’ building in a kind of leave-taking... As Hegarty’s figure comes and goes, the land is in flux. Idyllic periods alternate with the violent assaults of wind and rain, all rendered viscerally present via an immersive audio micro-climate.
The film includes time-lapsed dawn and dusk scenes featuring two bizarrely out of place neon signs which together form the phrase 'It Only Remains Until Such Time'; and night-time sequence in which the land, tinted with the rust-red and brown of winter, seems to have returned to an almost primeval state.
Objects and materials used in the single-screen film are recontextualised in the smaller installations. These are distributed around four zones, colour-coded for the elements of a poetics of space: white (for a whitewashed house), grey (for the stone and concrete of outbuildings), green (for ubiquitous grass and foliage), and blue (for wide, open skies).
A mix of video, furniture, text, display and lighting effects, lends a discursive character to this part of The Land That... and gives it the look of an idiosyncratic folk museum. Video, audio and kinetic elements are loosely synchronised, the ensemble being like a model world whose parts move in and out of phase according to their slightly different, overlapping time-bases.
The white zone contains a synchronised 2-screen video with low-level ambient sound; Water Table (a kinetic sculpture); and The Land That... [72 endings] (a 7-metre-long printed paper strip on a narrow shelf).
On the pair of video screens the artists engage in a dialogue of objects, each presented to camera like archeological finds. These range from decades-old domestic tools to signs of more recent familial, social and cultural investments in house and land.
The Land That... [72 endings] offers alternative ways to complete the exhibition's "unfinished" title, grouped around themes of personal memory, family lore, cultural and political contestation, and imagined future.
Water Table has the appearance of an experiment with a nearly-empty terrarium, improvised on a kitchen table, where a chequered oil cloth lends a grid pattern to the bottom of the glass tank. The table top rocks back and forth, mechanically, causing a shallow wash of water to swirl around a steel bar placed diagonally in the tank.
Over days and weeks, the steel is corroded, and etched along its length with something like a miniature panoramic landscape. Particles of rust, like fine sand, fall to the bottom of the tank, forming model islands and sand-bars that are constantly rearranged on the improvised map-grid by currents of water.
Water Table emerged from thinking about the way slow-moving water gradually alters the topography of the inundated Donegal plot. The piece also references the diagonal divisions made in the land by drainage ditches, and the high iron content of the local water, as revealed elsewhere in some of the film images.
The grey zone contains a synchronised 2-screen video projection with sound, and two Turning Chairs (a kinetic sculpture). Overall, the projections present a continuous night-time scene, although with two alternating phases. In a longer, quiet phase a yellow neon 'Once' and 'Here' glow on rough concrete and moss-covered structures; in a shorter phase the neon words rhythmically change in size and brightness, flip over and switch places, in time to percussive music.
During the quiet periods the Turning Chairs remain stationary, in cold, blue light. In the musical interludes the light changes to amber, and the chairs turn slowly together in an absurd dance.
For this part of the work ideas about social and cultural investments in the land are distilled into a yard dance that is also a disco, where the lights are a flashing neon 'Once' and 'Here', and the participants are items of furniture from the nearby (unseen) house. The mood of the dance is ambiguous: the music is austere (made from stones and metal objects found on-site); in some of the images the land is upside-down and the text is not; in others the situation is reversed; and the chairs are always off-balance, whilst never falling over.
The green zone contains a synchronised 2-screen video display with sound, showing what appears to be an exchange of calls between two birds, hidden in separate bushes on the land. In each image a hand-held microphone protrudes into frame. An old-fashioned oscilloscope, clearly present at each location, appears to show a trace of the live sound, as confirmed in the correlation between gusts of wind and scope traces. If what is shown is an objective record of animal behaviour, then the installation proposes a small but remarkable addition to the natural lore relating to the land.
However, the apparent facticity of the display is called into question via several clues, especially relating the techno-scientific apparatus that might otherwise serve as objective guarantors of what appears to be taking place. In particular: exactly the same oscilloscope and microphone appear in both video images, and since they cannot have been in two different places at the same time, the synchronicity of events across the two screens, and therefore the "exchange" of cries between the birds, is thrown into doubt.
The blue zone (suffused with sky-blue light) is overlooked by two spotlit wooden chairs, mounted on armatures emerging from high up in the wall. The chairs are obviously like the one carried across the land by Hegarty in the single-screen film.
The chairs overlook two wedge-shaped screens below, where synchronised video sequences show the rolling-out of red-and-white barrier tape over the land, making the diagonal "land cross", anchored to two rowan trees, also seen in the film. The process is suggestive of dividing the land, or restricting access to parts of it, for some reason.
For this pair of images a device was made to marry the movement of the camera, carried at at ground level, with the unbroken spooling-out of a calibrated tape, enabling the viewer to share in an act of measuring the "whole" plot whilst engaging with the intractability of the ground.
The out-of-reach chairs suggest the existence of a creators'-eye perspective on a "rough world". The creators here could be deities; ancestors; people who in the past wrought changes on the land; or the artists themselves, instigating the very actions that have produced The Land That....
The Land That... commissioned for exhibition by The MAC Belfast
Exhibition: 12 April - 7 July 2019
At the MAC:
Commissioning curator: Hugh Mulholland (Director)
Project co-lead: Clare Gormley (Curator)
MAC installation team
Robin Price, audio-visual lead, design and installation
Ian Jordan, installation lead
Chris Campbell, installation lead