Artist Ilana Halperin has completed a new sculptural commission for the Harry and Margery Boswell Collection of Scottish Contemporary Art.
Halperin (b.1973) is an American, Glasgow-based artist whose work is characterised by a sustained interest in geology, bringing an intimate human poetics to the measurement and comprehension of deep time. She is intrigued by all manner of rock formations and likes to approach her work in an incremental way that mimics the longitudinal nature of landmass formation.
Through collaboration with the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES) involving geo-walk field trips around coastal St Andrews and one-to-one conversations about current SEES research on planetary geology and diamondiferous landmass, Halperin has become interested in the chemical compound calcium carbonate which makes up common materials such as marble, coral and seashells. Calcium carbonate has an ancientness as well as an intimate, micro-biological aspect; it shows us how to combine geological time processes with lived experience. For Halperin, the research process and making is always as significant if not more so than the final outcome (though we are delighted she has produced such an exquisite art object for our Collections!)
For this particular project, she has become interested in the idea of the preservation, or, as the artist puts it, the long-term care of past life species encouraging future care in turn. Halperin decided to embark on an ambitious sculptural artwork for the Boswell Collection which combines laser engraving on Scottish Ledmore marble with a calcium encrusted coral specimen from our Oceans Institute.
To make this sculpture, Halperin has salvaged three large marbles from a local St Andrews stone mason Watson’s and Sons. Once upon a time, these marbles formed a fireplace in a student hall of residence. This ties the artwork to the site specificity of St Andrews University and encourages us to each ‘save a marble.’ The artist tells us Ledmore marble is now primarily used for aggregates, so the chance to salvage intact samples of marble can be seen as part of the mission of the Scottish Marble Preservation Society!
Halperin spent time at local Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) Print Studio, laser-engraving the polished marble with a series of markings which were then inlaid with ochre soil from James Hutton’s farm, another tangible link to the founding of the discipline of Geology with the very ground of Scottish landscape. The soil sample was ground up in SEES laboratories, pulverising it to make a fine powder that could be more easily adapted into ink. The mark-making was inspired by looking at the patterns found in trace fossils during her coastal walks. ‘Trace Fossils’ are geological records of the activities of past life such as footprints or burrows captured in the paleontological record. (Trace fossils are not to be confused with body fossils that preserve the actual remains of a body such as bones or shells).
Halperin also sent a coral specimen from the Oceans Institute on a five month ‘residency’ to the rapid calcifying springs in the Fontaines Pétrifiantes in France. This mode of accretion or culmination is a key technique for Halperin (and she has previously coated other geologic materials such as terracotta in such stalactite-like substances to provoke a new kind of conglomerate through artistic process). The limestone encrusted coral specimen was retrieved from France in September before being placed on the marble shelves to complete Chaos Terrain.
The title ‘Chaos Terrain’ is a term borrowed from planetary geology and serves as a visual metaphor for enmeshed landscape features which feels appropriate for a sculpture that is loaded with meaning. Chaos Terrain is going on immediate display in The Bute building, next to the Bell Pettigrew Museum inside a ‘curiosity cabinet’ in the heart of SEES on Tuesday 8 November 2022.
Dr Catriona McAra is editor of Ilana Halperin: Felt Events (2022).
With very special thanks to Dr Claire Cousins and Dr Sami Mikhail.