Marianne Hartigan launches Vincent Sheridan’s Animation to Murmuration
Draíocht was delighted to welcome Writer and Art Critic Marianne Hartigan to launch Vincent Sheridan's exhibition 'Animation to Murmuration' in Draíocht on Thursday 14th March 2013. Marianne very kindly gave us a transcript of her opening night speech.
I first came across Vincent Sheridan’s work in a group exhibition some time back. As far as I recall it was one of his etchings featuring a group of crows marching forward as if with determination and collective purpose. At the time it stood out on a number of counts. It was eye catching, it was well made, it had a touch of comedy, and the crows’ activity seemed to mirror people on a protest march or a gang shaping up. Also the artist seemed to have a thorough understanding of his subject matter.
You could tell from Vincent’s work, that he had studied birds. He knew all about how they were put together, what they looked like and how they got on with one another. And while the more humorous side of crow behaviour might be highlighted, it was clear that Vincent had spent considerable time just observing them, watching their socialisation, their day to day activities, their partnerships, their squabbles, and so on.
I must say I found his work, engaging, unpretentious and refreshing.
So, when I was asked recently to open this show, I was delighted to do so and looked forward to see what he had been doing since.
This exhibition contains a body of recent work. The crows are gone for the moment, and starlings are to the fore. There are also other developments: an increase in abstraction and experimentation.
But I want for a moment to go back to the birds. This is a perfect time of year for Vincent Sheridan to exhibit his work. The gardens and hedgerows are full of birds busy building their nests. From the first of March to the end of August, you are not allowed cut down hedges or trees in this country because it is the nesting season and there are laws forbidding you to do so. That directive on hedge cutting may be news to some people. And perhaps that is because most of us in this day and age pay little heed to birds. We may be half aware of them as we go for a walk, their song a background track to our meander. We may find ourselves under the beady scrutiny of a robin’s watchful eye as we dig in the garden, we may be aware of the rushed displacement of birds as we go to hang washing on the line in the garden but otherwise many of us take them for granted or ignore them.
Sadly modern farming methods such as increased use of pesticides and the enlarging of fields and removal of hedgerows have led to a considerable reduction in birds, but because they are not centre stage in most people’s lives, we may not have really noticed.
It wasn’t always like this. Birds have been an important part of human history, either being eaten or providing eggs, or their feathers used in pillows, mattresses, beds, quilts, hats, fans, or feather dusters, or in fly fishing apparatus and so on. Hawks played a key role too in some cultures.
Just think of the idioms involving birds that are in common usage:
That’s a feather in your cap.
Free as a bird.
A nest egg.
Bird’s eye view.
A little bird told me.
A night owl.
Most of them are very positive.
Some are a little more cautious, for instance, don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
There are also expressions such as he’s for the birds, or bird brain!
And then everyday clichés: as bald as a coot, as proud as a peacock; or taking to something like a duck to water.
These idioms suggest how much part of everyday life birds used to be.
Though now, apart from selecting chicken or turkey in the supermarket, most people take little notice of birds.
While scarecrows and bangers frighten birds away from farmers’ crops, birds still perform a useful function. They eat weed seeds, and vast numbers of insects such as flies and mosquitoes, as well as little rodents.
Their birdsong and chatter, add considerably to the enjoyment of the outdoors.
While birds still play their part, most of us don’t see it, and so birds don‘t figure greatly in our consciousness.
We take their lively, but mostly subtle, presence and singing for granted.
Unless of course, we come across something like that which Vincent Sheridan highlights in his work, a huge airborne gathering of starlings, a murmuration.
A murmuration will stop you in your tracks - and may compel you to wonder about the complexity of birds.
A murmuration of starlings is an amazing phenomenon. It is a vast number of birds which seems, without any obvious starting signal, to gather and become airborne in one fell swoop and then soar through the sky in an articulated body as if each individual bird has been practicing its position and sky diving pattern for weeks. There can be huge numbers of birds involved. Literally thousands. At Draíocht, one room of the gallery hosts an impressive video of an awe-inspiring murmuration. And a murmuration is the recurring theme in this exhibition of Vincent Sheridan’s.
Sheridan is from a farming background. He is someone who spends a good deal of time walking, and while walking he takes in what is going on around him. He is highly attuned to the environment.
Whereas in earlier work he looked at the group structure and relationships between individuals or groups of birds, (and often this behaviour seemed to reflect human behaviour,) in this show Sheridan focuses more on the flight dynamics of starlings and other birds in the sky and the shapes they form. Underlying that is the elusive question of how those flying in massive flocks know when to turn, or fly up, or down, or land!
In the works on murmurations Vincent Sheridan is trying to capture ‘the elegance, the delicacy, and the power’ of that immense starling whirlwind; trying to capture that elliptical, constantly changing, fast-moving shape. And he succeeds in doing so. Both when using the time-honoured technique of etching, in which he is a master, and in his more modern, experimental, video-based works.
He is fascinated by the secret signals which propel these birds one way or another, the hidden synchronicity. How do they share that information?
He depicts the rolling wave, the lyrical instant turn, which suddenly catapults the birds in a different direction. His work gives a real feel of the energetic murmuration as it takes over the sky.
In some etchings he creates low lying minimal landscapes topped by immense skies which are then dominated by these organic, evolving shapes.
Then in other works the imagery becomes more abstract, more spare. The cloud of birds becomes a mere wisp of smoke, almost an Eastern calligraphic letter, or a ghost of a bird movement; something that has happened so fast as to be almost an illusion.
Most of the exhibits are etchings worked in a traditional method that is much the same as that done in Rembrandt’s time. These are made in very limited editions and because they are hand done each is very slightly different.
There are also photos and video stills. In the etchings Sheridan worked from drawings from life, in the video work he painted a mass of birds on long sheets of clear plastic hung outside in the wind and worked with that.
Creating art works using video and video stills is a comparatively recent departure for Vincent but it is opening up all sorts of possibilities, blurring the edges between reality and creation. There is more of an element of chance perhaps with this, rather than the painstaking printmaking process. This new venture has resulted in works, some of which appear almost layered or veiled; there is a mystique, an other-worldliness, about them.
Then there are others, photographic pieces, where that complex rolling movement first brought to us in the murmurations, is continued; abstract images which conjure up cool, silvery, icy landscapes, perhaps connecting in some way with the years he spent in Canada and his trips to the arctic.
The origin of these compositions is more prosaic: sheets of plastic on the Bog of Allan in Kildare, catching the light and rippling in the wind, resulting in these swirling shapes, which were captured by the artist’s eye through the camera. But significantly, these images echo those remarkable, fluid forms created by the birds in flight.
I congratulate Vincent Sheridan on this wonderful exhibition and wish him every success with it.
Marianne Hartigan © 2013