Amy O’Neill – Dura Mater
Pinksummer: “Dura-mater” is the title you gave to your second solo show at pinksummer. The Dura-mater (thick mother) is, together with the pia mater and the arachnoid mater, one of the three meningeal layers protecting the brain and the spinal cord. The Dura-mater, the most external of the three membranes, is some sort of tenacious and elastic ash/silver colored casing, that physically protects the spinal cord until the end of the sacral spine and, up in the cockpit of the nervous system, divides the right hemisphere of the brain from the left one through an extension called falx cerebri (brain sickle).
The name Dura-mater, indicating the most superficial meninx, takes back to Stephen of Antioch, who in 12th century integrally translated from Arabic to Latin the masterpiece of 10th century Islamic medicine, written by the Persian physiologist and psychologist Haly Abbas, a devout Muslim. The work originally titled “Kitab al-Maliki” became “Liber Regalis” in Latin because of its author dedication to the emir of that time (in Italian “Libro completo dell’arte medica”, in English “Royal Book of the Medical Art”). Stephen of Antioch named that thick meninx Dura-mater, for its function of connecting tissues, that can be assimilated to family bonds such as mother and son or daughter.
Essentially focused on memory, your work has the function to connect the tissues of great History to those of microhistory, regarding individuals and families. In so far, History looks like some kind of straight line formed by an infinite sequence of points, depending on each other and in turn limitlessly fragmentable. Your sensibility for time seems to recall the Deleuzian concept of Aion, coming from the classic pagan world, namely the stoic cosmogonic theory, and essentially different from the merely quantitative idea of Kronos. While Kronos is the time of our everyday life, a gap between past and future, Aion is some kind of past/future, where present is some kind of infinitesimal and therefore impossible limit. According to Aion’s time perspective, present is elusive, you can find it in what is gone or in what has yet to come, present is always somehow avoided. History appears like a single event that differs in every point, that does not stop splitting and multiplying itself, some sort of weird and a little morbid eternity.
In a text titled “Memory and displacement in the work of Amy Or’ Neill”, Bob Nikas wrote “Histories, like values, to are handed down from one generation to the next, and we inherit the fears and foibles of our parents and grandparents, as they too were handed down to them. History, as we’ve like to see, has to habit of repeating itself”.
We would like to ask you what did your parents and grandparents, and maybe Ronald Reagan too, the president with whom you grew up (we are joking a bit), inoculate you with in order to change your exquisitely optimistic attitude of Yankee origin. An attitude that of course belongs to you, but in form of a rind, a thick membrane, to peel off like that of a fruit that has ripen too much inside the basket in the kitchen and reveals the theatre of absence, dissolution, dystopia, a “ruin on the contrary”, to enter Robert Smithson’s dimension of irreversible entropy. Why that title?
Amy O’Neill : Combining the functional and the symbolic is a core operating principal for processing most of my artwork. This is partially a result of the influences from the area where I grew up in Western Pennsylvania; that has a rich tradition of mixing seemingly different histories. For example, the high school where my father attended has the face of John F. Kennedy grafted onto the schools mascot, Indian Chief Monacatootha, in homage to the assassinated president. Collating middle-American stories and creating a landscape where memories unfold is a form of experimentation I take great pleasure in. Not unlike Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein in her novel “Frankenstein” or “The Modern Prometheus” .
Furthermore, I have an affinity with Shelley’s positions as a proponent of the Enlightenment idea that society could evolve if political leaders utilized their powers responsibly; however, she also believed the Romantic ideal that misused power could devastate humanity.
Finally another functioning definition of Dura mater is that it surrounds and supports the dural sinuses that carries the blood from the brain to the heart. An apt metaphor for our complex and poetic positions as human beings.
P: Speaking about Islam, Reagan and History, meant as a single fact constituted by thousands of smaller and bigger events, mutually connected and able to infinitely fragment themselves down to individual and collective scale, we are in a moment of time in which Europe is dealing the best she can with a Biblical exodus, a moment in which some people erect abstract and actual borders made from barbed wire as if it was reasonable to hide themselves behind their mother dress. In a recent article Zygmut Baumann defined the refugees “walking dystopias”, dystopias that by walking wake up ancestral fears. This remind us of 1978 Romero’s movie “Zombie (Dawn of the Dead)”, in which he imagined United States invaded by living dead men who turned the alive ones into survivors while society was sinking into chaos. Well, considering all this, it came to our mind the “Iran – Contras Gate” affair: between 1985 and 1986, at the time of Iran/Iraq war, some high rank military officers of Reagan government (who later on enjoyed the immediate amnesty granted by George Bush Senior), were involved in a powerful scandal, generated when the article of a Libanese newspaper revealed that they were furnishing weapons to both Iran, in the beginning indirectly than directly, and Saddam Hussein. With the massive financial income coming from the double weapon supply provided to the two countries members of Opec, United States financed guerrilla and terrorism actions in Nicaragua, as the “cowboy” president did not look kindly upon Sandinista government, because, even though it was legally elected, it sympathized with communism. In the Iran/Iraq war one million of human beings lost their life, in Central America there have been approximately 30,000 dead.
And today we wonder how can Martin Dempsey, joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military charge in the United States, conclude an interview about the masses of refugees arriving in Europe, by asserting with unhistorical innocence: “I do not know where all this is going to end up. And when I cannot predict the future I should start worrying. Stability and peace in the continent are at stake”.
We have always interpreted your work as a sandbox “a grave in which children play gladly”, to quote Smithson once again, where the grains of History mingle to those of stories, the grains of high culture mingle with the “vernacular” of the endless and deepest North American periphery. We have always interpreted your work as an engaged and antimilitarist kind, your entire research as such, but we are now thinking in particular at your blasphemous an unpatriotic reworking of Brit-American “Victory Gardens” of WW2. The “Arab spring”, withered before blooming without even considering the motives, has turned our neighbors into “Walking dystopias”. Aren’t they “The Monument of The Passaic”, ruins of what is still to come, abandoned futures, bottomless utopias?
A.O’N .: These are ideas inspired by geological time versus mental space, a mismatch between the ageless and the temporal. For example in the new drawings, images of postal stamps from the 1940’s and the 1960’s, are collaged onto images of my grandfather’s and father’s war histories and appear to be at cross purposes. But in fact for me are more about storytelling rather than heavy psychological realism.
P: In 1973, during an interview with Alison Sky made two months before his death, Robert Smithson said about entropy: “O.K. we’ll begin with entropy. That’s the subject that’s preoccupied me for Time loads. On the whole they would say entropy contradicts the usual notion of the mechanistic world view. In other words it’s the condition that’s irreversible, it’s condition that’s moving towards the gradual equilibrium and it’s suggested in many ways. Perhaps the nice succinct definition of entropy would be Humpty Dumpty. Like Humpty Dumpty sat on to wall, Humpty Dumpty had the great fall, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is the tendency to treat closed systems in such a way. One might even say that the current Watergate situation is an example of entropy. You have the closed system which eventually deteriorates and starts to break apart and there’s no way that you can really piece it back together again. Another example might be the shattering of Marcel Duchamp Glass, and his attempt to put all the pieces back together again attempting to overcome entropy. Buckminister Fuller also has to notion of entropy as the kind of devil that he must fight against and recycle”.
Your work has subsumed the perspective of accelerated and irreversible dissolution in which the future seems to lie forgotten and obsolete in unhistoricized places with no quality, subverting every principle of chance and any chronological sequence and semantic organization, they are ruins per se with the processual structure of an emptied ritual. In the nonsites it is impossible to contemplate the notion of for, or to grasp the present. Would you tell us about your obsession for the mise-en-scènes and how do carnivals, zoo, thematic parks, festivities, celebrations, parades and of temporary monuments or anti-monuments inform them?
A.O’N.: In 1967, the artist Adrian Piper wrote: “Only the intuitive is truly unlimited. I see all art as basically an intuitive process, regardless of how obliquely it has been dealt with in the past.” So in agreement with that idea, these “obsessions” or as I like to think of them, intuitions spring from my first exposure to “mise-en-scènes” as a child.
P: What will you present at pinksummer?
A.O’N.: On the walls will be two new series of drawings and prints based on my father’s and grandfather’s war experiences. All executed in 2015. The first grouping titled, “Metered Mail” is series of lithograph prints and drawings inspired by a cartoon postcard booklet sent from my grandfather to my grandmother while he was in basic training during WW2, and was saved by my grandmother for more than 60 years. The images are chosen, cropped and pasted with stamps from that era based on memories I have of interactions with my grandparents and stories told to me about my grandfather’s bravery and resilience as a POW. He personally never talked about the war or time spent on a work farm after he was captured in 1944.
For “Vietnam or the American War” series of drawings, I was fortunate to be given photographs by my father that he took while over in Vietnam and back on leave in the United States circa 1969. This group also incorporates postage stamps issued from the same year as the photos were taken but are much more intuitive in the juxtapositions as there was little reference or public support for Vietnam during that “conflict”. I chose to draw most of the images in both series with the markings of “metered” or processed mail because all date from the years 1943 or 1969 and the curvy lines of US postal marks aptly represent my idea of memory waves. (except for the drawing Telegraph which has its’ own inherent transmitting system).
On the floor will be Deconstructing 13 Stripes and a Rectangle #8, a sculpture designed and sewn referencing the geometry of the United States Flag. Inspired by the idea of Victory Gardens, planted at private residences and public parks in the United States, during World War 2. The sculpture’s construction is recycled potato (bread of life) sacks filled with sand.
And finally installed above the drawings and suspended off the walls into the space is a series of mud flaps made from recycled tire rubber. These Mud-flaps, have been embossed with the pattern of cracked mud. Acting as surrogate flags, this series continues my interests in depicting fossilized states hovering in time and space