the sky has to turn black before you can see the stars

4th - 12th May, 2013OFF-SITE at Brunel Goods Shed, Stroud, GL5 3AP

INDEX is proud to open the 2013 SITE Festival, with a newly-commissioned installation by renowned artist Siobhán Hapaska. Curated by Helen Kincaid.

In Hapaska’s dramatic new work, the sky has to turn black before you can see the stars, made specifically for the Brunel Goods Shed in Stroud, five uprooted olive trees are suspended within a scaffolding cube, each tree yoked to a motor, creating unsettling yet magical vibrations. The trauma of uprooting clashes with this exuberant and abundant movement – a continuous ecstatic last gasp, extending the possibility of change and hope.

Read Helen Kincaid's exhibition text & Cherry Smith's essay for INDEX|press below.

A Conversation About Trees: Cherry Smyth on the work of Siobhan Hapaska

‘The Earth is closing on us pushing us through the last passage and we tear off our limbs to pass through.’ (1)

In the directions Siobhan Hapaska sent to locate her studio, she said to look out for a Scimitar car and a wire fence. These elements could easily belong in one of Hapaska’s powerfully startling installations: a long, elegantly futuristic car, designed in 1964, combining a sword-like sleekness with a luxurious interior, beside a metal boundary designed for function.

Hapaska’s practice oscillates between confrontation and subtlety, plying the obduracy and transience of unexpected materials: stacked loofahs in a fluorescent pink steel support; air plants propped on an amorphous fibreglass form; wheat tips pushed into spent bullet cartridges. Here in the Index commission, ‘the sky has to turn black before you can see the stars’, several fragile, dying olive trees are strapped horizontally to a motor and trussed to a silver cube of scaffolding metal. Each tree is forced to vibrate as if under severe weather conditions as though Hapaska is trying to shake the olive tree free of its symbolic burden as an icon of fertility, steadfastness and peace, ‘shake some sense into it’ and shake off the associations of contested territories in Israel-Palestine. It also brings to mind homeopathic succussion, the vigorous shaking of a preparation, suggesting some healing process that scientific methods would disdain. It quickly shatters the acoustic romance of leaves rustling to evoke an irresolvable crisis.

The irresolvable is a consistent element in Hapaska’s practice. Her chosen materials may be offbeat, eclectic, sometimes hilarious, but there is a vital and vibrant resistance to reductiveness in all her work. The theme of the irreconcilable within the ordinary could be traced to her Northern Irish upbringing, the everyday absurdities and horrors of the sectarian Troubles, where a surname denoted religious affiliation and Hapaska took pleasure in the unknowability of her family name. She explains that ‘Hapaska’ was invented by her parents: ‘Kapadia’ from her Parsee father and ‘Harrison’ from her Irish mother. This ‘alien’ status confounded the systems and structures that sought to define and contain her and dissonant hybridity was to become central to her later work. For her, irreducibility is a satirical comment on political hierarchies anywhere. ‘We have fragile people and hard-hitting systems of government. We constantly come into contact with inflexible opinions and situations we have to negotiate. We can’t annihilate them.’

Although Hapaska has worked with both vegetation and hi-tech manufactured materials, she sees no dichotomy between the natural and synthetic world. ‘This division is the result of lazy thinking. Isn’t everything generated within our universe?’ This often brutal material juxtapositioning recalls work by Joseph Beuys and Isa Genzken, but Hapaska cites Matthew Barney as someone who has had more impact: ‘He generates everything. He doesn’t come looking over his shoulder. I don’t really have artists who influenced me but to make something original is not my objective. I want to make something that’s as free of association as possible. Jean Fisher once said that each piece operates as a fullstop, then a new sentence begins. As soon as people think they’ve “got” my work, I move on. My work tends to repel people - it’s non-Velcro! You can’t apply saturated memories to it – in that sense it’s quite theatrical. I want to derail normal references.’

Hapaska has been working with olive trees since ‘Downfall’ in 2009, in which a single olive tree was suspended horizontally, with a pile of earth in a metal tray on the ground at one end and fallen leaves collecting at the other. Although the vulnerable, exposed rootball and the perishing tree were lamentable, Hapaska was surprised that some viewers found it peaceful, as if the tree had transcended a difficult experience. She sees ‘the sky has to turn black before you can see the stars’ as a prequel to ‘Downfall’. Here the distressing agitation and unceasing noise evince a violent and premature harvest: there is no fruit; the tree is not fully grown. It begins to resemble a febrile person trapped by their surroundings. The shaking replicates a natural disaster that disrupts the seasonal cycles and life force. With the roots and soil sundered, it’s hard not to read the work as a comment on climate change as well as on the theft and destruction of thousands of olive groves in Israel’s expansionistic war.

The question of roots is also of particular interest to Hapaska. Feeling as if she belongs nowhere, she considers romantic the notion of rootedness as desirable. ‘The Recent Incarnation of the Advancement of Two Souls’, 2012, developed her visual iconography of deracination. Here, two sturdy tree trunks were bolted to a metal carriage upon which their two removed rootballs traversed back and forth. What if roots could travel while we stayed in the one place? Are some of us so fixed to our roots that we miss other cultural experiences? The rootballs look like bizarre heads caught in a self-limiting idea.

Yet as the title of this commission suggests, Hapaska believes in the possibility of hope carried in despair. ‘In the face of human cruelty and barbarity, you have absolute kindness. We saw that during the London bombings. Why couldn’t it always be like that?’ she asks.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote: ‘What times are these in which/A conversation about trees is a crime/Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds.’ (2)

Do metal shells restrict us or protect us? Can dreams of possessing luxury objects enslave us to consumer ruin? Can aesthetic rigour and surprise help us to rethink our routine mental processes of acquisition and dissatisfaction? These and other conversations Hapaska has with trees, and with us.

  1. Mahmoud Darwish, ‘The Earth is closing on us’ from In Victims of a Map, al-Saqi Books, 1984

  2. Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’, first published in Svenborger Gedichte, 1939