As it happens, there is a volcano behind Ilana Halperin’s house

As it happens, there is a volcano behind Ilana Halperin's house

As it happens, there is a volcano behind Ilana Halperin’s house

The artist (b.1973, New York) relocated to Glasgow in 1998, but now splits her time between the city and the beautiful Isle of Bute, where she owns a cottage near the extinct volcano of Suidhe, which she frequents. That small mound is part of Bute’s interesting geological personality, which brought her to this timeless island scenery 20 years ago, and it is as vibrant and present in her daily life as the flora, trees, and fields she passes on her daily walks.

Bute, a 15-mile-long island on the Highland!

Bute, a 15-mile-long island, is on the Highland Boundary Fault, a geological fault that connects two migrating landmassesHalperin observed that its peculiar, pegmatite-rich geological composition is quite similar to Maine in the United States, as well as Manhattan, where she grew up.

Is this a coincidence?

No, according to Halperin: “The reason for this is that they were connected and ripped apart at various points. You have mineral cousins from all over the world, not only because similar processes occur in various places, but because they were formerly the same spot.”

As it happens, there is a volcano behind Ilana Halperin's house

The notions of personal time and planetary

To converse with Halperin is to encounter a worldview shaped by a much more nuanced understanding of time and the relationships between things. As befits someone who counts top seismologists, mineralogists, geologists, and volcanologists among her acquaintances and associates, the notions of personal time and planetary — geological – time are casually intermingled.

A vast network of professional helpers

She has built a vast network of professional helpers to nourish her discoveries into the interconnection of all things, thanks to her rigorous study approach, facilitated by different fellowships, residencies, and tours in Hawaii, Iceland, Japan, France, China, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In Halperin’s work, the lines between animal, mineral, and vegetable are blurred.

A form of geology

She describes the evolution of a woven or knitted fabric as a form of geology, with layers of material and human narrative layered and compacted over time until the finished works express the essence of the place where they were made, as well as the movements and inspirations of the people who shaped their colors and geometries.

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The extraordinary mansion

Textiles are a new medium for Halperin, and there are a few textile pieces in this exhibition, which were created in response to the extraordinary mansion at the heart of the Mount Stuart Estate, now run by the Mount Stuart Trust, as part of its annual visual arts program -albeit a year late due to the pandemic.

A chilly, towering cavern

Mount Stuart, a late-nineteenth-century Victorian neo-gothic in deep red sandstone, was designed by the 3rd Marquess of Bute and the architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson to replace elements of the ancient Georgian manor house that were damaged by fire. Its grandiose Grand Hall is a chilly, towering cavern of polished columns filled with the finest marble. The grandiose Grand Hall is a chilly, towering cavern of polished columns in various tones of cream, flecked or densely streaked with subtle greys, greens, and roses, largely acquired from Sicily, home of Europe’s most famous volcano, Mount Etna.

A connection to her home

She has never investigated Sicilian marble, she continues, but she believes that quite possible that the reason there is such dynamic marble is due to volcanic activity.”  It’s no surprise that this artist, who spent her 30th and 40th birthdays visiting Eldfell, the Icelandic volcano that, like her, was born in 1973, feels a connection to her home.

An Anthropocene phenomena

“Many years ago, when I first visited Mount Stuart, I was struck by the house’s deep geologic nature, from the core samples of marble brought up from Sicily — immigrant rocks settling in their new home — to the petrified seas discovered in the fossil-rich limestone of the Great Hall’s vast stairwell. It was almost as if the home itself was an Anthropocene phenomena, one of the numerous geologic wonders on the island.”

Bute watercolours

The first of Halperin’s pieces for this exhibition, three watercolours and one textile, is displayed in the opulent comfort of Mount Stuart’s Drawing Room, and was made last year for Crystal Clear, an exhibition at the Pera Museum in Istanbul to which Halperin was asked to contribute. She had one of her Bute watercolours knitted by Knitstanbul, a humanitarian company run by Syrian refugee women, in order to reduce her carbon impact.

The Geologic Process

And here it is (Our Hands Enact the Geologic Process, part two, 2020), creamy, contoured bands of wool traveling over a golden ground with terracotta detail, like the striations of a geological cross-section; the piece is draped over a plump, antique footstool, upholstered in red velvet and fringed with gold tassels, where it looks entirely at home.

A trio, and a single piece

My Conglomerate Family, I, II, and III (2019) are three watercolours grouped by the library door. As a set, a trio, and a single piece, they are inspired by individual stones and are depicted more as expressions of emotional feeling and tone than in exact scientific accuracy, with the latter nicely recreating the deep, orangey glow of agate.

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My own family

“When I made these works – before the pandemic – I was imagining and trying to conjure more expansive ways of thinking about my own family, from very deep-time family lines drawn in the calcium carbonate of our family bones and teeth, to alternative families based not only on blood, but on how we choose each other,” Halperin says. The botanical print textiles and drapes, the marble fireplace, gold-framed portraits, terracotta walls, and agate-topped tables all compliment these works in tone and spirit.

It looks like mirror

The works in the adjacent library were sparked by the ceiling of this room: not the coats of arms festooned across its surface, revealing the alliances made by the aristocratic family that has owned and managed the estate for nearly 1,000 years, but the background against which they are placed: it looks like a mirror but is actually mica – a material common in the pegmatite belts of southwestern Australia.

The exhibition

When Halperin came to discuss the commission in 2018, this was the beginning point of her conversation about the exhibition. “I’ve been wanting for several reasons, a few years to ascertain if it’s possible to figure with larger volumes of mica,” says Halperin, whose interest in geology could stem from a childhood enchanted by the glittering specks of mica visible on the pavements of Manhattan and peeling shiny leaves, or “pages” of it from boulders she found on the beach. Larger, richly layered samples are termed “books”, therefore the library was an ideal location.

Trace fossils

Halperin has laseretched patterns onto the surfaces of some large chunks from Maine as well as smaller, Scottish samples from Inverness, based on the “trace fossils” she was working on when Studio International last interviewed her in 2015; where a fossil represents someone’s death, captured for posterity, trace fossils record movement – footstep.

The crystalized drawings

She collaborated with Dundee Contemporary Arts’ impressive print studio to make these new works. “The drawings are melted and crystallized into the mineral itself, in order that they appear as if scratches, but actually they become a sort of mineral layer of history. The making of a drawing may be a trace fossil, but this is often a collaboration between technology, human, and mineral that’s an act of making a trace fossil.” They bridge a huge gap in time — the drawings of 2020 on these mica chunks that go back between 400m and 800m years.The glimmer of silver to pleasure the attention

Placed all around the room, they’re utterly mesmerizing. Not only is there the glimmer of silver to pleasure the attention, but there’s the enchantment of arising close and discovering Halperin’s delicate crystalline, laser-etched trails and prints embedded in their surface. Mounted on their bespoke, wooden plinths, and arranged against shelves of priceless, leather-bound tomes, they also look utterly reception.

The Scottish and Maine samples

Halperin agrees: “It’s such a posh material, it is so layered: the more you look the more you discover.” She points out the various qualities of the Scottish and Maine samples: “There’s muscovite mica, these golden silvery ones, with elements of tourmaline, which are from Maine – the primary place in America they found tourmaline.” The Scottish pieces are darker, smaller, almost translucent, the etchings standing out against the bottom stone of black Iolite.

The travels of John Stuart

In a case at the center of the space, Halperin has gathered a number of her research into Mount Stuart’s archives: diaries, notebooks and correspondences, watercolors, and souvenirs from the travels of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, in Rome and Naples between 1769-1771.

Halperin’s watercolors

From here, we move to the gallery, where Halperin’s watercolors are scattered across one wall, altogether their geological richness and variety, attesting to the processes of formation, erosion, and growth she has seen on the island through the years and in different seasons. Apparently, she doesn’t draw these from life, but rather takes her observations home together with her to color from memory — and it strikes me that the particularities of that memory also are sort of a trace fossil in her mind. I even have observed these landscapes through multiple seasons and multiple years … it is a very layered relationship to every place.”

A natural evolution

It seems a completely natural evolution to maneuver from these tones and forms within the watercolors to the 2 sumptuous textile pieces awaiting us within the adjacent bedrooms. These were woven by Bute’s own weavers, Bute Fabrics, on jacquard looms, and are titled as a pair: Our Hands Enact the geological process, part one (2020). Creating textiles, says Halperin, “is something I even have wanted to try to for an extended time. So, I even have my long time period for ideas … and it wasn’t until the proper moment came, and therefore the right moment was with Bute Fabrics, which I had visited repeatedly — as a resident, I’d skulk within the sales and snaffle offcuts.

Her mother’s legacy

During this way, I even have been living with Bute Fabrics in my home for ages and have always appreciated the unbelievably rich quality of textile they produce, because my mother trained me well and that I grew up surrounded by textiles.” Her mother, it seems, was a noted dressmaker, creator of textile designs and garments through the 60s and 70s, before turning to high-end hand-knitted clothing within the 80s. To feature an additional layer of poignancy, Halperin lost her mother during the last year, to dementia, so there’s quite slightly of her mother’s legacy in these pieces. I’m particularly drawn to the gorgeous red weave that covers the bed within the Horoscope.

The tiny thermal town in Auvergne

The final pieces are found downstairs, within the crypt. Here, Halperin revisits a way of real-time calcification, a process she discovered in 2008 when she began her relationship with the tiny thermal town in Auvergne where seven generations of the Papon family have run the Fontaines Petrifiantes de Saint Nectaire to make “cave casts” by placing objects on 25-meter high “casting ladders” directly beneath carbonate waterfalls inside a volcanic mountain. Objects placed on this ladder take only a year to accumulate a centimeter layer of carbonate (limestone), where the traditional process would take 100 years.

Some old bricks, pipes, and tiles

For this show, Halperin shipped over to the Fontaines some old bricks, pipes, and tiles that she has been gathering since 2016 from the beaches around Bute, remnants of the brick and lime kilns that wont to operate in Kilchattan Bay. “It seemed an honest moment to seem at that process I’d worked with before, but revisit it with a replacement lens, brooding about the house and therefore the island and the geological processes you’ll encounter here.

Start to distill

Again, (it’s about) having a personal awareness in relation to the materials that I’m surrounded by. Often once I work, I’ll have a really long time period. I will be drawn to certain materials and let myself not really understand why I’m drawn to something or what I’m getting to use something for until a thought really starts to distill for an extended period of your time .”


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