(ESSAY) Reflections on Fossil , a fictiōnella by Ilana Halperin, by Alison Scott
Tracing deep time, geologic layers and anthropocene poetics, Alison Scott explores Ilana Halperin’s Fossil (2021): a fictiōnella out now with Lost Rocks (2017–21), a project by A Published Event (Justy Phillips & Margaret Woodward).
Woodcut prints hung on the office walls at DCA: remember drawn lines melding and morphing into text. A slim green book of image plates and essays on body stones, found and cherished. Withdrawing from festival-fever into the cooling bind of a show at the National Museum in Edinburgh, sculptures shown alongside choice specimens, the boundaries between them blurring. More prints, mounted in a group show at Talbot Rice: small paragraphs set among intricate water colour drawings of rock samples. Recall a performance reading and slide presentation in the smallest theatre at GFT; the artist in person, a more direct reveal of the physical self, preoccupations and histories. A solo-exhibition at the Hunterian in Glasgow, where elements new and now familiar are drawn together to co-exist.
Often encrusting her exhibitions, titles, print and performance works with statements that assert connections between the slow, deep time of geology and the comparatively fast paced accretion of personal histories, recurrent phrases of Halperin’s adhere themselves to my memory:
We form geology.
We are biographical trace fossils.
A bridge between the living and the dying.
Embedded and recited incantations of intent and resolve, these words feel like lodestones in the artist’s practice, and for thinking about affinities and relationships with the geologic: that layer of earth’s history we encounter and shape, and the processes, structures, energies, and materialities that define it.
This is how I came to know Ilana Halperin’s work — the places, times, objects and words I can recall — and how I come to reading Fossil. The publication of the artist’s new ‘fictiōnella’ Fossil offers a chance to more closely consider Halperin’s use of writing and the forms her words surface in — here, within a ‘seam’ of texts published by Tasmania based ‘A Published Event’. In Fossil text rises to the fore, though images and artworks still abound, if held only in memory and description. In the diaristic mode of memoir, Halperin shows writing as part of ‘living through’ and documenting the process of making art and navigating human/ extra-human relationships. Fuelled by sleeplessness and longing, diary entries from 2020 are lodged alongside memories and accounts of geological encounters — particularly volcanic ones — excavated from Halperin’s decades of travelling while writing ‘field-notes’. Fragments of work emails and personal WhatsApp messages relay the raw struggle, unseen care, and love exposed in working through the contorting of artistic projects and personal grief, as her mother nears the end of her life amid a period where intimacy and death — of any sort — is felt keenly differently.
In Anthropocene Poetics (2019), David Farrier writes: ‘Halperin’s work describes a sympathy with the lithic...a condition of being enamoured of the nurturing, collaborative qualities of stone’. In a previous text by Halperin, a prologue to Physical Geology: A Field Guide to Body Mineralogy and Other New Landmass (2010), she describes laying a piece of lava found together in Iceland on her Father’s granite gravestone:
‘Two geological epochs collide when we leave a rock on a gravestone. We facilitate personal orogenies’.’
This simple act of mourning has a significance for Halperin akin to a mountain-building event. It is a fold in time and place as old rock makes connection with new landmass. Relationships with stones — particular samples, types, from a certain place — become attached to life and death events. In this previous text, the focus was on examples of geology behaving bodily, or bodies behaving geologically. Body-stones, assemblages of minerals in the body as teeth, bones, gall-stones and other anomalies: where we find unsettled boundaries between the inhuman, mineral world and our bodies; between what dies and what lives on or continues to morph.
As Kathryn Yusoff writes in Queer Coal (2015), the human body is in fact ‘an expression’ of the inhuman, whose subjectivities and materialities become our own: ‘The human does not just incorporate the inhuman, it is an expression of an inhuman corporation; so it is not so much a substratum of subjectivity but an irreducible conglomerate of its modalities of subjectification and materializations of geopowers.
In Fossil Halperin’s writing is intensely personal: her ‘being’ (in all it’s human and ‘inhuman corporation’) feels at the fore, and her intimacy is applied to closely felt experiences of geological phenomena, an intimacy with her own relationship to herself, her past, kin, and artworks: the connection between these form an ontology that might also be said to operate as a ‘conglomerate’ of modalities and subjectivities. With Fossil published as a ‘fictiōnella’ I was unprepared for the honesty and immediacy of the writing: the ‘fiction’ here perhaps signifying the very act of writing down a version of events, one way it could be narrated. As a reader I felt confided in; I did not inhabit Fossil as a voyeur; I was given the tools to uncover a new geology of grief interred in the text, set on the page amid the mass-grief event of the pandemic. The time of my reading being so close to the time of writing, still within the context of the pandemic, made it feel like exhuming a fossil only lain down recently: not having been given time to fully settle or become sanitary.
Struck by the lucid and vivid descriptions of anguish — and the vulnerability and defiance of committing that emotion to print — the intense personal nature of Halperin’s writing feels generative to a reader’s own sympathies, our own geological self-reflections. Questioning, how might we see geology surface similarly in one’s own life: what sort of layer am I? Encouraging a view of the world where daily life and geology are entwined, where the body can be seen as a geological unconformity itself.
Farrier also notes, ‘We encounter the deep past and the deep future in the most ordinary situations’. Halperin’s work comes as a critical and empathetic force between bodies and geologies, her writing articulates and processes daily experiences of art, geology, and grief: we encounter art and text from daily lives that happen within particular political, physical, and emotional situations and sensibilities. Including Halperin’s work itself within a capacious sense of the geologic layer it broaches and constructs, her work troubles what it might mean to be living, feeling, inert, latent, or dead at all.
Fossil shunts the reader between locations that span the globe: a personal geological map*. The artist writes, ‘There is a volcano behind my house’ — referring to the extinct volcano near her home in the south of Bute**, from which we depart as she recalls visits and relationships with further-flung sites. Geology can connect distant points, as can text, as can memory. The text is structured with sections titled ‘Fossil’ — for reflection, diary entries: a stream of slowed time during the pandemic; and ‘Volcano’— field-notes and recollections from visiting volcanoes. This is a sort of travel writing, for those with a specific bent for live volcanoes and places where geology makes itself most visible, speeds up its usual pace. The drama of the volcanic event moves our understanding of geologic time as something held in the imagination, to something happening, unfolding, now: in plain sight, in the timeframe and materiality of human experience. She sees the bodily in the volcanic, viscerally and vitally: ‘Each part of the flow was like an anatomy lesson, muscle opened, bone revealed, blood and tissue all there, like holding a heart in your hand.’
Through Halperin’s account we encounter, among others, Eldfell in Iceland — the volcano she shares a birthday with — Kīlauea in Hawaii; Sakurajima and Aso-San, Kyushu, Japan — the largest active caldera, the vast depression formed when the volcano erupted and collapsed — the Natural History Museum in New York, always returning to Scotland where she lives:
'All the places I have gone to meet volcanoes, to understand what it means to be human and rock and both at the same time.'
My hometown is Edinburgh, a city built on extinct volcanoes and their cast out plugs: nothing in Scotland erupts. As Halperin notes: ‘Island chains erupt, only in silhouette, out of the water. You have to be told Arthur’s Seat is a volcano, the Royal Mile a slick lava flow between the castle and another crater.’ On April Fool’s Day, Ayrshire Archives tweeted that they were looking for photographs of ‘Ailsa Craig’s 1956 eruption’ — a plug of dense granite leftover from another long-extinct volcano, sat in the Firth of Clyde. The joke hit me as an exercise in deep-time imagination: superimpose something of the vision of Iceland onto Scotland, and picture this land in flow, as new.
In their essay Notes on Lava, Humors and Stones within Physical Geology…(2010) Andrew Patrizio and Sara Barnes write: ‘Halperin is less drawn to the image of the volcano as a symbolic device and rather more to the material through which volcanoes are bodied forth into the world and into our cultural imagination’. Indeed she says herself in Fossil: ‘I’ve always thought and felt that in death and raw catastrophe there is no place for metaphor.’
Referring both to the destruction caused by eruptions and by the COVID-19 pandemic (as it has played out in the UK), Halperin focuses on lived experiences and testimonies of material conditions; to pay attention to the processes at play. This is not to abandon metaphor, but to approach it as slippery territory. A key question in Fossil is how to engage with a material body at a distance, be that a loved person, place: perhaps equally strong is a question of how to distance oneself from tropes, pressures, fears and tendencies that one hopes to reject.
Cultural imagination is written into as personal experience meets it. When I was 12 we went to Pompei and Vesuvius: lots of buses, people, dust, heat, and morbidity. Otherwise, I have been a vicarious ‘volcano lover’. I started reading Fossil while Etna had been erupting for days: I flooded my screen with images of the volcano from news reports, from the privilege of safety. I thought about Fossil while Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall eruption became a bigger story and tourists flocked, and the screen instead filled with the live-stream of the site***, or game-like flyover drone footage following the lava flow to its source. Being pretty ‘untravelled’ (particularly now), art — like Halperin’s — and film have always been key to my sense of place making and volcano dreaming. The cultural imagination built from media, books, film, lore. From the grave: Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover (1992), seeing Vesuvius through her lens: fictionalising history and constructing a visualisation of the volcano from the 1990s. Or Shusaku Endo’s Volcano (also 1992). Or a romp: Dante’s Peak with Pierce Brosnan (1997). That episode of The X-Files where there’s something alive in the volcano (1994).
What happens when we know phenomena, or a site, through such protracted means? There’s that famous line in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981), about only being able to know and imagine a place (here, Glasgow in the 1980s) when there is writing or art that represents it, that comes from it:
'Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.'
Glasgow, a place at Fossil’s heart, is now particularly littered with ‘trace-fossils’ of contemporary art****. An example: Fossil Grove in Victoria Park in Glasgow, stumbling across it in 2018, falling for it, dreaming of a performance there, and later finding Ilana Halperin had already done it, fantastically. I was just out of time, I had missed the particular moment in time between the death of the trees which had left behind petrified stumps and the spoken-word and saxophone performance Felt Events at Glasgow International 2016.
I did make it to see Halperin perform Minerals of New York, for Fed From The Fiery Springs at Glasgow Film Theatre programmed by Graham Domke (2018). This work was later adapted as a voiceover with slideshow as part of Halperin’s solo-exhibition at the Hunterian in 2019, and part of the text evolved again to live in Fossil. Her work again deftly finding affective space in both live and recorded work, and resurfacing as printed text. Minerals of New York traces the emotional space of living among geology and family histories — cities being particularly fast shifting terrain: shop signs are covered up, layers of asphalt built up quickly, as is the turn over in apartment blocks, but in this continual turning and tilling of the ground surprising gems like the Subway Garnet turn up now and then, or remains in Halperin’s memory and her text, and the photography by her mother used in the GFT performance.
At the event at GFT several places Halperin recounts in Fossil were shown through the other artist’s work. Joan Jonas’s Volcano Saga shot in Iceland showed the landscape as a folkloric dreamscape of imagination and desire. A play on a ‘Spaghetti Western’, Trisha Baga and Jessie Stead’s Stromboli, played out where Ingrid Bergman shouted ‘Oh God, oh God’ in the eponymous film by Rossellini — erotics and religion smoldering away — and where Halperin struggled to the top of the volcano and wrote: ‘It is not something I should be allowed to see – the bowels of the earth.’. The image of the volcano is often itself used to indicate something ‘raw’, or horrific, like an exposed wound. Lava, something unleashed, destructive and powerful — unfettered and unfettering. The volcano crater perhaps as an open sore: a crusting surface of coherence that threatens to break.
Halperin recalls: ‘A volcanologist said to me, a volcano buries itself. It perpetually erases its own history.’.
Here, in Fossil, with its fragmented and cross-linear structure — moving the reader back and forth in memory and location between field-visits, while diary entries of lockdown continue and the condition of Halperin’s mother deteriorates — it is tempting to see the encounters with volcanoes themselves coming as moments of drama or release from a claustrophobic emotional landscape. Although, rather than a sense of the volcanic ‘erasing’ a narrative as it is lived, the artist writes and rewrites a version of their personal geologic life and history in a way that seems to act to process that history: allowing work to evolve and cross forms, re-membering and re-writing appear as processes of eruption, intrusion, sedimentation and erosion.
Halperin’s writing reiterates, especially this year, that grief can’t be reserved for known lives lost, but is felt also for those never born or fully understood. Measuring your life in terms of a volcano that is the same age, and building a geological sense of family while being able to have children, are ways of seeing the geological world in human terms and human time scales, and liberating both from the boundaries we tend to set them within. Her questioning of how we situate sorrow and joy in places around us or that we seek out, is attached to the concern of what family we can seek, human and inhuman, and what we do when they cannot be summoned, or we cannot be summoned to them. Her work is also a hopeful expression of the desire for, and pursuit of, new ways of generating affiliation and new intimacies:
'I had been 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 teeth and bones, to more immediate alternative families based not only on blood but on how we choose each other, how we love each other, who and how we support one another. Conglomerates held together by feeling. And now, in some ways, we are part of an international conglomerate, intrinsically bound together by the virus. Invisible glue, holding everyone together in a shared catastrophe.'
I look forward to seeing the images and being near the materials of Ilana Halperin’s work that Fossil teases us with: an exhibition at Mount Stuart on Bute, and a book titled Felt Events. ‘Til then, resigned to Glasgow in body, I’ll be rereading and dreaming of these volcanoes: dead or alive, written or felt.
*This feeling is wonderfully realised in Halperin’s website http://www.ilanahalperin.com/new/map.html
** There is a volcano behind my house is also the title of her upcoming exhibition at Mount Stuart.
***There are a few live streams you can watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-RhgB1INII&ab_channel=R%C3%9AV or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-RhgB1INII&ab_channel=R%C3%9AV
**** I keep a vague list in my head of places I have been that I’ve subsequently found out were sites or locations for artworks. Their intrusion always jolts me. Makes me feel claustrophobic, or at other times, happy in the knowledge that someone else has spent time in these particular places and histories, that someone has seen something in them to represent or transform. One time I went for a walk from Cardross to Balloch, and looked at a map of the path I was taking: Stoneymollan Trail. It took me just a beat to realise this is a title of a work Charlotte Prodger: not one I’ve had the chance to see but it’s a well known work, and a coffin road: a rural path catapulted into art-place-memory.
More info on Fossil:
Lost Rocks (2017–21) is a conceptual artwork by A Published Event in collaboration with 43 collaborating artists from Australia, UK, Europe, Canada, India and the United States.
A five-year slow-publishing library of absent geologies, Lost Rocks (2017–21) invents a unique taxonomy of mineralogical, metaphysical and metallurgical telling through 41 paperback ‘fictiōnellas’.
At the conceptual heart of this ambitious project sits a discarded Tasmanian geological specimen board, 41 of its 56 rocks are missing. This project seeks to replace the missing rocks, not with geological specimens, but ‘fictiōnellas’ — processual ‘telling events’.
Each Lost Rocks (2017–21) fictiōnella is published in a limited edition of 300 – an alchemical network of artists, readers and lovers of absence re-composed.
Listen to artists Ilana Halperin and Justy Phillips talk about grief and other felt things through Ilana’s fictiōnella, Fossil (2021). :
Learn more about Lost Rocks and buy your copy of Fossil here:
Text: Alison Scott