Notes towards Menacing Beauty
Sue Morris 2015
Menacing Beauty, is a series of prints, drawings and objects in response to my research on Gunnera tinctoria a plant native to South America thathas spread across parts of the world. Most notably, it is endemic on Achill Island in county Mayo, Ireland and parts of New Zealand. The plant’s spectacular scale and architectural presence is quite beautiful - but it is also a menace, colonizing ground and crowding out native species.
My research led to further exploration and questioning of the nature of displacement and migration; and of classifications and usage of language. An article on Gunnera by the Heritage Council, Ireland, describes the plant as an ‘invasive alien’ while public body, Invasive Species Ireland, calls for ‘eradication (and) enforcement of…legislative powers’.
These ponderings come in the backdrop of daily news reports of hundreds and thousands of men, women and children attempting to cross into the European Union – asylum seekers fleeing persecution and war; and economic migrants hoping for a better life. These dis-located people are defined alternately as a ‘border protection situation’ or a ‘humanitarian crisis’, depending on country/government/political disposition. Elsewhere, borders are also being contested among the countries of the former Soviet Union, with mounting tensions on the borders of Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic States and the involvement/interference (?) of the EU and NATO. In Israel, a huge, concrete wall, erected for the protection of one people, has cut off another people from family and land.
I am currently artist-in-residence at Heinrich Boll Cottage, Achill Island, which was the former home of the German Nobel prize winning writer. The cottage is now a retreat for writers and artists, run by the Heinrich Boll Association, and contains a fascinating library where, by chance, I came across a collection of poems by renowned Estonian poet and linguist, Jaan Kaplinski. One of the works in that collection, the prose-poem, ‘Ice and Heather: Notes of a migrant’ seemed to chime with my on-going project, Menacing Beauty.
In the poem,Kaplinski explores notions of identity and the idea of ‘home’ by making connections with the study of plants, trees and geology. Glacial activity across millennia has resulted in the geographical movement and relocation of rocks across continents, a formation that is dramatically evident on Achill Island with its mountains, cliffs and lakes. For me, the poem seems to connect with the ecological changes that are affecting our planet: climate change, as caused by human intervention/exploitation, has had a visible impact on botanical/arboreal landscapes right across the planet. From lichens to trees – plant species are transgressing international borders, sometimes with potentially harmful ecological impact. Other species are lost altogether. Parallels can be made with the physical and cultural survival of indigenous people from rainforests to tundra as they experience the affects of environmental and social change; of alien patterns of consumption; of loss, interference, or invasion of their homelands.
I have two sons of Anglo/Asian parentage – born and raised in Southern Ireland. In turn, their paternal grandparents migrated form India to Britain via expulsion from Kenya. I was born and raised in Britain and lived in Southern Ireland for twenty-three years, by chance rather than design. I am, what is known as ‘a blow in’, a euphemism for outsider. I recently relocated a hundred miles north to Derry city, or ‘Derry-Londonderry’ as it’s officially known these days. The city’s name has long been contested, depending on which side of the sectarian divide one stands. Owing to the anomaly that is the island of Ireland, I now find myself back in the UK.
Conversation between strangers as overheard in the bar of the Strand Hotel, Dugort, Achill:
Woman: Do you see that giant rhubarb stuff? I hear it’s poisonous.
Man: No, it’s not poisonous.
Woman: I don’t see any of the sheep eating it…. It’s rather beautiful though.
Man: Not when you see a whole field of it.
End of conversation.
I look out at the landscape surrounding Heinrich Boll cottage and see a vast expanse of mauve-pink rhododendrons, red-purple fuchsias, white lilies, yellow flag irises and green swathes of gunnera. Beauty or menace?.