‘The earth is a work of art’
The Coronavirus has halted countless arts events nationwide, but a project by Mark St John Ellis has refused to yield. Rather than silencing Mark’s sound installation project in Cavan Cathedral, the pandemic has instead informed it, and mutated it.
Titled ‘The Empty Vessel’, the sound installation was due to form part of the Cavan Arts Festival programme due to happen in May, but when that was inevitably cancelled, Arts Officer Catriona O’Reilly suggested the work go online to be experienced by a greater audience but in a different format.
The first iteration of the project is a six minute film. It simply depicts an incense stick smouldering in a Japanese black lacquer bowl. The minimalist background is so black that it might meet Rothko’s approval. Occasionally the lens’ gaze cuts to smoke, wafting off, seemingly following its own will. The soundtrack is seemingly equally sparse, but is deceptively complex and rewards repeated listens. Sound bowls and a percussive bowl create sonic droplets with a drone in the background, and are joined by a loop of buddhist chants, sampled from a 1969 album. At times it’s shimmeringly beautiful, other times unsettling.
Visually the film stubbornly refuses to satisfy the viewers’ desire for a narrative shift; its only concession is short bursts of text. One of the opening lines reads: ‘A virus threatens the health, wealth and security of our lives’. However, the text that follows outlines how our future isn’t actually threatened, rather it may be enhanced by offering some respite for nature.
“The word threat is dramatic,” accepts Mark, “but it’s dramatic because it’s costing the state billions, it’s costing companies billions. So it threatens the stability of what we think of as our society. And of course the point that I really wanted to put over was the environmental issues. And that is - nature has an odd way, and has always done so throughout the history of the planet of suddenly coming up with a crisis, a disease, a natural disaster that seems to kind of balance things.
“In six months [of lockdown] we have satellite images that show the world to be at its healthiest since the ‘40s. We have emissions just completely decreased and the ozone layer healing itself, and just normal things that people have been photographing of dolphins swimming up the canals of Venice which has been unheard of in generations.”
In highlighting the positives, he acknowledges the real anguish caused by the Coronavirus to individuals who have lost their lives and bereaved families. He’s not hopeful that the whole world will make a lasting change to reduce their impact on the planet. When he notes “if even if just a third of society stopped and thought”, his London accent strains, so that his observation is almost pleading.
“I really don’t believe, and it’s already been demonstrated that the world is going to change. People suddenly think - it’s all over we don’t need to self isolate, people are beginning to go back out. I just hope that there’s a portion of society that takes it on - particularly those in power - it’s the governments that are really going to do this.”
He ends the film on “a poetic metaphor” of the tea ceremony.
“To most of us in the west, we just think it’s nice thing that the Japanese do, but its history is cultural, it’s ancient. It’s also incredibly disciplined, incredibly rigorous.”
The bowls used in the ceremony are “very beautiful in a very simple way”.
“In the west we think of bowls as being functional - you put something in them, you use them. But in the east it’s a functional object that, when it’s no longer functional ie, when it’s empty, an empty vessel, it’s a work of art. Therefore I was metaphorically saying we use the earth, we’ve abused the earth and actually the empty vessel, the earth is a work of art - is beauty in itself.”
At the risk of lurching towards the abyss, the Celt hesitantly asks: Is earth as an empty vessel, the absence of humanity?
“No, no, no,” he assures. “That crossed my mind too to be honest. Everything about it is meant to be positive. And the empty vessel is purely talking about the object as beauty - I mean it is a potential fact that the less human interference and therefore the less human beings there are the earth would rapidly heal itself, but then again something else would happen - something else would damage it.”
Mark is best known for his work as a curator for ‘nag’, a gallery he founded, and before that as curator and co–ordinator of the Royal Hibernian Academy Ashford Gallery in Dublin. However, he came to settle in Cavan back in 1993 through his collaborations with Dead Can Dance. He’s reluctant to embrace the title of musician.
“Years ago when I was recording a musician and producer very rudely, but very correctly said to me that I was a dreadful musician who had brilliant ideas, which I took as a compliment. I’m not a musician, I rely very much with working with Martin Quinn,” he says of the man behind JAM studios in Meath.
“I suppose the most comfortable description for the job interview is creative director,” he says, clarifying, “I’m an ideas person.”
Mark’s ideas have resolved into a circa 50 minutes soundtrack, which he intends to release as an album.
“For me it’s one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever created, but it’s also going to be one of the most challenging, because it starts of with this fours sounds and then this drone - they all come from bowls, the four sounds are three percussive bowls and the drone sound is a singing bowl. The album starts off with just that, really minimal and it gradually builds.”
His passion for the project is clear.
“What’s excited me about this is that for the first time possibly I have found a creative process, and a creative outlet to actually say something to a greater audience and not just the art audience. And as a curator I have been uncomfortable with the art world solely practicing within itself. I prefer to see it in a broader sense, but at the same time not dumbing down work. I really don’t feel comfortable with that either. So I don’t want to elevate something but I also don’t want to dumb it down - it’s just got to be a happy medium. And music I think is one of the most interesting ways of doing this.”
His desire to have the art experienced in a public setting sees Mark retain the hope that he can pursue the sound installation in Cavan Cathedral replacing the the Buddhist chants with Latin verse, provided by vocalist.
“Local people walk into this,” he says of his aspirations for this limb of the project, “and I didn’t want some ‘art event’ that they would go, oh I don’t understand this, this isn’t for me. I wanted them to come to church, to do their usual prayer or just sitting there quietly - their usual practice and think, oh this is nice - I like what’s going on here.
“It was not to be some art thing that was my trip to alienate. It was meant to be part of the cathedral and part of Christianity.”