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Dorothy Cross and the art of dispossession

CIRCA 112 Article

Dorothy Cross: Virgin shroud , 1993, cow hide, satin train, steel structure; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

Four exhibitions of the work of Dorothy Cross in the spring and summer of 2005 provide the opportunity for an overview of the diverse career of this prominent international artist. A retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, a survey of site-specific projects at McMullen Museum in Boston, a show of new work entitled L'Air at Frith Street Gallery in London, and Cross's collaboration with Fiona Shaw on monte notte for the Cork 2005 culture festival - all illustrate the strength of her past work and her ongoing creative process. [1]

The dynamic evolution of her career over the past twenty years makes it difficult to categorize an artist like Cross. Simon Morley has described her as an "artist of the 'optical unconscious'" [2] who explores the blindspots that distort human perception. She has also been recognized as an artist of the "trace," who creates beauty out of memory and absence. [3] One might ultimately characterize Cross as an "artist of dispossession," because although the Dublin and Boston exhibitions serve a valuable archival function, Cross herself is more committed to dissemination than to preservation.

In her dedication to an artistic practice that is transformative, that "confirms uncertainty," [4] Cross has turned her attention to what is destabilizing in our common psychic experience - of repression, desire, and loss - and to what is disorienting in our encounters with the complexities of nature. Further exploration of these themes will reveal both their constancy and the richness of their variation in Cross's work.

Dorothy Cross: Amazon , 1992, cowhide and tailor’s dummy; collection of Avril Giaccobi; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

Cross first began to explore the return of the repressed in relation to gender and sexual identity, most notably in a series that came to be known as her 'udder' works. During the 1990s, Cross covered a variety of familiar objects with cowhide, udder and teats intact. Using sexual ambiguity as a deconstructive tool, she cleared a path within each gender stereotype for the return of the repressed other / udder.

In Virgin shroud (1993), for example, she draped a tall form in a cowskin, with four teats crowning the figure's covered 'head', and the artist's grandmother's silk wedding train extending onto the floor from beneath the hide. The refined wedding gown that seals the fate of the virgin bride is dominated here by the return of an animal body traditionally denied by that white silk purity. The feminine ideal represented by figures such as the Virgin Mary is superseded in Virgin shroud by the horns of the virgin goddess that restore to the figure a more aggressive and powerful aspect. In Amazon (1992) , a dressmaker's mannequin, another emblem of female domesticity, is metamorphosed into a warrior bearing on her chest a huge udder with a single erect teat. What emerges in these works is an image of primitive female fecundity, aggressive sexuality, and power.

It is important to note, however, that Cross used the transformative power of the udder to perform the same liberating, subversive work on stereotypes of masculinity: the workman's boots ( Spurs ), the gymnastic 'horse' ( Vaulting horse ), the dart board ( Bull's eye ), Rugby ball , and even Pap , a Guinness bottle fitted with a teat - all these accoutrements of masculinity are returned to a dependence on the nipple. Cross insinuates into each gendered image the potential otherness of the udder - which becomes phallic on the dressmaker's dummy, maternal on the Guinness bottle. It is not Cross's intention simply to reverse these stereotypes but to dismantle and confuse sexual dualism itself.

Dorothy Cross: Spurs , 1993, cow teats , string, boots; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

In her site-specific work, Cross often shifts her attention from individual psychology to collective memories buried in public sites. For the Edge Biennial (1992), held simultaneously in London and Madrid, Cross sought out in each city an architectural site where the culture's repressed fantasies lay buried. Pairing a nun's residence in Madrid and an abandoned men's public urinal in London, Cross brought together church and state, private and public, spiritual and corporeal, female and male. As she bridged the geographical and ideological distance separating these sites, the artist also discovered a breach deep within each one, where everything designated as 'other' had made its secret habitation.

La primera cena (1992), or The first supper , installed in a twelfth-century convent in Madrid, consisted of a table draped with cowskin, udders uppermost, and twelve silvered glass chalices arranged in a circle on the floor below, each with a small hole for sucking its contents. This humorous play on the Last Supper set the stage for the viewer's encounter with a pre-Christian fantasy of maternal sacrifice. In this melancholy crypt something cherished, but long lost, quietly came to light.

For the London installation, entitled Attendant (1992), viewers entered a male preserve where rigid definitions of masculinity and national identity were exposed. Signs at the entrance directed visitors not to "Gentlemen" or "Ladies" but to "English" or "Irish." Both choices led to the same lower region where Cross had installed a pair of bronze urinals in the shape of England and Ireland, each country's central bowl draining out through a penis-shaped pipe. Contrary to above-ground hostilities, the penises inclined toward each other and aimed at the same hole in the floor. In these and related works by Cross, the ideologies of church and nation are laid bare, revealing at their secret core the very elements they were constructed to exclude.

Dorothy Cross: Bull’s eye , 1992, dartboard, cow’s teat, 26 darts, 46 x 8.5 cm; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

The repressed always returns - not just in the form of buried histories but in resurgent desires as well. Cross often turns to nature for images that evoke the dynamic energy of the sexual drives, the vulnerability of love, and the impossible desire to immerse oneself in the other. The sculpture Passion bed (1991), for example, is a fragile and inaccessibly high woven wire construction within which glasses that have been sandblasted through with images of man-eating sharks are precariously arrayed - dysfunctional objects that remind us of the dangers of desire. These deadly sharks also appear in the site-specific installation Slippery slope (1990), where steel shark silhouettes were suspended by chains down the side of a spillway, straining to reach the river below. Here the sharks figure vulnerability and frustration more than danger. Attached to their source in a sewage outlet at the top of the two-hundred-foot gorge, the sharks will never reach their desire, and their bodies are gradually eroded by the contaminants that are endangering the natural terrain.

Dorothy Cross: Attendant, 1992, cast bronze, underground toilet, 46 x 25 x 20 cm; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

The impossibility of desire is given its most complex elaboration in a site-specific work entitled Chiasm (1999). This multi-media piece was performed in Galway, in a pair of abandoned open-air handball alleys onto which Cross projected mirror images of a limestone tidal pool, the Worm's Hole, filmed on the Aran Islands. This image of nature in embrace, water penetrating stone and stone containing water, suggests the potential transformative interaction of beings in desire, yet its power is constrained here within the man-made structure of the handball courts.

Dorothy Cross: Rugby ball, 1994, mixed media, 30 x 18 cm; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

On this transformed stage, a tenor and a soprano sang fragments from ten tragic romantic operas. The shifting juxtapositions of the collage text, the random blocking of the singers' movements, the open seating that offered viewers different points of view - all of these effects highlighted the role of misunderstanding and accident in the vicissitudes of love.

Dorothy Cross: Passion bed , 1993, steel wire, sandblasted wine glasses, 254 x 53 x 170 cm; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

When the voices of man and woman come together across different plots and languages, love seems to triumph. Yet the singers remain on opposite sides of the dividing wall, blind to each other despite the fact that they stand within the same projected landscape. Chiasm dramatizes the limitations of our ability to know and be known by the other. The natural cycle of the ebb and flow of water in the tidal pool is repeated in the inevitable alternations of love and loss.

Dorothy Cross: Chiasm , 1999, performance in handball alley; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

Cross's video Come into the garden Maude (2001) also brings together nature and the limitations of desire. This work draws on the documented and imagined life of Maude Delap, a late-nineteenth-century self-taught scientist who succeeded in breeding jellyfish in bell jars in her father's house. The story of her experimental and scholarly achievements, against all odds, is interwoven with fragments of the story of her unrequited love for an English zoologist to whom she sent wild violets on his birthday every year until his death. This chiasmic intertwining of science and passion, of knowledge and its limits, is also central to the related video Medusae (2003). Made in collaboration with her zoologist brother, this project documents the scientific illumination of the fascinating mechanics of how jellyfish swim, but never eradicates the persistent mystery of this almost bodiless creature. Desire and the desire for knowledge both encounter their limits.

Dorothy Cross: Medusae , 2003, DVD; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

That sense of limitation invariably brings desire face-to-face with absence and loss in Cross's work. Influenced early on by Beckett's unflinching view of the death we inherit at birth, Cross created a composite image of an X-ray of an adult human skull overlaid with an x-ray of a fetus curled up within the womb-like brain cavity. Death lurks in our brains and in the most banal activities of daily life - a shark fin cutting across the surface of a bathtub, a scene of imminent shipwreck projected into a fine china teacup. [5]

Dorothy Cross: Teacup , 1997, DVD; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

In her sited works, Cross turns from the individual's intimacy with death to explore the broader cultural means by which we try to evade its inevitability. In the Texas installation CRY (1996), Cross explored different attitudes toward death: a large freezer filled with frozen snakes alludes to a belief in the science and technology of CRY onics, and a nineteenth-century Irish apocalyptic painting, Francis Danby's The Opening of the Sixth Seal , printed onto sheer fabric and kept in motion by a pair of oscillating fans, depicts an immersion in narratives of salvation and damnation. All scientific and religious efforts to preserve life against mortality collapse, ultimately, into the six-foot vertical tomb dug by the artist into the gallery floor, concretizing what she describes as the "rot and reality" of death.

In what is probably Cross's best known work, Ghost ship (1999), the beauty of loss is stunningly realized. This project involved coating with phosphorescent paint a decommissioned lightship discovered by the artist in a Dublin dockyard. The ship was set afloat in Dublin Bay where every evening for three weeks it was alternately illuminated and left to glow and fade. Cross's goal was not to recreate the ship's outmoded function, but rather to illuminate its disappearance. Ghost ship offered viewers the gift of time slowed down for the contemplation of loss - an ongoing process with its own poignant beauty.

Dorothy Cross: Ghost ship , 1999, decommissioned lightship, paint, Dún Laoghaire harbour ; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

In her study of melancholia and art, Julia Kristeva proposes that "beauty emerges as the admirable face of loss, transforming it in order to make it live." [6] This seems a fitting description of much of Cross's work, including her staging of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in a cave on Valentia Island (August 2004) - an unforgettable spectacle in which mourning was transformed through art so that passion might be retrieved and shared.

Cross's video Jellyfish lake (2003) creates a very different representation of shared passion: a naked woman floats in turquoise waters of Palau with hundreds of jellyfish, her undulating hair in harmony with their pulsating bodies in an erotic underwater ballet. And most recently, in Antarctica (2005), a video premiered at the artist's Frith Street exhibition, several anonymous figures submerged in Antarctic waters dive amongst the icebergs. These images are projected in negative, a fantasy world of black ice illuminated from below and haunted by spectral divers in white.

Dorothy Cross: Untitled, 1995, black-and-white photograph, 81 x 61 cm; courtesy Kerlin Gallery

In the context of the religious austerity of CRY , the tropical paradise of Jellyfish lake , or Antarctica 's world of icy darkness, passion demands the same self-annihilation of the desiring subject. But that sacrifice is repaid, in Cross's work, by the promise of a temporary immersion in the fragile and awesome beauty of nature.

In her explorations of repression, desire, death, and nature, Cross's aesthetic practice of transformation and transmission remains enigmatic. Somehow her art makes the return of the repressed productive rather than merely repetitious, keeps faith with desire even in the face of desire's impossibility, and renders the wounds of loss bearable and communicable to others. No matter how conceptual her work becomes, Dorothy Cross never loses sight of the materiality of history, the complexities of nature, and the 'bursting into beauty' that can occur in the most unexpected places.

1 The Dublin and Boston exhibitions have each produced a substantial catalogue, richly illustrated and with extended critical commentary: Dorothy Cross (Milan: Irish Museum of Modern Art and Charta, 2005), including essays by Enrique Juncosa, Patrick Murphy, Ralph Rugoff, and Marina Warner; and GONE: Site-specific Works by Dorothy Cross , by Robin Lydenberg (Boston: McMullen Museum of Art and University of Chicago Press, 2005). Other catalogues with important critical essays on Cross's work include: Dorothy Cross: Ebb , edited by Patrick T. Murphy and Tom Weir (Dublin: Douglas Hyde Gallery, 1988); Dorothy Cross: Power House , edited by Melissa Feldman (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia, 1991); and even; recent work by Dorothy Cross , edited by Tessa Jackson and Josephine Lanyon (Bristol: Arnolfini, 1996).

2 See Simon Morley, Irish art international , Art Monthly UNo. 196 (May 1996), pp. 13 - 16. Morley borrows this concept from Rosalind Krauss's The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993).

3 See TRACE: 1st Liverpool Biennial of International Contemporary Art , curated by Anthony Bond (Liverpool: Liverpool Biennial of International Contemporary Art and Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 1999).

4 Cross quoted in Libby Anson, Cross talk , Art Monthly ( No. 203 (February 1997), pp. 20 - 21

5 The x-ray composite ( Untitled ) was part of a solo exhibition entitled Inheritance (1995); the shark in the tub is Bath (1988), and the video work is Teacup (1999).

6 See Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

Robin Lydenberg is Professor of English at Boston College; she is the author of GONE: Site-specific Works by Dorothy Cross (Boston: McMullen Museum and University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Article reproduced from CIRCA 112, Summer 2005, pp. 24 - 33


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