Multifarious objects and marvellous minutiae fill the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen in memory of the Chernobyl disaster
Arriving at the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen on opening night of the current exhibition, I get the impression I am entering an apothecary or an alchemist’s lab. Artfully displayed on walls and plinths is a collection of flasks and jars and mixed media boxes containing multifarious objects and marvellous minutiae.
Yet the show has a Russian title, Babochka, meaning butterfly, and a Ukrainian theme. The three Belfast-based artists who created it are in attendance: Claire and Karen, the identical, flame-haired Gibson twins, who work in tandem as Red Earth Designs, and associate academician Zoë Murdoch, who is based at the Queen Street Studios.
In October 2013, when the trio made a trip to Kiev, they had no inkling of the unrest to come. From their base in a small hotel near Independence Square they travelled the 80 kilometres to Chernobyl where, on April 26, 1986, nuclear reactor no 4 exploded, spreading a lethal cocktail of radiation for miles around.
The poignant photographs they took depict the green and grisly remains of the nuclear plant and evoke the instant devastation in the ghost town that is Pripyat. (The inhabitants have since been relocated in the new town.)
Here an abandoned supermarket trolley, there an upturned car, a solitary armchair and a fairground Ferris wheel that circled for just one day before it was stilled for ever. Such images are reproduced as Decal transfers on many of the Gibsons’ ceramic pieces, including cameos and amulets and most touchingly on several sets of pure white porcelain Babushka nest dolls moulded from wooden originals.
Placed on two cabinets that once were table drawers, and displayed in a manner that reminds me of Edmund de Vaal’s recent White exhibition, are glazed pots embossed with the three-winged nuclear symbol and the name Chernobyl in black and yellow lettering.
Butterflies are a recurrent theme and a unifying emblem for the exhibition – the artist Eamon Colman, who visited Chernobyl in the late 1990s, describes how butterflies turned around at the point where they met with the radiation zone. The Gibsons have decorated their ceramics with butterflies; Murdoch has painted them in her series of 18 framed cartoons inspired by the Russian writer and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.
Using her signature collage technique, Murdoch also includes tiny photographic images and selected words from Nabokov’s text. The choice of those words would indicate that Murdoch’s personal view of the world is questioning and sceptical.
The three artists typically forage for found objects and use them to create original pieces. The model the Gibson twins use for their ceramic light bulbs came from The Maidens lighthouse at Islandmagee. In a Belfast salvage yard they discovered Belgian tiles taken from the roof of the Old Mill behind York Gate railway station, two of which hang in the exhibition framing pictures from Chernobyl.
Murdoch’s father, who served in the Merchant Navy, gave her a morse code box, which is filled with trinkets such as optical lenses, or shark’s teeth bought from the gift shop at Marble Arch Caves and words from a damaged copy of Chekhov’s My Life, purchased in New York for just 5 cents.
What impresses me most about this show is the way the artists come together to convey one strong story. Rarely have I seen a show so thoughtfully arranged, nor the Higher Bridges Gallery so convincingly transformed by a treasure trove of innovative art.
As I take my leave, I spy a most ominous object. It is a dark grey ceramic bomb fashioned like a doodlebug and redolent of danger. Foremost in my mind, however, is the essential role that art plays in healing our souls.
Babochka runs in the Higher Bridges Gallery, Ennsikillen, until April 12.