Published  05/03/2015

Ilana Halperin: ‘Drawing is a trace fossil of a moment, an idea, proof of life’

Ilana Halperin: ‘Drawing is a trace fossil of a moment, an idea, proof of life’

The artist, whose work is bound up with geological phenomena, explains the excitement of holding a meteorite older than the Earth, her obsession with the Eldfell volcano, and why gallstones are important to her art


Janet McKenzie: Your work operates at the interface of scientific research, cultural history and art practice, focusing on geological activity and phenomena in relation to notions of time. You have worked in Hawaii, Iceland, France and China – all a long way from your education at New York’s “Fame” (High School of the Arts). You did not study science subjects, yet have since worked with eminent scientists and organisations, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, the British Geological Survey and Earthwatch. What do volcanoes, meteorites and rocks tell us about human existence?

Ilana Halperin: That we are part of a very, very long, deep-time story. As human animals, we are an integrated part of geological time. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to hold the Allende meteorite, [one of] the oldest known object[s] in the solar system [] – older than the Earth itself – in my hands. It was a startling moment, to make physical contact with something that predates the ground you stand on.

JMcK: What did your piece: Towards Heilprin Land explore?

IH: In 2005, while undertaking an art/science research residency with the Camden Arts Centre in London, I came across a spectacular photograph of a volcanic eruption, taken in 1902 by a man named Angelo Heilprin. He was a diaspora Jew who crossed the ocean from eastern Europe, ended up in Philadelphia, and went on to become an incredible early volcanologist and photographer. He was also an inventor, a painter and a good friend – as was evidenced by his attempt to rescue [the American explorer] Robert Peary from a failed fieldwork mission to Greenland. Ultimately, Peary named a part of north-east Greenland Heilprin Land, as a tribute to their friendship. As my last name is Halperin, a variation of Heilprin, which transformed en route through Ellis Island, I became fascinated by the idea that this possible relation, Angelo Heilprin, and I had so many things in common – art and a passion for volcanoes. In Towards Heilprin Land, I explored this connection through developing strands of the project in fire and ice. I spent time with active volcanologists at the Global Volcanism Program, and found my way to north-east Greenland. Through this, volcanic stories from the Smithsonian collided with polar encounters from a fragile landmass in the north. The nature of love was explained by a geoscientist; volcanologists talked about their long-term relationships with volcanoes from around the world, and an eco-expedition aboard a ship to north-east Greenland was described through a series of drawings, photographs, videos and text.

JMcK: Your exhibition Steine (2012), at the Berlin Museum of Medical History, showed drawings, sculptures and prints (etchings) that allude to the revelations of geological markers of time. What is the significance in your art practice of treating stones found in the body as a new landmass?

IH: The independent curator Sara Barnes approached me and said: “I have been thinking about your work lately [and] I came across something I think you might be very interested in – it’s a collection of body stones.” She explained that body stones were gallstones, kidney stones – they are all geological. Out of this conversation grew a totally unexpected line of enquiry within my work, the idea that we, as humans, are also geological agents – we form geology. We are like volcanoes, producing new landmass on a micro scale. The boundary between the biological and geological can begin to blur. Over the course of two years, I developed a large-scale project comprised of sister exhibitions curated by Andrew Patrizio and Barnes, called Steine and Hand Held Lava at the Berlin Medical History Museum and the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Steine focused on body stones and their relationship to a new landmass of a cultural and geological nature. The exhibitions combined an in-depth collection of newly commissioned work shown alongside historical geological artefacts – including body stones, ancient meteorites and lava bombs on loan from historical medical and geological collections in Germany and Scotland. Body stones (though they can be painful) are quite amazing, in that, in the body, each stone is a biological entity, but once out of the body it belongs to the realm of geology. A body stone can be considered as a new territory, a miniature planet travelling through an interior universe. New landmass. We should name stones as we name stars, each one in memory of someone close.

JMcK: Can you explain how the actual process of drawing (and printmaking, as an extension of that process) enables you to find an artistic, poetic interpretation of time, an area hitherto the preserve of science?

IH: I spoke with a paleontologist who told me a fossil is the presentation of the moment of death. However, trace fossils record an action – eating or walking – but not the organism itself. Air bubbles imprint someone breathing 300m years ago on to the surface of what will become sandstone. Movement through mud after an ancient tropical storm reveals a moment of contact unearthed, a winding line now in stone. Drawing is a trace fossil of a moment, an idea, proof of life. We make contact. Movement through space and time, layers of thought (material) accumulate. Drawing is like a stratum of activity – layers are laid down one upon another. It allows a process to develop through time. Every object (drawing) is a record (trace fossil) of its own formation. For me, drawing and printmaking – especially in relation to etching – is a physical and narrative process that allows me to make poetic links across time and space.

JMcK: How did you create Physical Geology (cave cast/slow time), 2008-9, and Geothermally Occurring Sculptures (cultural landmass), 2011?

IH: Over the past few years, my interest in articulating our relationship to the geological world has manifested through Physical Geology, a project that explores our desire to make corporeal contact with geological phenomena. I have been amassing a new sculptural geology collection, through making work that employs naturally occurring geological processes to form each object. Physical Geology (cave cast/slow time) and Geothermally Occurring Sculptures (cultural landmass)are part of this project.

The sculptural works Physical Geology (cave cast/slow time) developed through a very specific process. While conducting research at Manchester Museum, I came across a small stone relief sculpture in the “oddities drawer” of the geology department that appeared to be carved out of pure white alabaster. It was not. In a small thermal town in the mountains of the Auvergne in France, seven generations ago, Eric Papon’s family founded the Fontaines Pétrifiantes de Saint Nectaire to create cave casts – limestone sculptures made via the same process that forms stalactites in a cave. In a normal limestone cave, it takes 100 years for a stalactite to grow one centimetre; in the Fontaines Pétrifiantes one centimetre grows in a year. Through an elaborate process, carbonate waterfalls are directed over 25 metre-high “casting ladders” located inside a volcanic mountain. Papon places objects on the rungs of each ladder. Quickly, the objects become covered in a new layer of calcium carbonate – limestone. Bones and coral are material cousins, also composed of calcium carbonate.

In revisiting historical geological art processes such as cave casting, I began to develop ideas for “physical geological artworks”, art objects formed within a geological, or deep-time context. In 2008, Papon and I began to work together in the caves. To date, I have made a new series of cave casts that formed over the course of 10 months in the calcifying springs of the Fontaines Pétrifiantes. The last casts were cracked open to coincide with my 36th birthday in September 2009. Ancient and technologically advanced modes of production were employed to arrive at these unique objects of pure geology, including traditional copper-plate etching, collage, virtual modelling and rapid prototyping and limestone encrustation.

I will describe the process of how Geothermally Occurring Sculptures (cultural landmass) were made. I had a memory of seeing a cross-section of an old pipe in the geology collection of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. It’s about a foot wide, though you can hardly see through it, as a thick geothermal mineral deposit formed inside, like the start of a clogged geological artery. Building on earlier investigations into the formation of culturally occurring landmass, I began working with the Blue Lagoon in Iceland to generate a new series of geothermally occurring sculptures. They formed over two and a half weeks in the run-off pool from the geothermal power plant that feeds the Blue Lagoon. A series of drawings became a series of laser-cut wooden stencils made at the Dundee Contemporary Arts Print Studio. These stencils were submerged into an 80C geothermal pool, where they were left to rapidly encrust in pure new silica mineral deposits over the period of formation, bringing fabrication of these new works from hand-drawn/analogue to digital and, finally, to a remote past through naturally occurring geological processes. I made a Super 8 film documenting the formation of the works. Then, I returned to the Print Studio, cut a similar set of stencils to those used in the Blue Lagoon sculptures, and used them to make a series of large-scale woodblock prints editioned on a traditional press. The sculptures, film and woodblock prints were shown together.

JMcK: Do you conceive these works as a form of alchemy?

IH: If it is a form of alchemy, I think it is deep-time alchemy. For example, the newly formed limestone that each cave cast is composed of, first began as some kind of life form millions of years ago – whether coral, fish or bones from an animal, so this process of deep-time transformation is the true alchemy. Saying that, what I am amazed by with these processes (creating cultural landmass in the form of geologically occurring artworks) is that each process takes place in a very daily way. They are everyday processes that we usually do not have access to as, generally speaking, geology takes place very slowly. But these remarkable sites let us see within a human sense of time, what generally happens over millennia or longer …

JMcK: How have birthdates in relation to geological timescale enabled you to comment on the creative act and culture?

IH: I have an ongoing obsession with the Eldfell volcano on the Icelandic island of Heimaey. To explain, I celebrated my 30th birthday with a volcano born the same year. In September 2003, I turned 30. The World Trade Center had come down only two years before, my father was sick but still alive, and I visited the Eldfell volcano, which had appeared in 1973 on the Icelandic island of Heimaey, for the first time. Eldfell and I were born at almost exactly the same moment geologically and practically speaking. It is not so often that you and a landmass share the same age and, therefore, I could think of no better place to be at that exact moment, at that exact time.

In September 2013, I turned 40. To prepare for this event, I returned to Eldfell for the first time since 2003. Eldfell was an unexpected volcano. When it appeared at 2am on 23 January, news quickly spread. In one of the last interviews [the American land artist] Robert Smithson gave before his untimely death in 1973, he spoke about his work The Partially Buried Woodshed in relation to the eruption on Heimaey. During the course of the eruption, 400 houses were buried by ash, some gone for ever, some dug out after it was safe to return to the island. Smithson had chosen images of the sunken town to accompany his interview, which, in the event, was published posthumously. Robert Smithson died at the age of 35, prior to the date I was born. He was from the other side of the Hudson and really, in geological time, we should have met. In daily time, it wasn’t possible. I heard they were carrying out a contemporary archaeology project on Heimaey called The Pompeii of the North, excavating a street of houses buried during the eruption. So, two summers ago, I went back to the island. Standing on the volcano, I thought about how Eldfell and I were almost 40. I wondered about returning to Eldfell when we both turned 50, 60 … on. How, while we both share our lifetimes now, that would only continue for a certain amount of time, and then Eldfell would go from a human timescale, 30 years old, 40 years old, to a geological timescale – 150, 1,000, 800 million years old. If all goes well, I look forward to seeing Eldfell again in 2023.

JMcK: How did you conceive Hand Held Lava (2010)?

IH: Hand Held Lava was a collaborative performative lecture with writer/curator Andrew Patrizio and the New York-based volcanic archaeologist Karen Holmberg that focused on volcanic phenomena and the interplay of life cycles between humans and volcanoes. Holmberg invited me to give a presentation at Brown University at an amazing symposium she put together entitled Terra Mobilis: Fire and Ice. I invited Patrizio to be my “respondent”. Following the symposium, we all spoke about the possibility of developing a creative work together, and the idea for Hand Held Lava emerged. We received a commission from Triple Canopy in Brooklyn to develop the piece, and got to work. The piece was an hour long, and combined a video projection with live readings. Within this collaborative performative lecture, as a “field team”, we presented our geological notes from volcanic sites across the world, including Hawaii, Vesuvius, Iceland and elsewhere. Through exploring links between geology, archaeology, history and art, we attempted to make sense of our ongoing desire to make contact with volcanoes. We premiered the piece on 8 October 2010 at Triple Canopy, and to date have toured it to Turner Contemporary, Cell Project Space, Schering Stiftung, Atlas Arts on the Isle of Skye and the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow.

JMcK: The choice of a range of media seems to contribute to the dynamism in your practice. How do film, drawing and printmaking interact within your oeuvre? What do you perceive are the strengths of each medium?

IH: I slip between media, as the work requires. Drawing merges with stencil fabrication, printmaking with sculpture, text with casting, film with performance, art with geological processes. Every medium poses a slightly different possibility in relation to the exploration of an idea. I imagine each project as a narrative with multiple entry points, where the specific qualities of each medium allow for a new route into that story. In thinking about the ongoing Physical Geology project, as each sculpture is formed over time, it feels a very natural progression to extend how we can perceive that process of formation through moving image. On the other hand, as the story of formation is so intrinsic to these objects – they look like “normal” sculptures made of stone, but have formed in entirely unexpected ways – I use drawing and text-based narratives to tease out how we can understand what these objects actually are. I tend to approach each new project in a similar way, discerning what medium I would like to use on the basis of what I am trying to articulate.

JMcK: What are you working on at present?

IH: Well, the constellation of culturally occurring landmass in Physical Geology continues to grow. At the moment, a geothermal sculpture is forming, suspended on a bamboo structure in Beppu, Japan. Soon, it will be accompanied by a series of ceramic works, which will also form new mineral deposits. I am very excited about this, as I have been obsessed for the past 20 years by a deep, red geothermal pool in Beppu, called Blood Pond Hell.

Several geologically occurring artworks will soon be shown in Cristallisations – la naissance d’un ordre caché, an upcoming exhibition at La Grande Place, Musée du Cristal Saint-Louis, supported by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, and curated by the Centre Pompidou-Metz.

A large installation of my sculptural work will also feature in a new exhibition entitled Forces Behind Forms, touring to Galerie im Taxispalais, Austria; Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Haus Esters and Haus Lange, Germany, and Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland in 2015-16.

In the meantime, I am embarking on a new commission with Pavilion in Leeds. As this is hot off the press, I can confirm that opal snails and rock climbing will form part of the story. 

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