Growing warnings about our place on Earth

Biosystem III, by Méadhbh O’Connor, inset, at Sirius in Cobh.

Méadhbh O’Connor’s living sculptures bridge the gap between art and science, writes Ellie O’Byrne

GAIA is about to rid herself of her most irritating parasite: Human beings.

That’s been the message of controversial English scientist and futurist James Lovelock for the past 50 years, ever since he first put forward his Gaia hypothesis — that the planet Earth’s biosphere and geology form one living organism, named Gaia for the Greek earth goddess.

This organism regulates its own climactic needs, and by damaging it, humans are creating the conditions for ecological catastrophe and global warming.

It’s a theory that has been seized on by environmentalists, as well as countless new-age types, since its inception in the 1960s, but it’s also been heavily criticised by scientists including Richard Dawkins. But artist Méadhbh O’Connor, who’s been making mini-Gaias of her own, wants science to revisit the idea.

“This idea of the Earth as a single super-organism is a very different frame-work,” says O’Connor. “When we look at nature, we set frames around it and then decide if things fit our frame.

Lovelock chose this large-scale, global framework. Nowadays, with impending environmental questions with the potential to affect everyone equally, this value-system is a shift in thinking that could help us understand our place in nature better.”

O’Connor is one of several artists with an ecological slant to their work to take part in Sustainable Futures, Cobh’s Sirius Arts Centre’s new multi-part collaborative project which aims to open a dialogue around our environment and its sustainability.

Her contribution, Biosystems III, is sculptural: A series of suspended orbs she has constructed from living plant materials, including mosses and species of air plants, which gather their nutrients from the atmosphere.

“I place these living orbs in a constellation that suggests a cosmic quality,” says O’Connor. “The

miraculousness that on this tiny speck in this huge space, life exists, and how unlikely that is.

“I’m interested in using biological materials as sculptural materials. I find it fascinating that these are living organisms with their own genetic profile, lifespan, changes of state; things I have limited control over, and that I don’t want complete control over.”

O’Connor, who was artist-in-residence at UCD College of Science last year, as well as being selected to

exhibit at the Antarctic Pavilion, which focused on issues related to climate change, at the 57th Venice Biennale, works at the intersection of arts and sciences.

Like many people on both sides of what was once a rigid disciplinary divide, she’s a firm believer in the abilities of both to work hand-in-hand when faced with large and pressing issues like environmental sustainability.

“Art and science are two sides of the same coin,” she says. “They’re both driven by curiosity. But the difference is that science will set up a framework and seek answers through experimentation, and I think art asks the same questions, but doesn’t necessarily seek answers directly.

“Art is really important in fostering these kinds of questions, and making people think, and giving people access to knowledge and instincts that they probably already have.”

Sustainable Futures is not only an exhibition, it’s a collaboration, and an engagement with local groups, including schoolchildren.

In a series of group workshops facilitated by local artists, YMCA Cobh and the Green-Schools committee from a local school will examine and respond to the ideas in the exhibition.

O’Connor is aware educating future generations of decision-makers and exposing them to natural environments at an early age can help form an outlook where respect for the environment is a priority, rather than an adjunct to our flawed and destructive fiscal economy.

The 33-year-old artist lives in Dublin, but says her own connection to nature was formed by childhood summers in Luggala, Co Wicklow, where her extended family shared an ancestral home.

“It’s a very beautiful and majestic setting, and I think I was really lucky to be exposed to that as a child,” she says.

“I identify that as the thing that formed this value system in me. But perhaps the majority of the human population are now growing up in urban centres: Huge super- metropolises, where children have never been outside an artificial environment.

"That’s an eye-opener because exposure to these things as a young child is critical.”

The Sustainable Futures opening takes place at Sirius Arts Centre on Thursday with a panel discussion at 6pm. Exhibition and various events run until Sunday, April 1. siriusartscentre.ie

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