Critique | Conor McFeely ‘Mariner’

St Augustine’s Old Graveyard, Derry; Permanent light installation

Conor McFeely, ‘Mariner’, 2021, installation view. Art Arcadia at St Augustine’s Heritage Site, all photographs by Paola Bernardelli, courtesy of Art Arcadia. Conor McFeely, ‘Mariner’, 2021, installation view. Art Arcadia at St Augustine’s Heritage Site, all photographs by Paola Bernardelli, courtesy of Art Arcadia.

Conor McFeely’s ‘Mariner’ is a permanent light installation in the old graveyard of Derry’s historic St Augustine’s church. The public artwork was commissioned by Art Arcadia, an artist-run residency organisation providing local and international artist residencies, whose premises are situated within St Augustine’s Heritage Site.¹ 

Thirteen cylindrical white LEDs tubes are installed throughout the grounds, among the tombstones. They are programmed to sequentially fade from sunset to midnight, as a light seeming to travel on an oblique course to dispersed coordinates. The title, ‘Mariner’, refers to NASA’s Mariner programme, a series of robotic interplanetary probes sent to explore and orbit nearby planets between 1962 to 1973, named as such to evoke the spirit of nautical exploration of the unknown.

The LED tubes are installed on the ground parallel to various gravestones, in reference to the “sculptural presence and history” of the monuments. A viewer primarily sees the work from outside the graveyard, from Derry’s city walls, through a black iron fence, its visual lattice segmenting the work. The lights of ‘Mariner’ are barely visible during daylight hours, then grow in dominance as night falls, the inky darkness punctuated by warmly lit geometric edges. The lights reflect and distort upon stone surfaces, highlighting a stark difference between the grand, ornate monuments of polished stone, and the weatherworn, craggy faces of humbler graves, provoking reflection not just on the diversity of life that has ended here, but on the way social positions are delineated even in death.

‘Mariner’ was originally installed in September 2021 and has since become part of a series with the more recent ‘Mariner II’, a development on the earlier installation. The notion of ‘Mariner’ as an older work that has been superseded – chronologically or artistically – by developments in the artist’s practice, brings to mind the recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope, the expressed purpose of which is to retrospectively observe the history of the universe through the medium of light. 

Space telescopes work not by viewing distance on our planetary scale, but rather by observing the spectrums of light emitted and occluded by distant objects in the universe. Distant light emissions must travel vast interstellar space to be observable by us, meaning the JWST isn’t observing light being emitted in real time, but rather light emitted eons ago, that is only now reaching us. The light of ‘Mariner’, travelling among the tombstones, can be seen to reference time, or rather an idea of time as an observable object.

This intentionality, this adherence to the physical logic of the space, promotes an awareness of connections both literal and symbolic, and invites viewers to look at the possible connections between the graveyard and the wider city. The location of ‘Mariner’ is a nexus of local and national history. Fronting onto Derry’s city walls, St Augustine’s Church stands on the site of Colmcille’s (Saint Columba’s) first known monastery in Ireland; the site is overlooked by the Apprentice Boys of Derry Memorial Hall, and directly opposite the now-empty plinth of the Governor Walker statue, destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1973. The itinerant lights moving around the space symbolically align with the nodal points of history found in all directions.

From where I’m standing, one light is aligned to a tall stone at the southwesterly edge of the site. If I look beyond, about one-hundred yards or so up the city walls, I can see a ghost rising from the corner battlement; a towering apparition of khaki-green rectangles, bolted horizontally around a pillar. It’s a British Army watchtower, dismantled in 2005. Today there are heritage signposts, groups on walking tours, and antique cannons poking through the embrasures, with people draped over the gun-barrels taking selfies – but I can still see it there. The theory of time as a physical presence – of light on a journey – prompts me to reconsider the nature of this memory I have. It’s as though the light that bounced from the watchtower into my eyes is still on a journey, creating a mental topography personal to me, overlaid onto that shared with everyone else.

Kevin Burns is an artist and writer based in Derry.

Notes:

¹ Conor McFeely will undertake a residency at Art Arcadia in July. His exhibition will open at St Augustine’s Old Schoolhouse on 29 July (continuing from 2 to 6 August).