Critique | Fiona Kelly, ‘A Demarcation of Time’

RHA Ashford Gallery; 12 January – 28 February 2023

Fiona Kelly, Ceaselessly Shifting, 2023, bitumen screen print on birch ply, 77.7 x 77.7 x 3.5 cm, Edition 1/3; photograph by Kate-Bowe O’Brien, courtesy of the artist. Fiona Kelly, Ceaselessly Shifting, 2023, bitumen screen print on birch ply, 77.7 x 77.7 x 3.5 cm, Edition 1/3; photograph by Kate-Bowe O’Brien, courtesy of the artist.

In the mid-1800s, the newly formulated second law of thermodynamics undermined a long-held notion that the universe is eternal by predicting that its lifespan would end in a ‘heat death’. Written about in newspapers, this harbinger of cosmic doom captured the popular imagination, while introducing the notion of ‘entropy’ as a measure of disorder in an isolated system. The universe at maximum entropy, with all of its energy dissipated through doing work, would reach a homogenous state.¹ There could be no order, since nothing would remain to be understood in relation to anything else. It would be a cold, dark, meaningless place.

This brought new insight to familiar scenarios, including why, over varying timescales, things degenerate, homes become untidy, people age and die. A hundred years later, re-assigning ‘entropy’ to associate with ‘noise’ and ‘information’ seemed to circumvent the gloomy prognosis – until it was realised that dissipation would result from the work required to dispose of newspapers, and the stuff of information generally, since it doesn’t disappear when no longer needed.

Coincidently reading about this later take on entropy proved a useful primer for a visit to ‘A Demarcation of Time’, with its evocations of ‘slowscapes’ and waste accumulations. Bearing titles such as Matter Out of Place, Kelly’s works variously shed light on the effects of over-production, reflect on how resources and waste are dealt with, and probe the forms materials can take as they persist over years, decades, millennia. Made using salvaged wood, bitumen and other discarded or reconstituted products, the exhibits mobilise different parts of the gallery through a choreography of leaning, resting and hanging. 

The artist’s reference point is the Split Hills Esker in County Westmeath. Eskers are narrow elevations that wind through flatlands, and the term is derived from the Irish eiscir, meaning ridge. Formed through processes involving glacial meltwater, they are comprised of strata holding deposits of sand and gravel. Despite fostering unique biodiversity as wildlife corridors and sites of native woodland, in the 170 years since the conception of the ‘second law’, they have been “widely extracted and dismantled” to supply aggregate to the construction industry.²

Kelly’s show mirrors the activities of a reprocessing plant, now located at the site’s disused quarry. This repurposes matter that would otherwise go to landfill, and the artist’s parallel reworking of form and function (exploring possibilities of change over time) permeates the exhibition. 

At its centre, the floor-based A Temporary Iteration, Stage 2 (2020-23) is a huddle of birch-ply polyhedrons, arranged as though deposited naturally. Referencing the calcite crystals found in eskers, they allude to the fallow land on the steep sides of these ancient landforms, which, as Kelly has remarked, is “demarcating a space for something beautiful to happen.”³ Bitumen-printed flora, secreted in ‘cracks’ between crystals, hint at new life springing from dormant potential. Also built-in, a tiny looped video pans over waste material embossed with honeycomb patterning, before ending with a sequence in which a bee lands on a scabiosa flower. Balancing resiliently as the plant pivots in the wind, its micro activity becomes emblematic of macro precarity.

Nearby, a copper etching and aquatint from 2022 shares the exhibition’s title while demarcating time through the multi-phase process of printing. Suspended on a white ground, Kelly’s fine-line mark-making and monochrome tonal patches manifest that most entropic of residues and familiar memento mori – a bag of dust. There’s no Such Thing as Away #2 (2023) is one of three layered compositions made from substances that are discarded but not gone. Its shadowy cinders, displayed in a bell jar, look organic but are revealed as plastic in the materials list. Two other iterations present a shard of glass as a flower-like thing of beauty and a fragment of brick as a worn-smooth pebble. 

‘Noise’ is introduced to the looking process by distortions in the glass jars and deliberate smudges in the bitumen-on-plywood piece Ceaselessly Shifting (2023). Here, this quality, along with the retained dot-matrix of the screen used in its making, recall the experience of reading newspapers, when ink invariably ends up on fingers. These details combine with the grain of the support to lend nuance and interest to its flat surface. At a time when the media is awash with stories about the future of the planet, Kelly’s measured approach to engaging with pressing issues resists being shouty. Instead, in her work, the excesses of our time are contrasted with the potency of pared-back means.

Susan Campbell is a visual arts writer, art historian and artist.

¹ The term ‘dissipation’ is used here to describe occasions in which energy is irreversibly wasted. Rather than being transferred to useful energy stores, it is lost to the surroundings. 

² Exhibition text (

³ A comment made by the artist during an online public conversation with Dr Robert Meehan on 10 August 2022, as part of her exhibition ‘A Temporary Iteration’, at SIRIUS.