Ecologies | The Bogs Are Breathing


Siobhán McDonald, PURIFY, 2023, digital photograph © and courtesy of the artist. Siobhán McDonald, PURIFY, 2023, digital photograph © and courtesy of the artist.

I first encountered Siobhán McDonald’s work in her solo exhibition, ‘Eye of the Storm’, at The Dock in 2012. That body of work explored the experience of time via glacial and environmental phenomena, most notably through the volcanic landscapes of Iceland. It considered the idea of measuring a journey to the centre of the earth via seismograms, created by Irish Jesuits in the early twentieth century. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Tim Robinson wrote: “As the world turns … The artist observes, records, relates. Since the Cosmos and all that’s in it were born of a singularity, all things are related. The task of the artist is to trace the lines of this universal cousinage.”1 

The following conversation took place on the occasion of McDonald’s latest exhibition, ‘The Bogs are Breathing’, currently showing at The Model in Sligo. Working alongside climate scientists and cultural institutions – such as the British Antarctic Survey, the European Commission, and Trinity College Dublin, McDonald utilises a range of materials (plants, bog water, bog dust, quartz, ancient ice water, volcanic ash) along with songs and stories associated with the intangible cultural heritage of Irish boglands. She examines our relationship to the earth, how it has formed us, and how we, in the age of the Anthropocene, are negatively delimiting its lifeforce and future. 

Nessa Cronin: Can you tell us a little about your own background and how you got started in this kind of practice?

Siobhán McDonald: As a child I spent a lot of time in nature. We lived near a forest in County Monaghan and a lot of my time was spent exploring, drawing, recording, and collecting. Now I find myself collecting and recording in wild landscapes, art studios, physics labs, museums, and archives. So, a lot of the time, my process is about finding something, leaving it, and coming back to it at a later date. My drawings and paintings have a similar flow; it’s like a stratum of activity – layers are laid down one upon another. This allows a process to develop over time.

NC: I’d like to explore more about your working routine. Where do your ideas initially come from and how  do you develop your projects? 

SMD: Making art, to me, is an evolving story – it is an everchanging, organic process that drives me to keep searching, drawing, and painting. Usually, my practice functions like a tremor rippling out quietly. In this way, the artworks usually emerge in a slow distillation over time. When I’m painting, I tend to work on several canvases or boards at the same time. This period is exciting and experimental where I use a range of materials to explore processes and reactions. After a time, I start to see connections and signs that drive the work forward. For instance, making the sound score for A world without ice (2022) evolved over two years to imagine new scenarios for landscape and, in particular, how our world will sound after the ice disappears. Lately, I’m searching for new ways of listening to nature and developing works and ideas using the senses, as well as mycorrhizae and other underground networks in the skin and soil of the earth. 

NC: Can you outline some new works that are in your exhibition? 

SMD: ‘The Bogs are Breathing’ at The Model brings together a selection of works spanning locations from the Arctic tundra to Irish boglands with new productions that aim to transform the gallery spaces into a sensory experience. I began by spending two years at international cultural institutions, including the Palais de Bozar in Brussels, and the EU Commission in Ispra in Northern Italy, to research the power of bogs to transform our air. In tandem back at home, I explored numerous bogs such as Bragan Mountain, where my grandfather and great grandfather cut turf to keep the cold out. I explored its ecosystem, history and mythologies to consider ideas around time and the preservation of collective memory in that thin layer between peat and plants, where some of the most important changes are taking place. 

The exhibition consists of sculptures, paintings, sound works, a library of lost smells, and several films inspired by the ‘doctrine of signatures’ – an immemorial text on medicinal plants which sees in their silhouettes the shape of human body parts that they can heal. The presented work invites us to consider the air we are breathing in, the beauty and vulnerability of our lungs, and the fate of our future generations. One such series, entitled Cosmic Gas (2022), fuses materials derived from poisonous invisible methane gas and poses the question: What manages to live in the ruins we have made? Consisting of drawings, paintings, and lithographic prints, these works bear the direct imprint of plant fragments I collected from boglands – matter from previously living organisms which over time have become gaseous. The drawings appear delicate and complex, conveying the light and dark histories from which they emerge; they recount stories of life and decay, from remedy or medicine to the poisoning of an ecosystem. The work is rooted in the medieval mythology of boglands as a cultural preserver, offering insights into ancient pagan times. 

NC: Using materials from these landscapes seems integral to your making processes. Why is this materiality significant for you?

SMD: I think it’s important to use the material and matter that has evolved through time. One of the main works in the exhibition is inspired by a collaboration with The Centre for Natural Products Research, Trinity College Dublin, entitled Distillation of the ephemera (2023). Consisting of plant species that I’ve gathered from numerous bog sites across Ireland, the work seeks to create connections to the ancient pharmacy that lies beneath our feet. These ancient, rich and fertile landscapes are the sole custodians of a varied and unique biodiversity that has accumulated over many millions of years. A number of these plants have documented use in ancient medicine for a variety of cures. I have sutured them together into a delicate shroud. 

NC: I’m reminded how perceptions of the bog have changed so much in Ireland in recent years. Once considered ‘empty’ places with little value, we now understand their importance in terms of ecosystems (carbon sinks) and also their preservative aspects in terms of the archaeologies that they hold. 

SMD: Joseph Beuys describes them as “the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just [for] flora, birds and animals, but as storing places of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history.” ‘The Bogs Are Breathing’ responds directly to Beuys’s thinking in this area to encourage awareness of the cultural, historical, biological, and climatic significance of bogs. 

Nessa Cronin is a Lecturer in Irish Studies and Associate Director of the Moore Institute at the University of Galway. 

Siobhán McDonald is an artist based in Dublin whose practice emphasises fieldwork, collaboration and working with natural materials.

‘The Bogs are Breathing’, continues at The Model, Sligo, until 9 July.

1 Tim Robinson, ‘Seism’, in Siobhán McDonald, Eye of The Storm (Dublin City Council, 2012) p 9.