“The material of which we speak is almost the stuff of magic. By an accident of nature molten silicon (the most common material in the earth’s crust), when cooled carefully, instead of becoming a crystalline and opaque material, remains molecularly amorphous and transparent to the visible spectrum of radiation that reaches us from the sun, to which our eyes are attuned… If we were to wish such a material into existence we might well give up at the apparent impossibility of it.” ¹
The above quote, a fragment from a longer text, is one of many extracts that I stitched together with lines from other texts, written perhaps decades prior, in an act of assemblage – a physical, sculptural, concrete reassembling of words for a new purpose. This direct lifting was purposeful, while retaining anachronistic language styles was materially and temporally important.
The entire project was rooted in a chance encounter during a visit to one of the ‘stores’ on the NCAD campus, the place where those books not readily available on the library shelves go – some to be forgotten, possibly to be deaccessioned, gems hidden among old copies of Art in America and random DVDs. Turning around, I chanced upon a literal ‘stack’, dust laden, barely a borrower’s stamp on the inner page – a selection of lovely, overlooked books about glass.
Elsewhere, in the library’s main collection, was the encyclopedic 1960 edition of Glass in Architecture and Decoration by Raymond McGrath & A.C. Frost. This book was to become a key research tool, but also provided a central visual motif for the subsequent work, and a narrative thread by way of its primary author. Born in Australia of Irish descent, McGrath was among the pioneering architects in 1930s England, preeminent in the use of glass, light and colour. The Second World War saw him move to Dublin, where he became OPW Principal Architect, and designed a building familiar to us all in the Irish art world – the RHA Gallagher Gallery.
This project – which amounted to several years of research into the history and cultural impact of glass – culminated recently in an exhibition comprising a film, installed and photographic works at the Irish Architectural Archive (IAA), which also houses McGrath’s documents, drawings, correspondence, and other materials. Over ten years after shooting part of my film, Something New Under the Sun (2012), in the IAA’s reading room, the archive gallery provided the perfect ‘coda’ (or loop) to a body of work concerning time, the built environment, and how we view the world. The involvement of the IAA added a whole new aspect to the project, both in terms of enthusiasm, support, and in allowing me to select from the McGrath Collection to curate a show within a show.
I was fortunate to work closely with exceptional collaborators including Karl Burke, Louis Haugh, Michael Kelly, Oran Day, Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll, and Chris Fite-Wassilak. NIVAL and NCAD Library were ever helpful, allowing repeated access to the ‘stack’, much of which appeared in the film. Support from IADT allowed me access to the National Film School’s incredible studio, with the invaluable help of staff and several students on the production. The project was made possible through initial funding from DLR Arts Office, and subsequently The Arts Council, to produce the film, exhibition, and a school workshop series, devised by artist Marian Balfe. An accompanying publication was published by Set Margins’, Eindhoven.
Gavin Murphy is an artist and curator based in Dublin.
‘Remaking the Crust of the Earth’ ran at the Irish Architectural Archive from 16 March to 28 April 2023.
¹ Michael Wigginton, ‘An instrument for distant vision’, in Louise Taylor and Andrew Lockhart (Eds.), Glass, Light & Space: New Proposals for the Use of Glass in Architecture (London: Crafts Council, 1997)