Mountain a granular exchange
Image accompaniment created by the writer includes; an image she took of a mountain near her birthplace in County Sligo Ireland, intercepted by text from Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples

A response to Seven Steeples by Sara Baume & Nephin by Niamh O’Malley


Skin scatters, stuttering in the air, they cascade and land forming little piles of cells in the fissures of the mountain’s face and arms.

The material information of each cell fusing and burrowing into the erosion of earth, beaten down with the individual increment of step upon step.

In a recent conversation between Niamh O’Malley and Claire Louise Bennett, O’Malley talked about the presence of her father’s body somehow held in the site of a mountain near where he had lived in County Mayo, Ireland.

The imprint and memory of him ensconced in the material presence of this mountain.

He would remark that he never had a need to travel, that gazing at this mountain everyday was enough, never the same form twice, or at least this is what she recalls, this visitation a collected memory of all the days before, each day a new ecological weather system of the self, of the external world, an atmospheric collision of force, never the same mountain twice.

As she encountered this realisation, this comforting statement that her father had previously let linger in the air, that the mountain’s body would live on after his own, and her own, and mine, that it had a restful continuity that we can utilise as a touchstone, a mark of presence left behind.

In these daily actions of visiting, the soft noticing of living closely with a piece of the landscape, the site becomes a living breathing body in relation to your own.

I am reminded of the rhythms of Sara Baume’s characters Bell and Sigh—from Baume’s recent novel Seven Steeples—walking the same paths every day, pressing tracks into the earth. Actively choosing to repeat, and beat the same rhythms into their landscape, lingering and hesitating, they hold back from exploring their new home, hovering in the same-ness of deeply knowing the intimacies and pressure points of their daily accessible surroundings, sitting in their slight

A granular level of connecting to a site. A place.

They do not climb the mountain which looms larger as a bodily witnessing presence across the text, they wait. Feeling the grains of this settle around the path they weave at the mountain’s

Niamh O’Malley, revisits the mountain after her father’s death. With a mark pressed across the lens, she encircles the site, holding this mark as a point of contact, a fingerprint, impressed intothe landscape’s body, as she slowly circles holding it across the body of the mountain at all times.

Attention is paid to how the body spars and undulates with the agency of the landscapes form, its changing moods and idiosyncrasies.

The body of time is marked through these patterns and rituals of re-visiting the site of a
watchful mountain, witnessing and holding the muscle memories of all those who have built up their presence.

Sara Baume introduces her practice at the beginning of an artist talk by saying that her work; “tells stories from my life, from my ordinary days, and hopefully these also turn out to be stories from other people’s lives and other peoples ordinary days.” [1]

The incremental and the ordinary spin out in every speck and grain of Baume’s meticulous
laborious, domestic scale making practices, daily rituals of creation, blended into her ordinary days. Sara lingers on the surface and tangible nature of things.

Rituals and ceremonies loom large in Seven Steeples, created by Bell, most of them come from a practice of lightly touching. She and Sigh both perform these daily gestures of touching, placing, cleaning, and removing objects. The extension of a hand to feel a material, to replace a cushion, to resettle a scrap of fabric, to pluck a dog hair from the air. These details of touch appear throughout. The book itself feels as if it is a fingertip brushing across the surface of their world—leaving a streak in the still dust.

This facilitates a material exchange of information; rituals of exchange come as points of contact between the body and the site. Lightly, feeling and sensing, becoming immersed without disturbing the delicate balance of the settling sediment across their lives.

I think about grains, collections, sediments. Granular experiences as a method of quantifying the everyday.

Time as a fine powder, cascading across.

They do not climb the mountain which looms larger as a bodily witnessing presence across the text, they wait. Feeling the grains of this settle around the path they weave at the mountain’s base.

Through revisiting skin is shed, individual cells and grains of the self are left behind each time
you visit. And in turn dust, flecks of soil, cells of plants, a single grain of stone catches on your boots, in your hair, on the cuff of a coat.

Grains of information from one site to the other are exchanged. As this is built up, I imagine the exchange each day, each week. Grain by grain, cell by cell. Skin coats the mountain, and earth coats the home, the body.

As I think about the skin and hairs strewn across the landscape we inhabited when I was a child—the sediment of all the bodies’ proximity—this seems an unromantic, even a practical reduction of the memories built up across a body in a continuous exchange and series of memories with a site and body embedded in the landscape. But in this visualisation of these bodily dusts and dispersals, there is a connectivity, an exchange of selves that function, that holds this accumulative muscle memory that one builds up with a mountain, with a river, with a path, or a stone, with a place that begins to morph from simply a space into a body that you encounter, that you exchange with, breathing it in with every acknowledgement that it is breathing you in as well.

As I circle these works, I cannot help but consider my own built up connections to mountains.

Born at the cradle of many sunken mountains in County Sligo, I would then leave them with my eyes closed, not returning to the site of the mountains for seventeen years. This delayed
visitation left a build-up of marks left by absence rather than presence.

In turn, the practice of revisiting mountains is something upheld by my family, and there are a handful scattered around County Clare that we continuously pay visits to. The action of visiting, or re-visiting, slowly transfers a site, a space, into a place, the difference seeming to rest in the particularities of memory. Its place-ness, coming from what has been gathered and what has
been left.

Niamh O’Malley speaks of this returning, and the position of return, a moment of seeking, reaching, and communing through visitation, a place as a talisman or touchstone through which to reach a memory, a person, a feeling.

She speaks about chasing the image, to pursue the mountain as a body, as a form.

A mark held on a piece of glass—you the witnessing eye—are entrapped across the surface.

The mark pressed onto the glass becomes an extension and steadying of the eye, almost
functioning as a pointing finger.

Throughout the circumnavigation of this site, the mark is continuously pressed and held onto the form of the mountain. Over the course of the twenty-minute video, the presence of the mountain becomes hypnotic, in the periphery of your gaze you know it is still rooted to its site, even behind trees and hedgerows as they blur past. This peripheral vision and awareness of witness is felt strongly as we move through Sigh and Bell’s lives, pressed close to the witnessing presence of the mountain in the corner of our eye.

Memory is a peripheral feeling, a haze with particles swirling in their air, you breathe and sneeze them in, they settle in your lungs, and surge in your bloodstream.

The particles of you, expelled through your cough, atoms, cells, flecks of spit, are propelled into the atmosphere. Information and tiny increments and units of you, now settle onto the surface of the mountain, sink into its soil.

Disperses and pushes into the cracks between stones atoms.

Is this what noticing entanglement means, what it feels to sink, and feel through your shedding fingertips.

We are visualising memory as an exchange between both bodies involved.

A form of attention which holds you just at the surface, stretched across.

A taut precipice.

Seven Steeples is filled with particles, dust, skin, food, flecked across their lives, the fibrous, sticky, and smooth surfaces of a life. An attention to surface and space rises slippages of clear polished woods—skin and hair scattered across.

This feeling of sediment, of grains being a documentation and quantifying of liveness. Vitality is measured through the grains of your body, the process of shedding, growing, severing fragments of matter, forming fractals and units, which scatter and amass as a new body and form of dust, pressed into a butter pat. The residue of Bell and Sigh’s bodily presence and lives cling to the surfaces, the windows and mirrors.

Both of these works are external, never breaking beneath the craquelure of the surface. O’Malley pushes us to circle eternally, always holding but never reaching the mountain, only imagining it. Baume holds us closely, keeping us pressed to the surface, accumulating our understanding alongside the dust particles. Occupying this intimate space without once hearing a word, an internal thought. The closeness generated solely from the sediment of daily lives. [2]

Theo is currently based in Glasgow, where she is undertaking a Masters of Letters in Art Writing with Glasgow School of Art. Her practice is currently located at the point of contact between sculpture and writing and can be found here; @theo_hynanratcliffe_


The body, proximity, and place can be far-reaching and boundless—this series intends to question these complex questions through different experiments with language, art, cultural phenomena, and writing as practice, and is led by editor-in-residence Hatty Nestor.


[1] Artist Talk: Sara Baume (The Glucksman, 2021)

[2] Sara Baume, Seven Steeples, 2022, pp. 122–23.