Ilana Halperin is as old as the hills. Or at least, as old as a volcanic eruption on the island of Heimaey, near Iceland, in 1973. Identifying herself with a geological event may sound hubristic, but the exhibition Halperin created around this theme turned out to be one of the quiet highlights of the summer.
New York-born Halperin shared her 30th birthday with the Eldfell volcano by having a party at the top of the crater. She took photos of the young landmass from the plane as she arrived, collected various pieces of lava, and uncovered a gorgeous piece of archive film footage showing intrepid geologists monitoring the flow of lava which covered many houses and threatened to fill up the harbour that is the hub of Iceland’s fishing industry.
Using this source material, Halperin has created work in a surprising variety of media. Most intriguing are pencil drawings which commit mental images of the Heimaey landscape to paper. These finely wrought drawings are deliberately dishonest tapestries of images—memories and photos—mixed with rock form patterns which neatly expose the artist’s conflation of experienced time with geological time. The results are ghostly fragments, some more legible than others. Several images straightforwardly depict houses poking out from beneath waves of lava, but other drawings could be either traces of frozen lava flow, or steam billowing from cracks in the earth. Precisely what they represent seems unimportant, because precision is exactly what these drawings eschew, in favour of a dense layering of textures, patterns, memories and possibilities. They are only held in any kind of context by the narrative that Halperin spins around the show using other media. There’s a wall text next to a fragment of lava, for example, explaining that she showed this shard of crystal to ‘a man named Mike’ at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. In an exquisitely unscientific extrapolation from this evidence, he surmised that it was ‘either a piece of quartz from deep inside the earth … or a shard of glass from a window pane which burst as lava filled a house, later caught in the tread of someone’s boot and pried loose by magma as they worked to save the harbour’.
Halperin manages to pack plenty into this succinct exhibition that I can’t find space to talk about in a brief review, but the result feels comfortable in its art historical skin, nestling between American entropists like Robert Smithson, and storytellers such as Janet Cardiff and Louise Bourgeois. And if it’s not enough to equate her young practice with artists of this stature, Halperin’s work also shows evidence of a sure-footed familiarity with non-linear philosophical ideas about history and space explored by Manuel De Landa and Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari.
Best of all, however, is the fact that this exhibition feels like a taster, as if there’s plenty more—and even better work—that could be mined from this rich seam of ideas Halperin has discovered in her personal, geological history.
Nick Barley is editor of The List magazine