During a conversation with the artists Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer on the opening night of Chimera, curator Sophia Hao posited the idea of chimera as philosophical method. Chimera, from the ancient word khimeira, ‘she-goat’, refers in Greek mythology to a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail. Across centuries, it has come to denote any mythical beast made up of parts of other animals, creatures that are both and neither. Chimeric can also mean a yearning for something that transpires to be illusory or out of reach. As Daniela Cascella proposes in her recent MAP project,
‘Chimeric yearning takes what is deemed impossible as a prompt and invites (sometimes provokes) to perceive it differently through imaginal inflections of writing-speaking-reading-thinking that only the space and rhythms of yearning can make actual.’ [i]
One might say that the making of artworks and exhibitions can be chimeric, emerging from a longing to communicate and convey something through images and objects that hold and carry meaning, that reach out in ways that might not be ordinarily legible, readily disclosed or definitively understood.
Nashashibi agrees that chimera chimes with how she and Skaer have come to work together, acting as both a mythological point of reference and a conceptual framework within which to consider how their works can make contact and circulate with each other. It also provides a lens with which to approach this joint practice. The word joint, rather than collaborative, feels appropriate. It is a word that also evokes the place where two parts of a structure meet and form an angle, the joints of limbs that bend, sometimes stretch, other times bear the weight of something to be held or carried.
Nashashibi/Skaer, together, produce 16mm films, three of which are presented here, alongside and in conversation with, recent sculptural and wall-based works by each individual artist. Several were made in situ. Each work, act, mark made and position arranged is infused with responsiveness and a reciprocity of intention, decision and intuition. The pigment of ‘Gates’ (2022), by Nashashibi, is spread across brown paper. Skaer makes undulating lines around the trough-like stone structures ‘Slate Night (i)’ and ‘(ii)’ (both 2022). The contours of Skaer’s white lines intimate the horizon of landscapes conjured by the mossy green of Nashashibi’s verdant paintings stretching across the walls nearby, torn and curling at the edges like unfurled scrolls of ancient parchment.
The exhibition is threaded with many such conjurings, as both a calling to mind and a bringing into being. This happens at the level of the object, especially when the chimerical meets the alchemical in Skaer’s ‘Haystacks made of Garnet, Garnets Made of Hay’ (2022), where two bronze forms resembling rocks sit at the top of long strips of maroon painted paper, as if waiting for a ceremony to commence or marking the site of a burial where a ritual would have taken place. This sense of something ancient, something further back or beyond our present grasp suffuses the exhibition. There is a presence that exceeds the material alone.
This occurs in the film works as well, especially in the two most recent, ‘Lamb’ (2019) and ‘Bear’ (2021). ‘Lamb’ is the first work encountered. It plays in the dimly lit entrance space downstairs and is made up of footage taken at a farm near Skaer’s home on the Isle of Lewis during lambing season. The intensity and intimacy of close-up shots and the steady gaze of the camera on the heads of these creatures, their aqueous ebony eyes glinting like small pools, grounds the work immediately and explicitly in the beastliness of chimera. These images are accompanied by a soundtrack made in collaboration with the composer Will Carslake and singer Olivia Ray. Breath flows through a trumpet, a cello is steadily plucked, thrums that breed a melancholy for these animals whose bodies are visibly laden with the duress of labour, absented here of the sound that would ordinarily express this pain.
Instead, a human voice, operatic and inhabiting the sonorousness of vocalisation as instrument, sings, calls out, extrudes and extends the word lamb. In conjunction with the images it becomes incantatory. As Nashashibi says, the film is as much about language, about the connections between an act and a word. When Olivia sings lamb it is a ‘birthing of the word’ [ii] as much as the images show us the birthing of the animal. The film becomes a site for the expansion and extrication of meaning beyond the surface of the screen.
Upstairs, we encounter ‘Bear’. This film’s soundtrack, made in collaboration with the Cantonese opera artist Zhuo Peili, is muted for this installation. ‘Bear’ focuses on the same lambing shed and so could have been the more obvious counterpart to ‘Lamb’. But here it is placed in dialogue with an earlier film ‘Our Magnolia’ (2009). Its lack of soundtrack in this context opens it up to other modes of relationship and association with the neighbouring work. When I think back now I recall the feint sonic bleed of ‘Lamb’ from below. Perhaps I am misremembering. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps the sound continued to reverberate and linger inside, the auditory trace of one work coming with me to the next.
Each work becomes inflected by the others. As Nashashibi says of ‘Our Magnolia’, a film comprised of a collage-like succession of images that pivot around the British wartime artist and surrealist Paul Nash’s 1944 painting ‘Flight of the Magnolia’,
‘This film has changed and we haven’t touched it.’ [iii]
‘Magnolia’ led Nashashibi and Skaer to Maggie Thatcher, whose face appears in the film. That face has a different meaning today than it did then. In our encounter with it here we are given a moment to dwell in the specificity and particular potency of our ‘now’. This all resonates in a quote from Sophia Hao, noted during a talk by the literary and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:
‘To think of historical reading as relay-race, entering it with great sympathy and locating a moment there. That will allow one to turn the narrative around, against itself with no excuses, no accusations but a new use. You take the baton and move, and this is an active approach to reading history.’ [iv]
Through these sentiments, we see the concern with transformation that percolates the exhibition—the latency of meanings absorbed, released and modified as works move across time and space, gathering new significance, valence and associations when reconfigured for show. When presented afresh, new layers added and accruing, we pass through the work in ways more attuned. Nashashibi/Skaer continue to inhabit the responsibility of the artist as ‘…imaginative interpreter, as a complement to the factual recorder’. [v] This is the role Paul Nash outlines for himself in his 1945 text ‘Aerial Flowers’, which informs the magnolia blossoms he paints, embedding them in his fascination with flight. The text is a correspondent to his painting, which then becomes correspondent for Nashashibi/Skaer as they infuse it with fresh resonance in film and in Chimera.
All of the works have this capacity to reconstitute themselves. There are shifts and transformations that can be construed as new signals and transmissions. There are silences, reverberations, corroborations and disjunctures. Chimera is permeated by tacit means of coming to know, of posing seeming conclusions by way of composition and correlation, means that foster the potential of further starting points, that make wholes greater than the sum of parts, that exceed what we might initially sense to be there. These are ways in, which can bring us back while moving forward.
To return to the charge imparted by the myth and concept of chimera with which we began, I turn again to Daniela Cascella and her relationship to chimera as a means to situate and encapsulate the specificities of her approach to critical writing. She speaks too of transmissions and resonances, of signals, interference and the residues that can exceed the matter we work with, coming to describe her approach as:
‘a way of orientation and multiple selfhood, a we of sympathetic frequencies, a we of resonance not coercion.’ [vi]
This not only applies to how Nashashibi/Skaer work with each other but what their work offers us, batons to hold and pass on, moments in which to locate ourselves and the many multiplicities of other selves that come together in all of us.
Sara O’Brien is a writer based between Dublin and Glasgow.
Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer are artists with international solo careers, but they also collaborate as Nashashibi/Skaer. Nashashibi/Skaer met in Glasgow and began working together in 2005. Their films have shown internationally to critical acclaim at venues such as the Berlin Biennale 5, Tate Britain, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art and ICA London. They are represented in public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Centre Pompidou, FRAC Marseille, and Arts Council Collection, UK.
Nashashibi/Skaer: Chimera, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 30 Sep-10 Dec 2022
[ii] In-conversation with artists Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer and curator Sophia Hao on the opening night of Chimera, 29 September 2022.
[v] Paul Nash, ‘Aerial Flowers’ (1945) in Andrew Causey (ed.), Paul Nash: Writings on Art, 2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 159
[vi] Daniela Cascella, Nothing As We Need It: A Chimera, 2022, California: Punctum Books, p. 114