Its taken me an age to get on with writing about other people’s work – too preoccupied with my own ! Anyway this post is about Mary Conway ([email protected]; www.maryconway.co.uk). Mary’s work uses historic processes and materials to highlight contemporary concerns about the environment. From a very conceptual beginning, this project has been a process of giving visual form to these ideas and concerns. She has achieved this through a dual exploration of techniques and materials.
In terms of techniques, she has been working with indigo, a substance which has been and still is used across many cultures. Indigo is a naturally occurring dye, and is a non-polluting sustainable resource. Its most highly developed use now is in areas which are particularly vulnerable to climate change, most usually because of their poverty. Hence its use in her work is significant for all these reasons; each beautifully tied indigo-dyed container begs us to consider its origins. And it is not only the technique but the form of the containers that is important. The shape derives from a Japanese model, originally used by the poor as a way of turning a piece of cloth into a storage bag. It is a form which suggests transience, displacement – the need to take nothing but the most essential items in the quickest way possible.
In terms of materials, she has been using salt, that most basic of substances. A historically precious commodity, it is one that we now take for granted, but it is vital to survival. However, it also suggests the reverse – the evaporation of water and drought. This expresses one of the key themes of Mary’s work – balance – for which the salt becomes a metaphor. On one hand it is life-giving – our bodies require it – on the other it is poison, it threatens life. In looking at the effects of climate change there is imbalance here too, it is the poorest areas of the world that are most affected, precisely those which are most dependent on these basic substances and processes. In dealing with issues around the environment it is difficult to be subtle; it is also extraordinarily hard to make art that has a message but which retains an aesthetic integrity. I think Mary has achieved all of this. These pieces are self-referential, they point to their own process and to their content. They recall in their deep blue the colours of the oceans, but carry in their insides the residue of the seas’ destruction. I think they are a very successful synthesis of the conceptual and the visual, they quietly communicate a subtle message while inviting reflection and consideration.