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Liadin Cooke: Overlay

There is a powerful sense of resilience that runs through Liadin Cooke’s most recent work. These sculptures and drawings have as their catalyst a range of themes – the language used for the naming of tulips; the young Jane Eyre as she battles the casual cruelty that shapes her life; the tenacious and parasitic tendencies of spores and viral infection. Resilience abides, too, in the material of some sculptures, made from obdurate bronze, iron, stone and aluminium. As a whole they contrast with the works Cooke made during the nineties, which tended towards a more narrative and ephemeral form of installation, and where the state of woman was frequently referenced. Here, the objects themselves resonate in a more abstract, though no less poetic, way; and while overt reference is absent, the fact that they have been made by a woman is relevant.

When looking at Cooke’s work, you find yourself peering closely, your head literally brought close to the detailed surface of an object or the delicate wash of a drawing. Historically, the miniature form was one often associated with women’s creativity; but perhaps more relevant is that the word ‘miniature’ did not originally derive from something being small, but from the Latin minium, or red lead, the pigment used in ancient illuminated manuscripts. The earliest extant example is the fifth century Ambrosian Iliad1, in which the scribe covered the entire page with a landscape, and then superimposed it with figures and text; a method used until the end of the medieval period. In Cooke’s work there is a notion that landscape underscores everything – its forms, its sense of place and territory, as organic matter – and over this weaves a tracery of sensibility that owes some allegiance to the ancient or medieval scholar.

Almost all the works were made for the exhibition over a two year period, although sometimes their roots were established long before this. In that sense there is a distinct relationship with the gallery, both with its architecture and with its context in the Bretton landscape whose flora and fauna are so evident through the windows of the gallery. In some sense, discussing the project with Cooke since early 2004, has been akin to watching a scientific survey or a botanical journey that might have taken place 250 years ago, when much of the Bretton parkland was planned and planted. The process has evolved with meticulous care; Cooke spends much time sorting through ideas, absorbing each change before moving on. Titles are also very important, a form of nomenclature I associate with the careful system of naming and categorizing objects first developed by Liannaeus in the 18th century.2

I want to start with a tulip…
What’s so special about a tulip?
Put it this way… When is a tulip not a tulip?
When it’s a Parrot or a Bizarre. When it’s variegated or dwarf. When it comes called Beauty’s Reward or Heart’s Reviver. When is comes called Key of Pleasure or Lover’s Dream…

This passage from Jeanette Winterson’s The Power Book3 conveys a shared passion for words and language; the essential foundation for a number of Cooke’s works, especially those which have as their catalyst the names of tulips. Drawn more by romantic notions of the exotic Ottoman Empire4, than by the flower itself, Cooke has explored these names and her particular interest is in the language used for those tulips originally found wild in Central Asia, which were then propagated throughout the Empire, and particularly in Turkey.5 Some of these now survive only as names; names, however, that travel across cultures and time with an extraordinary evocative power. So beautiful and rich with possibility are they, that these names operate as one line haiku, disclosing intense, subtle insight. They also bring to mind poetic forms of human perception, as exemplified by the Sufi poet, Rumi:

He speaks to the rose’s ear and causes it to bloom,
He speaks to the tulip, and makes it blossom.
He speaks a spell to body, and it becomes soul;
He speaks to the sun, and it becomes a fount of life. 6

From these names have come, like found objects, a series of subtle drawings in watercolour. Dreamlike in quality, they seem to be as direct a response as possible to the names of the tulips themselves and their ability to resonate over the centuries. The drawings hint at automatic writing, coming directly and without mediation from Cooke’s unconscious. And from that direct, imaginative response, new forms have emerged.

Over time some of the drawings have provided fertile ground for the development of sculpture, an entirely different art form that requires planning, fabrication and construction, although even here Cooke has worked intuitively. The central element of the Gem of the Shah is cast in iron, an old industrial material. The iron pod is dense and mysterious, and while it balances on its curved base, it is a ground-hugging sculpture that is satisfyingly solid, forming a protective carapace around a jewel-like thought; again Rumi, “As in oyster shells raindrops are pearls”.7 Contrasting with the dark volume and weight of the central volume, long, delicate, green-beaded tendrils emerge, spreading across the floor, and defying expectation of formal sculptural concerns. This ‘formlessness’ hints at something insidious, some creeping growth, and a number of works here share the virus theme. In biological as well as computer terminology, a virus is a corrupting agent that is parasitic in nature. Under magnification, however, a virus can startlingly beautiful. And in the case of tulips, it is precisely the corruption caused by a virus8 that results in such prized, varied petals. After the sculpture had been made, Cooke was pleased to discover that the ‘Gem of the Shah’ tulip had, unusually, been bred by a woman some centuries ago.

Cooke has conflated her interests in the language used for the naming of tulips and in the virus to make Bane of Bliss, a gently modeled, organic, awkwardly shaped bronze sculpture. She has carefully painted its entire surface with a network of marks in acrid, poisonous, yellow, as if coating it with lichen. In addition, and as if to ensure its uncomfortable existence in the world, she has placed it on a mantelpiece construction so it is never entirely sculpture nor ornament, but a thing in itself, curiously attractive and malevolent. In common with Gem of the Shah, it is like nothing we might have seen before, it is entirely its own object. Bane of Bliss developed out of a series of unfinished works, which Cooke has made in clay and related to Renaissance paintings containing landscape. In working these pieces, she forcibly dug her hands into wet clay and ostensibly tore landscape apart to make other forms. The process isn’t evident in the sculpture, but still it speaks of something elemental, of something chthonic.

Like my desire to visualize or invent the plants belonging to the beautiful names, I had no wish to translate or research the reality of the virus, it was enough for me to depict an idea of what I felt it was. Wanting to do it homage, it was important that I created something slightly clunky that said ‘don’t mess with me’, which would, at the same time, be pushed into the realm of the precious object. Casting Bane of Bliss in bronze immediately elevated the work to a position of eminence, but painting subverted or mutated it (interfered if you like) so that it gained a duality which allows it to refer to the perverse nature of a virus.9

Bane of Bliss takes its name from the line “Bane of bliss and source of woe” used in the poem Avarice, by George Herbert10, in which he examines the contradictory nature of money, a human creation that can afford happiness, but which can also usurp its user. Cooke is perhaps looking to the long history of value attributed to the tulip, initially throughout the Ottoman Empire, and reaching its zenith in 17th century Holland. More widely, she may be considering the way in which we order and value our world.

There is a large drawing connected to this sculpture; a pattern of cell-like circular forms connected by freely-drawn lines that I had come to think of as the ‘winding virus’ drawing. Cooke’s title, however, points to further meaning. Sugar Ring virus refers to the cellular viral form which contains sugar; a sweetness at odds with the principal character that we associate with this harmful entity. The group of ‘virus’ works also includes a number of small watercolours. These pale, anthropomorphic washes are a form of automatic writing resulting in strange, beautiful forms that, again, are entirely unto themselves.

‘Syeg’ is a biblical Hebrew word meaning ‘hedge’, literally the ban put around the fourth commandment forbidding anyone to carry coins on the Sabbath, in order to prevent commercial transactions. The ban also came to be applied to eating mushrooms, which were reserved for priests and nobility, possibly because of their hallucinatory effect. The idea of a taboo practice is, by definition, intriguing since it applies to something that is desired but not allowed, and in the case of fungi the taboo has been enforced by fear of poisoning. In Vedic hymns, written in Sanskrit around 1200BC, ‘ambrosia’ was considered to be the juice of fungi, fit only for the gods, and even today, many cultures have a dichotomas relationship with fungi, such that only those believed to have particular wisdom are able to harvest and eat them.

In the sculpture, Syeg 2, Cooke has made anodized aluminium objects that are both menacing (little land-mines) and (almost) pretty. Aluminium is a metal that somehow defies classification in sculptural terms – it is not workaday in the sense that iron is, or hierarchical as bronze can be; it is the thing of cast engines and futuristic design that lends a literal and apparent lightness to an object. The alien, fetishistic, elements that make up Syeg 2 can be randomly placed on the floor or on the wall; like ‘diaspores’, the very light spores of plants such as ferns or fungi that are distributed by the wind and are able to self-reproduce.

Here it is relevant to consider that Cooke is Jewish, and grew up in Catholic Ireland; one of a two and a half thousand year Diaspora11 of Jewish peoples widely scattered around the globe. In contrast to many, Irish Jews have received relatively positive treatment during their one thousand year history in the country, with few incidents of organized persecution. However, growing up in the south of Ireland and one of very few Jews in the country must have had some impact; of being on the edge and of looking in. For some time Cooke has harboured an idea of inventing a Jewish-Irish archaeology; archaeology being the collection of artifacts that ground a culture and by which they are identified. Before moving from Ireland to London in 1993 she dug her own clay and formed 21 crudely shaped, raw clay balls. Not knowing what they might be or eventually become, she hauled these fragments of Irish soil around with her until 1998 when she cast them in aluminium to make the work, 21 balls of clay dug from a field at Closscregg. Syeg 2 is clearly related to that work; in form and also as the fragments have metamorphosed from one thing to another, they introduce new layers of meaning, establishing identity.

Being peripheral is a position the young Jane Eyre is forced to occupy in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. This is a book Cooke had known for many years, but which became the catalyst for new works when she moved to Yorkshire in 2000 and visited Haworth and it surrounding moors. Cooke is intrigued by the five principal locations in which the book’s action takes place and is working through the text to make a series of chronological works that respond to these sites. The first is where the orphaned Jane, living at Gateshead Hall on the unwilling charity of her unkind aunt is falsely accused of harming her cruel cousin and is taken to the red-room. Here, the abused girl is overwhelmed by the room (in which her uncle Mr Reed had died) and pursues an examination of herself and her perceived faults. This degree of self-abasement, albeit through the eyes of the adult Jane as she regards herself at eight years of age, is heartbreaking:

They were not bound to regard me with affection, a thing that could not sympathize with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interests, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt at their judgement. 12

Heterogeneous; a mixture of clearly distinct items that are not easily separated and which are immeasurable. A Heterogeneous Thing is Cooke’s empathic and intense response to the red-room passage. This dense hank of deep-red, wax-dipped threads, although light in weight, is fat with pain and terror. Try as she might, Jane cannot truly comprehend the loathing to which she is subjected, or the emotional threads with which she’s shackled.

At the same time as working on red-room, I was trying to visualize the emotional action in Mr Reed’s bed chamber – measuring the distance between Jane’s eyes and the objects in there. Where did her eyes move? The wax strings started off like a map – pointers stretching to the centre of the ottoman where Jane rested, very delicate, very ephemeral, criss-crossing and weaving around each other – some stretched taut, some bowed heavy with pain. A room full of vanishing points. This work was made to measure the extent of Jane’s fear in the red-room; fear is non-quantifiable. The red wax threads are too slight and fragile to do anything, their insubstantiality reflects the other-worldliness of Jane’s experience. A heterogeneous thing.13

The psychological impact of the red-room continues in red-room, an extraordinary watercolour drawing formed from an intense network of dots and marks; not red lead pigment, but deep red paint covering the entire paper (like the surface of Bane of Woe). Its impact is immediate, blatant, all consuming as you peer into it and consider the necessary obsessive drive to keep working at it steadily, over a period of years. And in some way its resilience and fortitude give cause for relief: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”.14 Cooke recognizes the proximity of pain and beauty, and out of this comes sublime works.

Who, though I screamed, would hear me among the ranks
of the angels? And even supposing one of them took me
suddenly to his breast, I would perish within his
overpowering being. For the beautiful is right at the margin
of the terrifying, which we can only just endure.15

Like an ancient or medieval illuminated manuscript, violet and red tracery meanders over the contours of a found block of stone to form the work Folly. Made in 2005 for exhibitions in the grounds of ruined churches/monasteries? In Ireland and Wales, this sculpture’s presence is reinforced by the context of the Bretton Estate, which was noted for its glasshouses and follies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Folly was made slightly tongue in cheek because of the incongruity of being Jewish and asked to contribute to the exhibition; Cooke conceived a work in the spirit of follies, something a little frivolous and alluding to ornament. Folly is also connected to Jane Eyre: its surface painting developed from small drawings Cooke made in response to Jane’s passion for Rochester. It also hints at the exotic ornament associated with the Ottoman Empire. Indeed ornament is an important theme running through Cooke’s works, where she has taken the sense of kitsch or triviality and subverted it to reveal something of substance, of meaning; a duality that is common to many of her works. Folly is placed in the courtyard adjoining the gallery; here it marks the start of an intimate journey across time and through emotional landscapes in which we are both voyeur and participant.

Clare Lilley


1 The Ambrosian Iliad, in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan is a 5th century illuminated manuscript of Homer’s Iliad. It is one of the oldest extant illustrated manuscripts and is the only surviving portion of an illustrated copy of Homer from antiquity. Coincidentally, it has been reduced to a series of miniatures, cut from the original manuscript. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

2 Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, Swedish botanist and physician who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of taxonomy and binomial nomenclature.

3 Jeanette Winterson, The Power Book, Jonathan Cape, London 2000

4 The Ottoman Empire,1299-1922; at its height of power in the 16th century, included Anatolia, the Middle East, and parts of North Africa and south-eastern Europe to the Caucasus. For most of its six century history its capital was Constantinople/Istanbul. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

5 The tulip flourished right through the history of the Ottoman Empire, brought from the wild and then propagated for gardens, and appearing as a motif on textiles, tiles, manuscripts, prayer rugs and murals. Source: Anna Pavord, The Tulip, ch.1, pub. Bloomsbury 1999

6 Mawlana Jalad ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273). From Book 1, Story VI: Omar and the Ambassador, in Rumi's Masnavi-l Ma’navi (Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning), trans. E H Whinfield, 1898. Source: www.sacred-texts.com

7 Ibid.

8 The Tulip, ibid. ch.1

9 Liadin Cooke, unpublished Notes, March 2006

10 George Herbert (1593-1633). Avarice, first published in The Temple 1633; “Money, thou bane of blisse, & sourse of wo”. Source: www.ccel.org (Christian Classics Ethereal Library).

11 Diaspora originally refers to the Jews exiled by the Greeks from Judea in 586 BC and by the Romans from Jerusalem in 135 AD. The term is now used to denote migrated peoples. Jews were first recorded in Ireland in 1079 and the first synagogue was founded in Dublin in 1660. Today it is estimated that 1,204 Jews live in Ireland. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

12 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ch. 2, Penguin Books 1996

13 Liadin Cooke, unpublished Notes, March 2006

14 Jane Eyre, ibid., ch.1

15 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, First Elegy, trans. Will Crichton and Mary C Crichton, pub. Green Integer 2003