In her narration Ilana Halperin paraphrases Carl Sagan, still getting the gist, and points out that we are born in the interiors of collapsing stars. The ‘we’ here encompasses everything; animals, plants, objects and the earth itself. This exhibition at Leeds Arts University, Minerals of New York, is an affectionate biography of the Glasgow based artist, her practice and her city of origin (New York), lingering on the specificities of Halperin’s experiences but also casting an almost infinitely wide net in speaking of the mineral-makeup of the land on which the city sits. Alongside a series of drawings and a few other elements, in a small projection room, a looping slideshow of black and white photographs plays with the aforementioned narration. The photographs were taken by the artist’s mother in 1986 during the ‘first wave of yuppie gentrification’ in New York’s Upper West Side, documenting the family-run businesses in their neighbourhood that wouldn’t survive. Home, where we’re from, and nostalgia, whether bittersweet or rose-tinted, are inexhaustible subjects in art, and these images bring to mind the warmth and fellow feeling that is gained in reminiscing about our favourite long-gone parts of the places we live. I find myself listening and watching the series twice through without noticing. One of the unexpected poignancies is the way in which the shop fronts photographed by Halperin’s mother are the same kind that are now romanticised and recreated with clever graphic design by redevelopers across British cities.
Minerals, gems, and geology in general produce a temporal vertigo, their time is on such a different scale to our lives that it’s difficult to comprehend. However, if considered ‘to scale,’ a long established grocery shop or local playground can feel as permanent as the ground they’re built on, then all of a sudden they’re gone. Halperin’s interest in minerals was piqued by The Subway Garnet, a grapefruit sized gem discovered beneath the streets of New York, that is now held at the American Museum of Natural History. During a research fellowship with National Museums Scotland, Halperin was able to contact the mineralogy department at the American museum, and on asking the curator there about their favourite specimen was directed toward this blood red stone that had been found during 19th-century sewer excavations. Halperin describes how this encounter introduced a level of wonder that she had not previously felt towards the place where she grew up. In this body of work the artist weaves her growing-up memories in amongst matter-of-fact reports about the minerals that occur in the locality of New York City, as well as drawings of them. During an in-conversation event Halperin spoke of her chosen mode of display, which brought to mind the thrill of cheap childhood treasures purchased in museum shops, or stones and shells found in the outdoors – not the museological, the important, or the listed, but rather the semi-precious.
It is now impossible to consider natural history without thinking about climate change and imperialism: cases of taxidermied extinct creatures, their fate having been sealed as soon as they were discovered by the very mode of their discovery. Minerals on the other hand are not living things that are killed off by our violent curiosity and drive to classify, rather, we are killing living things in order to extract the particular minerals and metals that we want. Different registers of impermanence emerge throughout this exhibition, producing numerous shimmering affinities between the personal, the societal and the geologic. Thinking about the tonnes of rock beneath us makes any city, no matter how sprawling or embedded, seem like a very fine film of mould or a skin condition. A little shift and it’ll be gone, folded back into the body and subsumed into the earth. Halperin’s drawings affirm this impression, in that they are slight and tender, depicting textures and surface qualities but not the totality of each mineral sample. Their colour is represented with a constrained spectrum of marker lines next to each drawing. It’s unclear whether the shape formed by these lines represents anything in particular to do with the samples, but then again don’t colours have their own energies that we can’t perceive, just as minerals have lifespans that we can’t comprehend? What else might they have to tell that we aren’t currently cognisant of?
A tiny piece of mica, the mineral that Halperin describes as ubiquitous within and around New York sits inside a small perspex cube lit from all sides, flashing and sparkling due to its flaky surface that isn’t smooth or clarified like a gem. The diversity of textures created by how minerals develop and grow is astonishing, with the mundane uniformity we might associate with rocks totally absent here, and instead the samples depicted by Halperin look prickly or soft, slimy or furry. Humble mica is the only mineral that appears ‘in person’ as part of this exhibition, and its grey-gold surface tones in with the monochrome slides, the pencil drawings, the muted marker spectra and the sage green walls. The series of drawings are conceived of as an installation, presented in a uniform and unfussy way, and labelled according to where they were found, with a street address as though that’s where they lived alongside their neighbours. For an exhibition dealing with big themes that have to do with human history and the temporalities of our existence, it is appropriate to be aesthetically subtle so as not to close off the possibilities for individual reflection, and this body of work succeeds in nourishing without overwhelming. It is a biography and a love letter that isn’t necessarily trying to make an argument or convince, but is instead telling one story amongst many. There’s a lot of pleasure to be gained from paying attention to a topic and listening to a story delivered with such affection and wonder.
Ilana Halperin: Minerals of New York, is on display at Leeds Arts University from 29 March – 09 May 2019
Minerals of New York will include a closing performance lecture by Halperin on Thursday 9 May 5-6pm (Free entry. Booking not required). The exhibition will then tour to The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, in Summer 2019.
Lauren Velvick is an artist, writer, assistant curator at Humber Street Gallery and a director of Corridor8.