RTE In the Picture: The Midden collective at the Luan Gallery

Artist, writer, and arts consultant Neva Elliott introduces Midden, series of new and existing works in painting, print, sculpture, installation, and video projection by artists Sarah Edmondson, Mary Martin, and Niamh McGuinne, working collaboratively as the Midden Collective, and now showing at the Luan Gallery, Athlone. Enjoy a gallery of work by the Midden Collective above.

The trash heap has spoken

The case for pseudoscience and what we can learn from a pile of rubbish

When searching for answers, we look for evidence, the remains or trace of what has been and how it was; we look to what has been left behind. Midden (1) is an archaeological term for a pile of refuse, or a garbage heap in American parlance. Where there have been humans, middens are to be found — containing the broken and discarded remains of our lives and behaviours, our rubbish. Middens reflect our societies; both the historical treasures sought by archaeologists and the contents of modern landfills are a source of information about who we are and have been. There’s wisdom in them thar hills, or mounds of waste.

Perhaps it was an amateur archaeologist who came up with the character of Marjory the Trash Heap in Fraggle Rock (2). Marjory is an animate midden. Revered as a wise oracle by the Fraggles and tended to by her rodent aides, Philo and Gunge, who herald, “You are in the presence of the all-knowing Trash Heap! Nyaaaah!” (The Fraggles address her by more formal titles of “Madame Trash Heap,” “Madame Heap,” and “Your Trashiness”.) In the words of Philo and Gunge, Marjory “knows all” and “tells all.” In Marjory’s terms, “the Trash heap is all,” “I’m orange peels, I’m coffee grounds, I’m wisdom!” referring to her role as the rubbish dump or compost heap of the Gorgs (giant squishy humanoid characters). Marjory has the guidance the Fraggle seek, in the form of mottos and practical instruction (usually put to song); “always wear your hat”, “Don’t be alone. Get some friends. Friends help,” and sometimes mystical objects such as a lucky blanket or love potion.

Marjory’s gender is no accident, referencing matriarchs as a reliquary of familial domestic and alternative knowledge. Such gendering invites discussion about how lived experience, unconventional approaches to understanding, and other ways of knowing are deemed female domains. One of the reasons alternative wisdom appeals to women is the failure of science to properly study and treat women and women’s bodies or even listen to them. Historically women have been inequitably treated by science, not just as practitioners but excluding them from medical research (3). Such gender bias threatens the validity of scientific findings; for example, one cannot assume that conclusions from scientific research undertaken on men would apply to females, as drugs may have different effects on men’s and woman’s bodies (4). And where we have had gender-specific treatments, they have a long history of stigmatising beliefs about women’s bodies; for example, menstruation has been seen as unclean, and don’t get me started on wandering uteruses and hysteria.

(Biology differs not only between men and women but also among racial and ethnic groups; an understanding that comes only after decades of data gathered primarily from men of European descent.)

Even if we take clinical findings, the science, as being sound being listened to also matters. Female patients are more likely to be ignored or considered as overreacting when they try to talk about their health (5). So normalised is this in the medical profession that the term ‘Yentl Syndrome’ (6) was coined to describe the negative gender bias in treating women after heart attacks.

Systemic problems with conventional science leave women understandably searching for answers in other places –folk culture, oral traditions, superstition, ‘old wives tales,’ personal beliefs and magical thinking. These pseudo-sciences are a way to sidestep scientific authority and find forms of knowledge beyond what it has to offer.

Artists also question through alternative means and eschew authority. We enquire and probe, defy laws and sciences to push beyond the known and accepted; we find other ways to not only answer but also question.

Mary Martin, (L-R) ‘Lan-awn’, ‘Airdeogaí’, ‘Tar-hee’, ‘Ring-ka’, ‘Lan-gone’,
‘Péarla’, ‘Daow-sa’, ‘Ban-sheedah’, 2021/22

Midden Collective are Sarah Edmondson, Mary Martin and Niamh McGuinne.

Edmondson, Martin, and McGuinne’s work takes the stuff of the institutional sciences; ecology, biology, cosmology, and geology and combines it with the supernatural, speculative fiction and pseudoscience to move into metaphysics and epistemology through investigating and challenging the creation of knowledge. A hyphenated real-unreal, using the structures that tell us what we know about ourselves and the universe to poke at other potential realities.

Airdeogaí, Gwee, Ban-sheedah, Lan-gone, Mary Martin’s titles sound ancient, dug out of the earth, a language spoken by Sheela-na-gig and púca. Indeed they may be; titles Ring-ka and Daow-so are phonetic for the modern Irish words for dance, ‘rince’ and ‘damhsa,’ her use of the sounds of words pointing back beyond language as we know it to something more primitive. Backwards – forwards.

In Martin’s acrylic on canvas paintings, fish loom out of barren landscapes and dance with strange figures with nondescript bodies and mask-like faces – gasmasks, tribal masks, astronaut helmets. Fish crawled out of the sea about 375 million years ago and developed the physical characteristics to survive on land, evolving to walk, to dance. We are the evolution of these fish out of water. Who are the aliens with their hoods and breathing apparatus in this strange landscape? Are they aliens of the extra-terrestrial kind, or are these flailing bodies foretelling our evolution, transformed to deal with thinning air, or encased in technological suits so we can survive in harsh future landscapes? On an earth of muted tones of mud and sand speaking to a future changed; where climate disaster has played out, and here we are, or are not, in this post Anthropocene doomscape.

Dancing together in Mary’s future vision is the fantastical past we have learned to accept in biological evolution and a potential future that seems equally incredible; a world where a form of progression in response to the climate has taken place. The fish and the alien dancing their salutary tale – if it could happen to a fish, it could happen to you. But, of course, maybe it’s not us at all, perhaps we have left the picture, and this is some new anthropomorphic creature, risen out of the gunge.

Sarah Edmondson, ‘Wormhole, Totally Telescopic, 2022

The organisms rising from the surface of Sarah Edmondson’s moon are worms, moonworms, who feed on moon soil and cast moonworm middens. Edmondson’s ‘Arenicola Luna’ is a phantastic research programme into these posed lunar invertebrates. It is a construct to speak about learning, how we create knowledge, and who its arbiters are. Edmondson’s installation commandeers scientific research and institutional educative practice modes to develop a series of projection apparatuses and installation/sculptural pieces. This modal hijacking acts as a comment on and challenge to these accepted structures, their inadequacies, corruptions, and human centricity.

‘Wormhole’, a moving image projection tunnel, depicts the moonworms (in actuality, artificial worms mimicking the movement of real worms) in their underground habitats. The set of ‘Proto-Midden’ shows worms excreting lunar soil, suggesting how lunar middens might have formed. In ‘To Wormate’, words describing the movement of the moonworms scroll across a diorama of the moon. However, these words are in Tlön, the fictive language of Jorge Luis Borges, and exclude nouns. Tlön, an imaginary geographical and cultural place invented through language offers a way into Edmondson’s work. Finally, ‘Totally Telescopic’, a moving image back projection of the moon, works to include the viewer in the piece. Its imagery moves from the moon at a distance to closeups of moonworms to YouTube clips of people identifying moon tunnels on earlier Google Earth documents (now unavailable or ‘hidden’). Here we, the viewers, are part of the physical piece and the truth or untruth of this moon story.

Sarah Edmondson, ‘To Wormate’, 2022

Edmondson’s narrative construct places her at the origin of knowledge and challenges its very nature. To know something is to capture it, not just as knowledge acquisition but as a pinning down, a possession and proto-ownership. In previous work, she re-cast the basic unit for measuring distance as a squirm, based on the length of a worm. While fictional, she has given it a rational basis – “speed is calculated by dividing the distance travelled by the amount of time passed. Time is variable. It depends on the location and how good of a time the worm is having. The velocity is always zero.” That these moonworms “may or may not have existed” and “might or might not evolve” is of no consequence to Edmondson. Scientific realism is no barrier to acquiring knowledge; there are still truths to be found, some of them by closely studying fictitious moonworm poo.

In the river gallery, a giant sculpted ‘mother-shell’ hangs over a cluster of empty oyster shells. Failed protection; her flock consumed, their hearts are eaten out. We have come to the aftermath of Niamh McGuinne’s bivalve massacre. We do not know if this mother has been devoured too, or if she fled the scene; in ‘A Fragile Armour’, we can only witness her carcass slowly turning above those of her diminutive charges, amassed on the floor, mounded as rubbish. Here the discarded midden, its life shucked out.

Niamh McGuinne, ‘A Fragile Armour’ part 1 of 2

Facing this tableau are the gallery windows, covered with a printed film (screen print on polyester), depicting the oyster shell’s barnacled exteriors backed by a grid. The image reminds me of cyanotype, one of the oldest forms of photographic printing, which results from exposure to ultraviolet light, traditionally used to reproduce technical drawings as blueprints (until the arrival of photocopy machines). The population of deceased oysters has been mapped, examined and contained for posterity.

‘Creatures of Love’, three photo-intaglio prints on paper, follow on from the riverside windows. Here the shells are shown individually, closeup bounded by graph paper, one hand drawn. Each exoskeleton is scrutinised for what we can learn from their smooth valleys and craggy ranges, alluding to archaeological and geological research.

Near ‘Creatures of Love’, positioned on the floor, is ‘Mound’, a literal mound, here of photocopies and chine colle prints from ‘Creatures of Love’, which the artist coated in encaustic medium and shaped over her hand — seeming to devalue the images by taking them down from the wall, photocopying, and sweeping them up in a mound. Though including the chine colle prints retains something of traditional ‘value’ in this depreciation.

McGuinne’s works bring us through the learning process – from the originating midden as a research site, dissected into pored over individual fragments, before being understood and interpreted into common knowledge passed through many hands. A move from rubbish to near fetish and back through time, though a pearl of worth always remains. This passing of time is doubly reflected in how each oyster shell is created – its strata a build-up of calcium. Something McGuinne links to calcifications in us humans, caused by infection, trauma, tumours, and heart disease.

Niamh McGuinne, ‘Folly’, 2022

This brings us to ‘Folly’, her latest work, where she takes us inside the artefact. ‘Folly’ is an aluminium box printed with the pattern of oyster shells, with a silver foil mirrored interior. Here the artist is trying to suggest being inside the oyster shell, the oyster has gone, and we are now the occupant. We, too, will someday be husks for the study.

The trash heap has spoken.

Midden is at Luan Gallery, Athlone until 20th November 2022 – find out more here. 


(1) The definition that the Midden Collective use is –


2a: a refuse heap: KITCHEN MIDDEN, Shell Midden (archaeological)

2b: a small pile (as of seeds, bones, or leaves) gathered by a rodent (such as a pack rat)

(2) Fraggle Rock is a television series about muppet creatures, created by Jim Henson.

(3) There is well-documented bias in health sciences research; females were excluded from most biomedical research based on scientists’ belief that female hormonal release made them too variable to study. Drug trials with US government funding only started including women in the 90s, meaning many generic drugs may not have been investigated in women.

(4) For example, aspirin has been a well-accepted agent for preventing a heart attacks in men. Still, a 2015 study found that taking a low dose of aspirin every other day is ineffective or harmful for most women in preventing heart disease.

(5) A 2018 study found doctors often view men with chronic pain as brave or stoic, but women with chronic pain as emotional or hysterical. A survey conducted in 2019 found that one in five women say they have felt that a health care provider has ignored or dismissed their symptoms.

(6) “Yentl Syndrome” is named after the play/film in which a woman poses as a man to gain an education. Yentl Syndrome was coined to highlight that women die after heart attacks more often than men because of inadequate treatment.


Middens and Nightscapes

Paul Roy

Middens & Nightscapes.

Glancing up at the sun by accident, the intensity of its light forces you to look away. You will find that your now closed eyes retain a lurid snapshot of its fierce presence; a lingering trace, not the sun itself, but still, in its persistence, a stark and glowing reminder. Both of the current shows in Luan appear to me to be considering, very much like the sun-gazers shocked retinas, the varying ways that traces might be left, like these fading green dots and streaks dancing behind our eyelids, this remaining glow lasts long enough to be considered, a slowly fading temporal snapshot.

The two exhibitions: MIDDEN and Nightscapes, sit side by side across the entirety of Luans’ three gallery spaces, independent of each other, yet with a serendipity of juxtaposition.  They feel connected, complimentary, with the subject matter of both appearing to address a vision of a nostalgia of future archaeology; wherein the idea begins to emerge that the artist is not just the documentarian of now, nor of some recent past, they also position them as potential prophets, reading the signs and foretelling the downward path of progress. Their presentations are redolent of some of the sci-fi writers who arose after the initial explosive advancements of the industrial revolution, writers simultaneously referencing an imagined future and the dark superstitions and fears of the past, where they proposed the idea that ultimately, enlightenment might be consumed as fuel for the machine. (Ref.1).

 These artists have taken the time to tell us, in these exhibitions, what the future archaeologist might pine to unearth, the vague links, hints, to how we somewhat nonchalantly allowed for the anthropocene to become an extinction event, whilst we lost patience with the dull rainbow of choice our recycling bins presented; too busy doing, to think. These two exhibitions contain, in some ways a proposed glimpse of the grim remnants of our darkening realities.(Ref.2).

In the Library gallery Ugo Ricciardis’ nightscape images hint at the fleeting presence of humans, their smear of light is there, they blink brightness at a past glow. The ribbons of light stand like scars on the nature of night, they exist to show where people were. A photo struggles to exist without a photographer, yet the traces of humanity are nebulous, they seem more like records of what had happened, rather than what was happening, an elongated moment of human activity, now scorched into the image, like the retinal smudge, but not fading, held, now, perpetually in vision. The people in them stand vague, almost gone, but not quite. In the large images, like Greenman, there is also a sense that we are anthropomorphising and adding structure to nature out of a desire to identify with it. Even the dancer of Fyah Dance moves back and forth through time, advancing and reversing, in an almost familiar ritual, a sense of a vision of lost history. 

The MIDDEN Collective: Niamh McGuinne, Sarah Edmonson and Mary Martin, themselves simultaneously gesture towards, and present their works very much as middens. Unveiling discarded remnants, material, chemical, genetic, dug up, unearthed; they are there to be considered and examined. They show a future consideration of a ’Now’ rapidly becoming a ‘What used to be’. Their work shows us how the memory of the present might appear in the future.  

 The lurid plasticity and sparkle of Sarahs’ worms, rubberised antropomorphs, initially appear like familiar living creatures, the devourers of decay and necrosis, yet they are manufactured from the materials of anthropocene doom, initially hinting at life, they are revealed to be human-made, they mimic organic life, but, in their artifice, also mock it, they become relics of a hope in a hopeless way, they outlive life.

 Sarah places them in a moonscape, using the barrenness of our celestial companion as something of an avatar for a dead-earth landscape, proposing the craters and ridges as worm-casts, the midden-reflecting traces of prior activity, and in some ways proposing, once again, a speculative archaeological tableau. When there is almost nothingness, is anything possible? What might then dare to persist? And how will it be spoken of, if even language can disintegrate and dematerialise?

There is often scant comfort in speculation, especially when it is grounded in research and knowledge. The artists in Midden know their subjects, they have looked, they have considered and the lessons in their conclusions may sit somewhat uncomfortably upon our sensibilities. So now, Sarahs’ squirming life forms seem fleshy and queasy, slick and uneasy, embodying the gnawing fears of decay, of death, of the loss of flesh, and the loss of an identifiable world. But, in the instance of realisation, when it dawns that they are actually an artifice, the queasiness can easily be subsumed by a fear. There is a revelation of doom in the moment where plastic worms apparently squirms into life, only for them to then be shown, through the familiarity of their machined uniformity, to be uncanny and artificial; and so, the moon is not cheese or an inviting sand-scape, it is just a dead rocky neighbour onto which we have always projected our hopes and imaginings.

Marys’ paintings propose for us a hybridised future, human identity becoming simply a genetic trace, present and identifiable, but no longer a pure dominant. The forced change of the anthropocene is rinsing us away on tides of petroleum rainbows, translucent husks of mermaid purses and glittering fish scales. Perhaps she is sketching out a design for survival, proposing genetic hybrids, like lungfish, decade sleeping burrowing frogs, dessicated tardigrades (the creatures who present closest the possible capacity to survive Sarahs’ moon): the emergent hybrid taxons, pushing up through the detritus of technological failure, novel chimeras, thriving in their adapted newness.(Refs.3,4,5). Maybe amongst these merpeople stand the archaeologists who will despair at the wilful blindness that informs the vast plastic middens that will stand as our feet of Ozymandias. (Ref. 6).

Niamh, almost central to the pure definition of the Midden, has dissected the idea of it as it truly is, the classic mound of discarded shell, telling the consuming tale of the costal dwellers, but yet, she renders them in ink and paper, and in the strange materials of current technology. She recreates them, and in doing so, she might just be telling us that this is what we are doing; we consume so much of the nature that surrounds us that what remains is the recreations we make in their absence. Once again, like the glanced sun, all that is really left is the suggestion of what once was.

I found both fear and beauty in the two adjacent shows, an aesthetic willingness to cut open the midden-hump and be receptive to whatever might transpire, to document what has been, as a signpost for what might yet come. It is not fully prophetic, but more like a reading of the signs. Meteorologists, sailors and farmers alike, seeing the clouds gather, noticing the wind pushing up under the leaves, know what storm might come next. It all suggests, perhaps, a phasing out of humans, leaving only crude artifacts and plastic shells. I wonder, if perhaps, Marys’ fish-people archaeologists will foreswear carbon dating, and look for the vague lettering of best before dates amongst the persistent plastic middens.

Paul Roy. 2 November, 2022.








Surreal Estate review

Surreal Estate

Niamh McGuinne’s multi-layered Surreal Estate presents a world of shadows and reflections, real and imagined. It challenges one to look, to be curious and to enter a world of make believe, but a place that is put together from real objects and commonplace material. 

A cluster of suspended metal boxes with richly patterned facades dominates the space. Differing in size and proportion, these constructions appear like little domestic structures. Their open windows and doors are an invitation to peek inside and discover empty ambiguous spaces, embellished with delicate motifs.  Magnified and distorted, these details of glass surfaces, frames and fixtures are at first hard to decipher.  Their shapes echo those found in the intricate embellishment of their exteriors.  Some of the constructions are lit from within, like lanterns, subtly revealing their centres. Others make use of the ambient lighting of the gallery allowing it to cast real outlines into the complex patterning of the interior. The ornamentation appears strangely exotic like the rhythmic calligraphic decoration of Islamic architecture or the wings of a gigantic moth or some flying insect.  In reality it comes from the oil, dust and rain soaked surfaces of dilapidated windows. 

Sharp use is made of play and humour.  Parts of the exhibition even taunt the spectator. A motion detector triggers a light to come on in one of the boxes. In another a tiny curtain shoots across the open window, violently cutting out the prying eyes of the intruder. The toy-like boxes fashioned into imaginary dwellings, hang from the ceiling as if in a child’s bedroom. One of the inspirations for these constructions was Rachel Whiteread’s installation of her collection of dolls’ houses at the Psycho Buildings exhibition in the Hayward in 2008. McGuinne’s inventive sculptures differ not only in the way that they are installed, but in the way that they have been constructed. The boxes in Surreal Estate remain 3 dimensional prints as much as literal houses. 

Along with the sculptures, the exhibition also features a series of digital prints, Surrealshadow and a 3 minute animated film, Shadowlight. This presents a night-time environment, with close-up shots of net curtains and rain-covered windows that switch from real objects to their reflections and shadows. The camera peers through openings giving glimpses of vacant interiors– an old fashioned fireplace and an abandoned sofa. All is veiled in the moving contours of changing light that fall through the window pane, distorted by the shapes of the net curtains or by the pattern of rain drops on the surface of the glass. The cascading rivulets of water reflected on the walls and floorboards of the fabricated spaces are reminiscent of sleepless nights spent staring at such reflections or of a child’s fascination with tracing the structure and forms of such phenomena and delighting in their apparent random nature. 

Switching to views of the box sculptures, suspended in a darkened space, it becomes apparent that the film depicts a constructed space. The details of the interiors are made using etching, screen print and thermal heat-transfer on paper, polyester and polycarbonate. Ambiguity is central here, as it is to the rest of the show. This quality of uncertainty, as Ernst Gombrich has noted in the seminal Art and Illusion, forces a deliberate effort to arrive at an intelligible interpretation of the act of seeing. The camera takes the role of voyeur, peering into a veiled world of private spaces and moving silhouettes, but it also evokes more fundamental questions about the act of looking. One has to make sense of what ones sees and the film prompts an awareness of the subjective nature of looking. The artist wants ‘to blur the lines between apparent reality and created fantasy’. All is not what it seems in this imaginative exhibition.

The title of the show Surreal Estate brings together both the catastrophe of the recent property collapse in Ireland, the mass nature of suburban housing and one of the most challenging art movements of the 20th century. The rich legacy of the latter is a major source of McGuinne’s strategies in her creation of the work. The found object recurs in the materials and methods she uses, most notably in the recycled aluminium signage from which the boxes are made and in the various inadvertent items whose surfaces provide their ornamentation. For example windowpanes are used directly through screen printing to supply this patterning. They come from the artist’s home, from buildings she passes on her way to work, from skips, junk shops and public buildings. 

The reliance on chance, another Surrealist trope, re-emerges throughout the exhibition. The giant net curtains that screen off the back wall of the gallery transform the sanitised gallery space. Their large scale contradicts that normally associated with domestic and private aspects of the home and is dramatically out of scale with the delicate constructions hanging in front of them. While the elegant patterning on the material appears to be the result of a refined textile printing process it was in fact spray painted on using a stencil. 

The monochrome colour of the materials, the recycling of discarded objects and the emptiness of the spaces counteract the decorative aspects of the work. The openings in the boxes are cut crudely into the metal surface in a rudimentary fashion. The motifs come from streaks of rain, dirt and the textured surfaces of obsolete, often mottled glass, which was never intended to be seen through. References to such deliberately obscure material, like that of the once ubiquitous net curtain, suggest the murky secretive aspects of the home. By focusing on these details the work highlights the vulnerability of abandoned habitations, with their secret spaces now left exposed to prying eyes. The imagination is brought to a furtive domain of forsaken dwellings. Ultimately the changing patterns of light and shade, the delicate ornamentation and the refined tones of brown, blue and grey transform the detritus into a graceful elegy.  This inventive exhibition speaks of the aesthetic power of derelict buildings and their overlooked fixtures and their continuing ability to fascinate the curious passerby. 

Dr. Roisin Kennedy