Emerging from the fog of sleep to hear on the radio that there is to be an extended news bulletin, one now immediately knows, with a sinking heart, what to expect – another act of terror. So it is that A Prayer for the Healing of Nations is an apt and powerful plea for sanity, writes James Mackenzie.
Paul Bloomer’s exhibition at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum and Archives is a series of eleven large charcoal drawings and one Sumi ink miniature (there were to be several more of the former and many more of the latter, but space was limited). Composed between 2014 and now, they “explore the tensions between our fragmented global village and the harmony of the natural world.”
The global village is one in which the world’s human inhabitants are connected electronically and almost instantaneously. This does not mean, however, that it is a peaceful bucolic idyll. Far from it, as Paul demonstrates in drawings such as Facebook Valley and the vast, Bruegelesque How then shall we now live? (a clever title that juxtaposes past, present and future).
In each of these, light comes from the screens of handheld electronic devices. Thus light is not necessarily synonymous with beneficence, but rather illuminates the disconnectedness of the throngs of people who are gathered apparently to witness a singularly brutal event – a crucifixion – but which most choose to ignore.
In the latter of these two compositions, further light comes from a burning city, above which a squadron of helicopters is on collision course with a flock of geese. On the city’s outskirts are the gruesome scaffolds from which bodies hang and where atrocities are taking place. Before a war-shattered forest a burial ground mirrors the crucifixion.
Closer to hand we can explore the groups and individuals in the crowd. In spite of the general apathy towards the crucified person (there are two notable exceptions), there are disturbing activities and figures: some folk are fighting, while others near the cross are angrily pointing at or saluting something we cannot see in the sky. A jester with a crown gazes in horror ahead of him. A man raises a rifle.
That all this and more can be portrayed on such a large scale in black and white, is quite astonishing. Charcoal is the major medium, while a few pigments are used to display different intensities of black. White chalk is hardly used at all – as flecks of light in Return of the Light (1) for example. The white of the ‘canvas’ is sufficient to produce almost dazzling light sources while, Paul explains, the instrument he uses most to create differing intensities and depth is – a rubber.
We can see this very clearly in two drawings that, side by side, celebrate the “harmony of the natural world” that contrasts with the war, brutality, pollution and division we have imposed.
In I dreamt I heard geese flying through Northern Lights, the Aurora appears as a series of harmonic waves, spirals and circles of light, through which a flock of silhouetted geese fly on their migration. Flight is of the same theme – a pair of swans wing across, and almost merge into, a radiant midnight sun.
Perhaps pilgrimage is a more apt word than migration, as it is linked to prayer: indeed the sensuous or even sensual entwining of swan’s necks is the healing prayer of the exhibition.
The sense, however, that nature is solely a redeeming feature is belied by Poisoned Lake, in which snow geese are seemingly locked in a predetermined descent to a hell-hole of pollution. The lake is surrounded by a helpless crowd (some are caged, although others hold in their arms wounded or dying birds), fronted by a naked couple – like a banished yet innocent Adam and Eve.
Meanwhile in Sheep without a Shepherd ravens gather to feed on carcasses, lambs bleat in distress, and two sheep are in anguish, entangled in a neglected barbed wire fence.
There is not room here to describe and do justice to all the drawings, but each deserves thorough contemplation: even the one tiny miniature, depicting a bird flock wheeling like starlings over a gruesome but too familiar mass execution – one reason that birds may fly by night, Paul comments.
Please go and see and be moved by this remarkable collection.
The exhibition runs until 16 July, and next weekend on Sunday 10 June at 2pm, the artist, Paul Bloomer, will be talking about it in Da Gadderie.
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