Sunday, September 9, 2007


Saturday evening I went over to Saltworks Gallery for the opening of the show "Days" and to hear the artist Christopher McNulty talk about the work. At first glance I wouldn't get much more from the work than a strong opinion of McNulty being obsessive compulsive. But once the artist began explaining the work it took on an entirely different meaning.

In this series of work McNulty attempts to truely comprehend the ideas of death, morality, and time and goes about it in his personal style of methodical mark-making. The idea of this reminds me of the title of Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde sculpture "The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living", which I think has to be one of the best and loaded titles for a piece of artwork that I have ever heard. In a sense, McNulty is seeking to attain that understanding, and does it in a less sensational and much more successful way than Hirst.

McNulty used a complex computer program typically employed by insurance companies and the study of statistics, to figure out his life expectancy. (He said he actually used three different programs and then took the most optimistic). Then he set about making drawings marking how many days he had left to live from the day he started the piece. In the drawing above, "20,534 days" he carefully marked each day with a pencil on paper like a prisoner marks the days off on the cell wall.

In the piece "20,249 days" he threw darts at a piece of paper 20,249 times, leaving it somewhat shredded and hinting (in my opinion optimistically) at the impact of his time left.

As he worked on the series his drawings became circular, like in the image below where he used his own finger print. I thought this shape was odd because life seems more linear to me since one cannot go backwards but only forwards. McNulty responded by saying that he wasn't sure why he was drawn to the circle or why the work evolved that way, but it felt "right" and perhaps people actually view their life in a cyclical way. The shape reminds me of mandalas and I think he may have a point.

Artist Christopher McNulty

In "20,097 days" McNulty created a saline solution that was equivalent to the water/salt ratio of human tears then used a chemistry device to accurately drip 20,097 times on the canvas. Standing in the right light you can see the salt deposits glisten in the light, forming a circle.
All of the works had a huge impact on me once I stopped and really thought about the implication of the titles and the idea of someone deliberately marking down how long they have left to live. It felt humbling to see it, as if McNulty were exposing something horribly personal with total honesty and, I don't know, innocence? Aren't all humans a bit naive on the topic of death because there is no way to really grasp mortality? These drawings are a documentation of that naivete, simple mark-making as his best attempt at calculating the impossible. Yet what he creates has become precious in itself, a glimpse, a frozen moment in time, because already these drawings are no longer accurate, created in 2006-07, McNulty already has less time left than he did when making each piece. Already each title is overly optimistic in how many days he has left to live. These works could potentially outlive the artist, speaking of fear, hope, and mystery of the unknown future and ephemeral life of humans.
"Cosmos" has to be one of the coolest, most mind blowing things I have seen in a while. Part of an older series, the "Mapping" project, he began with the word Cosmos, then using a thesaurus he traced one word to the next synonym, writing them down like a family tree of the English language. There is a better image of the drawing at the artist's website.

"Days" is up at Saltworks Gallery through October 20th, 2007. Life is short! Go see it now!


David said...

This is a wonderful depiction of language change. I wish I could see it closer and read the words myself to see what he's done. I always like "watching" a word evolve from (sometimes tenuous) Indo-European roots or particles into fully formed words in the various daughter dialects. It's interesting to trace the semantic changes that happen too. For instance, the word he chose, "cosmos" in modern Greek still means "world", but it also means "people", sort of tying the two ideas together. Ο κόσμος.

Jonathan said...

Wow, I knew I could count on you to shed new light on the Cosmos piece! That is really interesting - I wonder if McNulty knew Cosmos also meant people - that makes the "family tree" style approach to mapping words all the more fitting.