A short text published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘and the days run away like wild horses over the hills’, Scoil Lorcáin, Seapoint, Dublin, 31 July – 7 August 2019, curated by John O’Donoghue.
All the stars are closer
Lately, when I should be filling my time more productively, I’ve been playing with an app called ‘Skyview’. As distractions go, it’s a pretty good one. Pick up your phone at any bored moment, swipe smoothly and swiftly to the necessary screen, tap the icon to pop the app open and point your phone above or in front of you: suddenly, everywhere, you’ll see stars. Day or night, dark skies or bright, the app will map the cosmos from your inconsequential little place on earth, highlighting the must-see astronomical bodies in your expanded cosmic neighbourhood. So, right now, on a grey afternoon in Dublin, pointing my iphone camera straight ahead, the screen shows me the constellation Taurus out there in the western heavens, its component stars and deep-sky objects captured as a cute digital cartoon, its outline shape overlaid against an ordinary, familiar view of my office wall. An image of the afternoon sun as a ball of silvery-blue light rests perfectly between the bull’s great horns. Venus is visible too: a football about to be kicked by Taurus’s front left hoof. I pick a random star from the constellation, click on its tiny glow, and Skyview introduces me to Hyadum I, a ‘variable star’ 162 light years from earth. Picking another, further to the right — this time, I learn, in the constellation of Perseus — I hit on Gorgonea Tertia, a ‘semi-regular pulsating star’, 308 light years from earth, a miniscule dot in the distance, with a mass five times that of our own modestly proportioned sun. Lowering the camera’s gaze so that it now rests, right here, above the text I’m typing, I follow the stately glide of the passing international space-station, its floating form drifting steadily above the pale illumination of the open document. One reality — or one, largely invisible and unreachable part of reality — is layered on top of another. Skyview brings constellations, galaxies and individual stars into sharp, available relief. But it both erases and adds to the world I’m seeing. The world is instantly amplified: a routine sense of tangible, empirical, everyday reality is transformed by extravagant evidence of astronomical abundance. At the same time, the world around is reduced, obliterated. The map — in all its far-reaching magnificence — obscures the territory from which we try to see.
How we see and know where we are — how we understand here in relation to there — has long been a subject, maybe the subject, of Kathy Prendergast’s art. Her work reflects, repeatedly, on the ways we map routes and territories: the methodical, matter-of-fact processes through which we geographically define where we are, what a place is, or where we want to travel to. One result of this reflection, this ongoing effort of artistic concentration, is intense distillation. Prendergast often takes existing maps and radically pares them back: re-constructing them by focusing on one thing at a time, one feature of a landscape, one type of place, one type of name. Instead of representing the complexity of a particular terrain, it might become simplified to something fundamental. So, for instance, a road map might have all the roads removed and the wider landscape wiped out with dark ink: only the towns and cities remaining as points of disconnected dwelling. The effect might be apocalyptic — all awareness, all knowledge, of specific interconnecting places removed — or it might be a source of imaginative and political liberation: as if all separating borders, all geographical markers of identity, have faded away. Another result of Prendergast’s processes might be, then, a kind of revelation: just as her maps make much of the world disappear, they also bring distinct details of the measurable universe into newly extraordinary appearance. Her art involves incredible, cumulative re-creation: map after map is re-made and re-imagined. Sometimes, this involves the re-inscribing of existing maps but in newly specific — or even surprising, psychedelic — styles. The places of the earth and the spaces of the sky are idiosyncratically charted, in ways that speak to both the precariousness and the possibilities of our times. Though they are works of secular, non-spiritual questing, their open-minded intensity recalls a definition of religious faith once offered by the poet R.S. Thomas:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
 R.S. Thomas, ‘Via Negativa’, in Collected Poems (London: J.M.Dent, 1993), p.220.