I have driven miles across the Irish Republic to visit Dorothy Cross, one of the country’s most distinguished contemporary artists. She lives in the far west of Connemara, beyond the fretwork of bog and lake, beyond the sharp-peaked Twelve Bens looming beneath a shifting sky, where the coastline fragments into inlets and islets. From the window of her simple farmhouse you see the entrance to Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord, and the “smooth bald hill”, the impressive Mweelrea, rising beyond. This empty landscape, best known from the paintings of Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats and others, seems fit for hermits and visionaries.
In Cross’s driveway, however, there is commotion. Her new black Labrador bounds genially, demanding a walk. There are builders finishing an extension linking her simple farmhouse with her pure wedge-shaped studio – “So that I won’t have to get wet when it rains.” Cross had a tea party for the builders the day before to celebrate the completion. That morning a curator had arrived to discuss her show in Dublin next year.
Before his visit Cross, dark-haired, lean, full of energy, had, she tells me, immersed herself in the natural sea cave at the bottom of her steep strip of land to film the tide coming in. “The cave is only accessible at best for two hours a day and then only for 20 days a year because it is usually so wild,” she says. It offers, for those prepared to brave its dark interior and the cold shock of Atlantic seawater, the contrasting thrill of a turbulent body of black water and the sight of daylight dancing in from the entrance, over the waves. The finished film will be the first piece in an exhibition of Cross’s work at Turner Contemporary in Margate next month, matched by a video taken in Margate’s mysterious Shell Grotto – a response to Margate’s very different seaside. “Forty yards of tunnels all covered in shells, and then you end up in a rectangular room and you think, ‘What could have happened in here?’” she says.
Entitled Connemara, and accompanied by a show, from Tate, of oil sketches by Turner and Constable subtitled “Sketching from Nature”, the exhibition is Cross’s first solo showing in a public gallery in the UK. It deliberately resists our preconceptions about what an artist who is moved by landscape and the natural world might make. Besides this video work, there will be a model submarine on an old-fashioned easel with a shark’s heart inside, “on a voyage of discovery and destruction”; a strange “Tabernacle” made from an upturned currach, a traditional fishing boat, on legs; an upended skeleton of a Cuvier whale, salvaged from the beach; and a family of cast-silver spider crabs, one with an enormous penis added to its back.
There will be photographs, found objects and a bronze cast of a shark with a scale model of the Himalayas replacing its dorsal fin. Another upturned currach, a small model made by students in Cork, is covered with the skin of a basking shark that Cross found on the beach in County Wexford. She says: “I pickled it myself with the help of a student. Obviously they would not have used shark skin in the past but I love the play on the idea of a fish and the fin as a keel.”
These surreal and serendipitous works, ranging across installation, architecture, film and sculpture, offer entry to the moving, shocking, sometimes sublime and sometimes wickedly comic world of Dorothy Cross. As she explains, “I have never been a landscape painter and I never could be, because I always felt that nature would beat anything that I could try to attempt to paint.” Her hero is the German artist Joseph Beuys, who once jumped into an Irish bog hole, up to his hat, expressing the desire, as Cross has it, “to be of it, rather than to be looking at it, to be in it”.
Born in Cork in 1956, Cross was brought up in a large house in the city’s gracious Montenotte district, in the same middle-class milieu as her friend, actor Fiona Shaw. The three-month summer holidays were spent at Fountainstown at the mouth of Cork Harbour where Cross’s father, who ran a garage, had built a hut. There, “Our life was in and on the sea, swimming and fishing for mackerel, pollack, crab and lobster.”
Cross’s mother came from a well-to-do family, with roots equally in Ireland and England. “My mother was brought up in England, while my father was brought up in Cork during the civil war, so my mother went to a beautiful school in Dulwich while my father was running round avoiding the black and tans.” Cross acknowledged this rich dual inheritance recently in Montenotte/Fountainstown, the double book she produced last year of old family photographs and her own artworks, reflecting these two different worlds.
“I adored the aesthetic of my mother’s love for a Japanese vase and my father’s love for an anchor. That balance was really perfect,” she says.
For many years, though, it was swimming that possessed her. Through her teens Cross swam competitively for Ireland and many of her pieces revolve around the sea and sea creatures, including Medusae, a Wellcome Trust-funded project she undertook with her brother Tom, a zoologist, in 2002, about jellyfish. It was her discovery of scuba diving, swimming with hammerheads in the Galápagos Islands in the early 1980s, that introduced her to sharks, a recurrent theme from the bronze “Shark Lady in a Ball Dress” of 1988 to works in the current show.
As she describes it, sharks have a significance far greater than the visible, supposedly aphrodisiac fin: “I am very interested in what is repulsive and what is beautiful, because in our own bodies we are so confused about that, in terms of sexuality and our own mortality. The shark epitomises that, too, in terms of fear and desire and misunderstanding.”
It was on her return to Dublin in 1983 after studying in California that she began to make work of the kind that has made her reputation.
“It was when the divorce referendum and the abortion referendum were on. I was shocked, amused and bemused. So I started to make works in response to that, works about the church, actually, and these strange contraptions that were like architectural wooden churches that had become impotent; they were very phallic.”
Since then, with an intense poetic energy, Cross has consistently used the places, objects and materials she has come across, rather than the traditional materials of fine art, to make work that reverberates with love and loss. Her oeuvre encompasses tender, provocative sculptures made from real cows’ udders; a Freudian “Passion bed” constructed of wine glasses and metal wire; a pair of dead snakes entwined with their hearts cast in sliver; the silver cast of the insides of two mouths clamped in a passionate kiss; an opera in a disused mine on Valentia Island in County Kerry; and the 1999 installation, “Ghostship”, of a decommissioned lightship sprayed with glow-paint in Dublin’s harbour.
For the past 12 years, Cross has lived in Connemara. Drawn here initially by the scuba diving, she fell in love with the landscape and bought first her slice of land and then her house. While she acknowledges the risk of calling the Margate show after this most picturesque tourist destination, she wanted to acknowledge the influence of place.
“Now people tease me, ‘You’ll be painting the landscape in the end’, but I don’t think I will be. I photograph it, I play with it, but I don’t think I’ll paint it. The work is about the landscape at night, when you can’t see it.”
‘Dorothy Cross: Connemara’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK October 5-January 5 2014.