File Note 10: Ilana Halperin - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Mungo Campbell



Journey through the surface of the Earth Images References Quote Biography Credits

Journey through the surface of the Earth

‘The first time I saw Don Judd’s ‘pink-plexiglas box,’ it suggested a giant crystal from another planet. After talking to Judd, I found out we had a mutual interest in geology and mineralogy, so we decided to go rock hunting in New Jersey.
Together with my wife Nancy, and Judd’s wife, Julie, we set out to explore that geological locale … A lump of lava in the center of the quarry yields tiny quartz crystals. For about an hour Don and I chopped incessantly at the lump with hammer and chisel, while Nancy and Julie wandered aimlessly around the quarry picking up sticks, leaves and odd stones. From the top of the quarry cliffs, one could see the New Jersey suburbs bordered by the New York City skyline.’
(Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 2nd Edition, edited by Jack Flam, The University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, University of California Press, London, England, 1996)

Heimay, 1973
‘A man named Mike at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow examined a crystal shard found in October 2003 on the crest of the Eldfell volcano. He decided the specimen was either a piece of quartz from deep inside the earth that came up during the eruption and covered in a thin slip of molten rock. Or a shard of glass from a window pane which shattered as lava filled a house and later caught in the tread of someone’s boot and prised loose by magma as they worked to save the harbour.’
(Ilana Halperin, Label text; Nomadic Landmass, doggerfisher, 2005) 

A colleague — a museum-based geologist — was recently seeking an art historical perspective on what might be the more curious ways of his profession; the practices that differentiate art curator from geology curator; the underlying differences in patterns of collecting, interpretation, and display. On the face of it, the distinctions appear clear enough; the gallery curator uses a series of more or less developed forms of aesthetic determination to refine (and even possibly, on occasion, extend) a canon from which collections and exhibitions are selected and staged. There appears to be no similar canon of geological value around which the geologist can work; the prize geological exhibit is, to some extent, always under our feet — our planet an almost infinite repository of geological stories, a limitless store of the specimens through which those stories can be told. The geologist tramps towards a distant horizon, stops, picks up a rock and either hits it with a hammer, puts it in his bag, or discards it. Once examined, turned over in the hand, even the act of being discarded in favour of the next rock cannot undo the process which briefly identified that one tiny fragment of the Earth as an object laden with potential for documentation, taxonomic disputation and finally public interpretation. Once chosen however, rarely is it the raw rock of the ground beneath our feet which the museum geologist brings to our attention; the objects from which layman and expert discover the physical structure of our planet are shaped and polished to conform to clearly defined scientific and aesthetic criteria. Chance has intervened to change the very nature of this shard; the geologist’s glance and the blow of a hammer accomplishes what millions of years of geological process could not — a removal from the generality of our planet’s crust and a reinvention as an object existing in human time and experience.

A more subtle perspective emerges — an interpretation of the museum geologist’s role as more akin to the artist than the gallery curator; the un-coverer of potential for detailed interrogation among the infinite possibilities presented by our every step through the world; the producer of a commodity which mediates through a clearly defined aesthetic between ourselves and almost everything around us; the teller of stories about ourselves and where and how we stand in relation to here and now and not here and not now.

For the most part, humanity rests comfortable in the thought that geological inquiry interrogates passages of time which are almost unfathomably of the ‘not now’. Our experience of the geological ‘now’ is too apocalyptic to be confronted more closely than through the newsman’s telescopic lens; earthquake, volcano and landslide all put before us challenges to our sense that geology is something that happened in the mists of time and that humanity, by contrast, is what is happening now. There are, however, places on the planet where this relationship between the human and the geological undergoes a seismic shift; geologist or not, to take a journey through the landscape of Iceland is to realise that geological time is indefatigably ‘now’. For an artist, to make such a journey is to realise that cataclysmic human events, even at the most personal level, conceal and manifest themselves no less enigmatically in the individual than do the processes of geology in that shard, collected by Halperin, from the crest of the Eldfell volcano. The very encounter with a living landmass confounds our daily assumptions about relationships with our pasts, our presents and our futures. Once among the lava flows and steaming craters, geological process manifests itself as less cataclysmic entropy than creative energy — past catching up with future, the forces of entropy fusing with those of creativity.

The interloper encountering artist and geologist discussing their parallel investigations into the underlying nature of their respective materials is by turn excited and confused. Conversation revolves around examination, even cursory, to divine an origin, a history, tracing the effects of chance on the trajectories of the most elemental of materials. Both describe the same slice of rock seen through a microscope. Both are excited by the presence of the object, its physical appearance; one describes a human and personal history punctuated by encounters and separations, migration and settlement, the other geological time and process, evidenced in crystalline structure and colour. 

What emerges by way of communication finds its language in the abstract forms of raw scientific data, in the subtle weavings of storytelling or in the rich patterns of colourful interpretation. ‘How did I come to stand at the edge of the crater?’ is no less a subject for discourse than ‘How did this crystal come to rest at the edge of the crater?’ As the artist communicates human experience through the visual language of the geologist, so the geologist’s raw material, the very ground beneath our feet, emerges as an explicable and coherent part of our experience, no longer an unconsidered and chaotic mass. We stand and wonder at what we encounter as we pick our way across the surface of our world.


Autobiography of Red Anne Carson, Vintage Contemporaries, New York (1999) Vintage ISBN 037570129X

After the Quake Haruki Murakami, The Harvill Press, London (2002) ISBN 1860469671

The Control of Nature John McPhee, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (1989) ISBN 0374522596

A Geological Miscellany Compiled by G.Y. Craig & E.J. Jones, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey (1982) ISBN 0691023891

The Eruption of Pelee: a summary and discussion of the phenomena and their sequels Angelo Heilprin, Philadelphia (1908)

Carnegie Institution of Washington publication; No. 339 Washington, DC, (1924) ‘The Vesuvius Eruption of 1906: Study of a Volcanic Cycle’, Frank Alvord Perret

Stromboli Directed by Roberto Rossellini (1949/50)

La Soufrière Directed by Werner Herzog (1977)

Farthest North Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, The Modern Library, New York (1999) ISBN 0375754725

Into the Abyss Ed. Adam Putnam, New York (2003)

'The town is built into the slope of the volcano — there are holes in the wall you can look through and see the fire. They use them to bake bread.
I don’t believe you, says Herakles. The soldier shrugs. Ancash’s mother looks up.
No it’s true, she says. Lava bread. Makes you passionate.’ Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson


Ilana Halperin (b. New York, USA 1973) lives in Glasgow. She completed an MFA (Fine Arts) at Glasgow School of Art in 2000, having previously studied at Brown University, USA. Her endeavours have taken her from the Karst Mountains in Guanxi, China to the Eldfell Volcano in Iceland and the cave networks of Slovenia. She has worked with diverse organisations including The Global Volcanism Program at The Smithsonian Institution, The British Geological Survey in Edinburgh and the conservation organisation Earthwatch. Recent performative lectures and exhibitions have taken place at The Whitney Museum Altria in New York, doggerfisher Gallery in Edinburgh and The China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, China. Her art/science research residency with Camden Arts Centre linked with The Geological Society in London to investigate volcanic islands, such as Ferdinandea near Italy, that can sink as quickly as they emerge. She also found writings by Angelo Heilprin, possibly her ancestor, who produced some of the most beautiful photographs ever taken of an eruption.


Mungo Campbell is Deputy Director of the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.

Supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.