Ones to watch in 2022: Ilana Halperin, artist

Much like many of the geological processes that inform her work, Ilana Halperin’s rise to international recognition has been gradual but inexorable, writes Susan Mansfield

Ilana Halperin

Something happens to time in the company of Ilana Halperin. Unimaginable eons of geological time slip casually into conversation. Sitting in her cosy Glasgow sitting room, she is talking about visiting a wall of ammonites 198 million years old, and her two dogs, Eadie and Ira, go on snoozing as if deep time was really nothing special at all.

Halperin’s art bridges the gap between geological time and our own. Minerals buried for thousands of years under New York City become a map of her family’s past. She laser etches on to blocks of mica 400-800 million years old, creates sculptures by growing stone in calcifying springs and warms milk in a volcanic lake. With a delicate touch, she makes objects, drawings, watercolours, film and performance which make geological marvels a little more comprehensible.

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She has recently returned from a residency in the Haute Provence UNESCO Geopark in France (where she saw the ammonites). “This was my first travel since the pandemic began, so it felt astonishing to be somewhere different and new, and to end up in that place just felt like a miracle. The geology of this region is really like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Someone asked (the writer on geology) John McPhee to sum up the subject in one line, and he said: ‘On top of the mountain, I found fossils from the ocean floor’. This is that place.”

Ilana Halperin, Field Studies (from Kilchattan Bay to Hawk's Neb) 2019 PIC: Courtesy of the artist and Patricia Fleming, Glasgow / Photograph by Alan Dimmick

She plans to return in the spring to make a solo show for the Geopark’s Cairn Arts Centre. Meanwhile work from her exhibition at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute last summer is bound for shows in Germany and Switzerland, and she is collaborating with earth and environmental scientists in St Andrews on a new commission for the university’s Harry & Margery Boswell Art Collection which will be shown in the autumn.

In September, an exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, The Rock Cycle (Yamaguchi), continues a cross-disciplinary collaboration with artists and scientists in Japan, and spring sees the publication of the first volume of essays about her practice, Felt Events. Having worked steadily, impressively, since completing her MFA at Glasgow School of Art two decades ago, she is gradually – perhaps in the art world’s own version of geological time – coming to wider international recognition.

It comes on the heels of a tough period. 2020 saw her busy schedule of travel to the world’s geological hot spots come to an abrupt end. Then, in the autumn, her mother died back in New York, from dementia accelerated by covid isolation. It was long-distance grief, a zoom funeral. “It’s impacted what I’ve thought about, what I’ve made, the ways I’ve thought about making work, and what I want to communicate,” says Halperin. It took a year before she began drawing and painting again.

Born and brought up in Manhattan, Halperin attended New York’s state-run High School for the Arts, which operated like an art school with a regular school curriculum on the side. At 16, she had already fallen in love with stone carving. Her formative memories are of playing hide and seek with her siblings in the Hall of Minerals and Gems in the city’s Natural History Museum, and climbing on rocks in Riverside Park which sparkled with mica.

Ilana Halperin, Field Studies (from Kilchattan Bay to Hawk's Neb) 2019 PIC: Courtesy of the artist and Patricia Fleming, Glasgow / photograph by Alan Dimmick

Leaving school, she took an apprenticeship with a stone carving supply store where she was paid in rocks. “I was making these tiny sculptures, primarily with alabaster, which were really warm colours and veiny, they looked like muscles. That totally connects to everything I’ve gone on to do since, this moment of recognition between stone and us.”

Within weeks of arriving in Scotland, she had discovered that her new country had an active seismic zone (the Highland Boundary fault). A few months later, a seismologist from the British Geological Survey told her that tectonic plates move at the same rate as human fingernails grow, another shimmering point of connection.

“I would say that laid the basis for the way that I’ve worked with scientists ever since, these moments of connection where you cross the arbitrary divide between art and science. I’m not an earth scientist, but I’m an artist who is used to trying to think across how we relate to the earth and earth processes and time and each other. I think a lot of what I do is trying to cultivate feeling.”

On a residency in Iceland mid-way through her MFA, she learned by chance of a volcano on the island of Heimaey which erupted in 1974, the year she was born. “And then when I was about to turn 30, and my father was dying of cancer, without really understanding why, I decided I wanted to go to the Eldfell volcano for my 30th birthday.”

Ilana Halperin, Field Studies (from Kilchattan Bay to Hawk's Neb) 2019 PIC: Courtesy of the artist and Patricia Fleming, Glasgow / photograph by Alan Dimmick

That trip sparked a lifelong engagement. “I went back when I turned 40, and hopefully I’ll turn 50 and 60 and on, and go back for each big birthday. It opened up my thinking about how you can share your life with a landmass. It collapses the ways we usually think about geologic time as being outside of ourselves.”

She pulls down a volume from the bookshelf behind her, an illustrated book on volcanos she bought on a sidewalk in New York in the 1990s. Now she has visited, and worked in, many of the places in its pages, in Iceland, Hawaii, China, Japan. “I am really interested in witnessing places where you can see active processes that formed the earth still going on, happening in a human time frame.”

A sense of responsibility to the earth, of understanding that we – rocks, volcanos, human beings – are part of a single, vulnerable life system, has always permeated her work, she says. “For people who are making work in relation to climate crisis, there can a pressure that the work needs to look like an activist practice. I would say, as a queer feminist land artist, my work is, of course, embedded in an activist practice, but in an intimate and gentle language that helps facilitate different ways of connecting to things.”

Take, for example, marble, which is one of her current obsessions. The only quarried marble in Scotland, she says, is ground up to form aggregate. This saddens her. “Do we have a responsibility to look after that marble, which is composed of 500-million-year old life forms?

“I would say that is a way of engaging with the climate crisis. Do we have responsibility to care for the life forms which will, in 500 million years, go into the making of marble which doesn’t yet exist?”

While I try to fit this thought into my woefully inadequate brain, the dogs sleep on. They’ve probably worked it out long ago.

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