Dorothy Cross has made a career of confronting human mortality and animality. The artist has worked with both animal and human bodies and body parts, including cow udders, which she first introduced into her practice in the 1993 work Virgin Shroud. This figure, draped in a cowhide, the udders forming a crown around the head, attracted international attention. Today she lives and works on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, looking to the transitional terrain of the shoreline for materials and inspiration. This environment continues to provide her with found organic objects for her work in sculpture, film and photography, but she also responds to its global connectedness through journeys and gestures; as in Pearl Bones (2009), for which she inserted five human fingertip bones into five black-lipped oysters and waited to see whether the oysters would coat the bones in nacre, forming pearls, or reject them. More recently she sculpted casts of her own feet into blue sodalite. The resulting work Blue Dive (2021) was exhibited this year in the recently restored Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, Istanbul, as part of the group show “Healing Ruins”, an exhibition that explored how art creates contemporary transformation through discovering and restoring the remnants of history.
Interview by Minna Coke
Portrait by Cliodhna Prendergast
MINNA COKE You moved to Connemara on the west coast of Ireland almost 20 years ago. Since then, you’ve gathered a wide array of remains and biological debris from the coastline, including washed-up sea creatures, their skin, bones and shells. Did you anticipate these found objects becoming so central to your practice?
DOROTHY CROSS I never anticipate anything about what will happen in my work, because I never know. It’s about a relationship with the animal, though they are always dead when I find them, so it’s also about a relationship with their demise and our pending demise. It’s about recognising the human as an animal in relationship to the natural world. That’s terribly important. The first animal I worked with was a whale. He was so large and disgusting and sad, and it was such an endeavour to get him onto my land. It took four years for the meat to decay, not even the birds ate it. But there was beauty in it too, ergonomically – when you look at the vertebrae, it is so sculptural. It’s so much purer than me attempting to make something like it myself. In 1992, I made a shark in wax for Maaretta Jaukkuri’s project, Artscape Nordland. In those days, I hadn’t yet got my hands on an animal that was dead, as I hadn’t actually made the leap to understanding it was a possibility. Afterwards, the wax shark was vandalised and the fins were broken off, but I was actually really glad because then I realised I could find a real shark. I cast him and that was the truth of the animal. I’m very interested in truths. To try and fake a whale or a shark feels wrong.
MC What is your precise role as an artist when interacting with nature?
DC The art is a representation of nature, that’s the closest we can get to the life of an animal. It’s funny what you said earlier about gathering the animals, because, little by little, I’ve extended this process to include our own bones.
MC Yes, you are no stranger to human remains. You’ve worked with bones, hearts, now even an Egyptian mummy. What is it about what’s left behind, about mortality, that appeals to you?
DC It’s the evidence of life and its residue. It’s about identification, identifying with our own structure as animals. More and more there is a denial of this and of our own death, but we are part of that line. To be denatured really is to be completely and utterly without any sense of good or bad, or any sense of the sacred.
MC Humans tend to exploit and disrespect nature; your work does the opposite. You maintain, honour and strengthen its voices even though you use its corpses.
DC Whale , in my project Gravity, was a bare skeleton of a Cuvier’s beaked whale on a marble plinth. He was surrounded by classical sculptures – discus throwers, archers, the Belvedere Torso – but he was actually presented in a disrespectful way. I hung him from his tail and suspended him over an empty, rusty bucket. Yet those four years I spent scrubbing those bones were incredibly respectful and it transpired that the colour of these bones were very like Carrara marble, with grey veins. So it was perfect, but incongruous and horrifying. The silence and interruption of him among these heroic human representations was terribly beautiful.
MC The climate crisis has been linked to a crisis of the imagination – the failure to imagine otherwise. You interact imaginatively with many maligned animals, including snakes and sharks. Why are you drawn to creatures that have been maligned in the public imagination?
DC The maligned is the unloved. You mention the death of imagination – I wonder, is it a depression that seeps into one? I know all my friends are talking about it. You go on Instagram and see these horrors, so if there is a crisis of imagination, does it come from sadness and the impossibility of being allowed to imagine anything otherwise? The BBC didn’t screen the last episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles TV programme because he’s telling the truth and they’re afraid of a right-wing backlash. It’s just outrageous. People are afraid of art and that is interesting because I think we are also afraid of our own blood and guts. For my project Heartship [in which an anonymous human heart was placed on a ship and an Irish singer sang a tribute to the many migrant people who have drowned in the Mediterranean, 2019], people were so against using a human heart that some suggested using a pig’s heart. But no, this is about relating to our own beating hearts inside our bodies, which again, we seem to have removed ourselves from.
MC Do you ever look to science for inspiration?
DC My brother is a scientist, a marine biologist, but I’m not that engaged or informed. I get frustrated with the speed they work at; they are so constrained and have to take such baby steps. It’s a prohibition against any leap forward. Being an artist, we can do exactly what we want.
MC I’d love to know what you think of anthropomorphising.
DC Most scientists can’t stand it. The minute you start talking about emotion or love or the sense of feeling in an animal you are accused of anthropomorphising and that’s the end of the argument. But again, it’s a fear people have of identifying with animals. While we might have a higher consciousness, we are still animals; it’s as simple as that.
MC Yes, we talk about anthropomorphism as the projection of human qualities onto animals, but maybe we should think about it the other way around, as people embodying animalistic qualities.
DC There’s no way that it can be denied. Rupert Sheldrake has written about dogs knowing when their owners are coming back home. We’ve lost a lot of those senses; we are actually lacking. We think in a more convoluted and complicated way – but look where that’s got us.
MC You’ve also worked with living creatures, like the oysters in Pearl Bones. Did you anticipate what would happen?
DC I knew there was a possibility of failure and of success. I didn’t know whether they’d ever come out, and what was beautiful was that only one did. The animal rejects them because they’re irritants.
MC You seem very comfortable with the idea of relinquishing some of your own artistic agency and allowing nature to have its say.
DC Yes, because I would get bored repeating things. Is that a relinquishment or an impatience? Nothing’s really new. Although putting an Egyptian mummy on a ship and returning it to Cairo, that is a new gesture – and hopefully progress too.
MC Tell me more about that project, Kinship .
DC It’s the returning of a body to a place where it was buried for 2,000 years and which to my mind, it should never have left. Kinship enables him to return home to Cairo. Originally we were going to send him over the Mediterranean in a ship. This would have connected it to Heartship where the ship we used had been in the Mediterranean for a couple of years and had saved 18,000 migrants from drowning. There is a connection between the return of one body to his homeland over a territory where so many bodies are lying on the bottom of the sea, having fled their own homelands.
MC Ideas of place and journey are also prominent in another recent body of your work called Damascus Rose . In two works there, Red Erratic and Red Road, you’ve sculpted feet in red marble. Like Kinship and Heartship, it recalls a journey made by anonymous people whose voices, just like the animals you work with, have been silenced. Why do you have such an affinity with anonymity?
DC I keep them anonymous because if you name it then people make their own associations. For Heartship, the heart’s anonymity enabled it to be a relic from a human being that we can all identify with, almost like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Working in stone was a huge jump for me. I adore it. It’s very much about the Earth and its geological compression, and where people have laid their feet and walked. It wasn’t until after I chose this flesh-coloured marble that I found out it was called Damascus Rose and then the feet I sculpted onto it suddenly seemed like the perfect nexus for these ancient, revered territories that have been ruined and the journeys that people – refugees – are forced to make from them. They are the footprints of generations of human beings, the ghosts of someone’s presence standing on the earth, whether it’s in Damascus, Carrara in Italy, or in Brazil, in blue sodalite or Damascus Rose.
MC The veining in the marble is so human, too.
DC Like in Ear Pillow . You just don’t know what you are going to find – that vein just happened to pour down into the ear.
MC In “The Death of the Author”  Roland Barthes critiques our celebration of the individual over their work. Do you think that the art world is also susceptible to this tendency?
DC I’ve always had problems with the celebrity culture of the artist because it shouldn’t matter. People come up to me at shows and ask me to explain the works, but I always feel I have nothing to do with it. I just rearrange things.
MC You title your work, which offers viewers some direction.
DC In the early days I titled them to help people with access, but that sounds patronising in hindsight. For Virgin Shroud, for example, I was thinking of my grandmother’s wedding veil which spoke of that societal expectation of premarital virginity, whilst the skin of the cow lying over it is a shroud, so it’s about potential and death, both together.
MC You’ve mentioned that you wanted to explore the notion of petrification in relation to Damascus Rose. What did you learn?
DC In some ways the notion of petrification is proof of existence, like a fossilisation. It also means fear. When I made Red Erratic, the sculpture was intentionally not statuesque and safe, with feet quite precariously carved on top of the block. It made so much sense that the block couldn’t be exhibited in the gallery because it was too heavy for the floor. Instead, it sat outside on a truck for the opening night, so it was like a refugee itself. For anyone who saw the exhibition without it, there was a huge loss. ◉