The lure of Iona for artists Mhairi Killin and Sean Scully
As two very different exhibitions inspired by Iona come to the Central Belt, Neil Cooper explores the allure of the Hebridean island for artists
Iona is one of those places. If you’ve been, you’ll understand why it’s an inspiration to seekers of enlightenment the world over. If not, the allure of the tiny Hebridean island a five-minute ferry ride from Mull is almost impossible to explain. Beyond words and the odd musical homage from The Skids and The Waterboys during both bands’ windswept and interesting phases, two very different exhibitions currently on show in the Central Belt attempt to capture the essence of this remote outpost of religious thought and deed that’s more confrontation than retreat.
While Mhairi Killin’s Absent Voices show at Glasgow’s Collins Gallery comes from the perspective of a long-term resident with umbilical roots in Iona, the large triptych that forms the centerpiece of Sean Scully’s Iona at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery represents the long-term reflections of someone who visited the island 15 years ago.
Absent Voices is a body of five installations that weaves Killin’s skills as a textile maker and silversmith to create a response to the landscape around her that is both deeply personal and epic in scale.
‘I wanted to explore landscape, not just in physical terms, but spiritual as well, and the experience of my forbears who lived here,’ says Killin. ‘What I found was that the things coming out were from what already surrounded me in terms of what the reality of life is like on a pilgrim island, and I started looking at why we need these symbols of hope in a secular country.’
Killin was raised in Greenock, although her mother’s family has strong local roots in Iona’s tiny permanent population that co-exists with the tourists and seasonal residents of the rebuilt Abbey. This is home to the Iona Community, the ecumenical Christian organisation founded by George MacLeod in 1938. Killin originally planned to spend a year on Iona. After 13 years, however, she’s still there, and Absent Voices, which has already been seen in Shetland and Inverness, is as much about departures as arrivals.
Sean Scully’s visit to Iona may have taken some time to trickle through his subconscious, but by blessing his large-scale triptych of paintings with the name ‘Iona’, Scully (who at time of writing was too ill to talk to The List) has invested an already monumental work with an intangible and mysterious significance. With the right- and left-hand pieces presenting a series of grey, monochrome shapes akin to a tightly packed stone wall, this accentuates the colours of the central painting, as if they’re both gateway and protector of the surge of life they surround.
Despite its status as a rich source of inspiration for artists, Killin is at pains to point out that ‘It’s not a sentimental, romantic lifestyle on Iona. My experience of it is rich and deep and challenging, but never sentimental.’
In his essay in the accompanying publication for Scully’s show, curator Richard Ingleby quotes George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. The island, he says, is ‘a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual’.
Amen to that.
Mhairi Killin: Absent Voices, Collins Gallery, Glasgow, Sat 29 May–Wed16 Jun; Sean Scully: Iona, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh until Sat 19 Jun.