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Nina Royle

Tongues & Mirrors in Mercury

1 - 25 July 2021

Open 12 - 6pm Thursday - Saturday + extra day Sunday 25 July 2021

Reception / book launch: Saturday 3 July 2021 12 - 4pm

This exhibition was supposed to be last year, meaning that layers like onion skins have grown over what was. Rather than pretending at clarity, (which I don’t believe in anyway) these are notes about layers of thought.


How Things Grow 1)

The amalgam - the medicinal mixture - the elixir – as poison or salve is an interest that I return to again and again: a synthesis of ingredients, like a perfume, where trace scents can be determined, yet not separated from the whole. 

Another interest is colour. Colour in the sense of the word’s etymological roots, which descends from the Latin word colos, meaning ‘covering’ (implying to conceal, to hide, to save). The word colos immediately brings collagen and animal hides to my mind and blubbery selkie seals who removed their waterborne silver skins, to become woman on land. Descending deeper in time, colour relates to the Ancient Greek word chroma, meaning complexion or skin. Implicit in these connections, is an understanding sometimes forgotten, that colour is a reactive, changeable agent that is as much part of the living and the material world as it is a part of light. Another word for colour - tint, comes from the Latin word tinctura, meaning ‘to dye’ or ‘to tinge’. The word tincture by extension is also related, and so I’m brought full circle back again to the idea of a medicinal mixture. This time with an additional sense that colour and a reading of our bodies are deeply connected. It’s a sense that runs much deeper than words. 


How Things Grow 2)

The paintings, bronze mirrors and the bead curtain in this exhibition, all grew out of the text Tongues and Mirrors in Mercury, which is printed onto fleshy coloured silk panels. The silks are dyed with hibiscus and safflower - taste arousing colours that will soon fade in sunlight to become something different. The printed text, (well you can read it) but it meditates on a 15th century church wall painting of a mermaid, intersected by a description of an acupuncture reading of my tongue. Its underlying interest is in a set of interchangeable symbols that condense deep-set cultural fascinations for the mercurial. By mercurial I mean a chimeric, fleet-footed, capricious temperament that is born of mercury. And what is mercury? An entity that slips between being a planet, a classical God, and a metal. 


How Things Grow 3)

I wrote Tongues and Mirrors in Mercury in March 2020, when the coating on my tongue had been pale for months, in sympathy with the endless rain and damp that permeated everything that winter in Cornwall. Tongues as I mention in the text are regarded in Chinese acupunctural practice as mirrors on a body that reflect its chronic state of health. In the year that ensued between writing and hanging this exhibition, I spent much time ingesting nutritional supplements to readdress my tongue imbalance. In March 2021, I stuck my tongue out in the mirror and noticed a pink azalea-like patch had suddenly appeared on its meridian. It’s still there. I read it as a sign that transition happens whilst never being perfect or complete. The new persisting question that I ask myself is how long will my azalea patch last?  

I mention this because now buried in the underlayers of the paintings on show, are the residual images of what would have been last year’s exhibition. The fresh coatings of gesso and paint are not dissimilar from the mirror of my tongue. 


How Things Grow 4) 

What I wrote in Tongues and Mirrors in Mercury isn’t what I originally meant to write. What I meant to write about, but couldn’t find words for at the time, was an encounter with an elderly woman’s liver-spotted hand. I woke-up one night whilst staying in a cottage in Mousehole and saw it laid next to mine. It seemed as if the hand was measuring life through our touching skin. I later wondered if this woman’s hand was an image of my own hand in years to come. The image could of course be made up, but Kerry, (mum’s friend who owns the cottage) later said lots of people have experienced encounters of some description whilst staying on the specific side of the bed that I slept on.  So I believe I saw a hand.


Things jumble-up and form aggregates in memory. That same week, Dan and I went to Breage Church to look at the wall painting of the mermaid holding a red mirror. I think because of the hand, the cartoon face depicted in the mermaid’s mirror made me think about my Grandma. She grew up in Breage. She must have looked at the face in the red mirror. I so often catch flickering’s of her manners in myself when I look in a mirror. Anyway, hands, reflections - identity – the fluid border. The Greek God Hermes who morphed into the Roman God Mercury (the bearer of messages) is often portrayed holding a caduceus with caduceus two entwined snakes wound together like a DNA helix. Perhaps his message is no more or less than a reminder that selves make other selves. 


How Things Grow 5) 

The practical importance of the liquid metal mercury is attested to by its ability to dissolve and swallow gold (among other metals) into itself, to make an amalgam. The process - deadly but delicious, has been used for millennia to mine and purify gold, the most desired of metals. Once gold has been ingested into the liquid metal, the excess mercury is squeezed off through a cloth made to drip silver tears. Any of the remaining metal is then burnt-off to leave a purified form of gold behind. The beguiling material capabilities of mercury, undoubtedly seeded its conceptual significance in alchemic texts. Many of these texts dwell on a marriage between feminine mercury and masculine sulphur, which if brought into perfect harmony would create gold, by first creating the hermaphrodite vermillion – a both poisonous and medicinal red, crystalline pigment. Sometimes this marriage is described as a unison between Venus and Mars, from which the lovechild Cupid is produced. Cupid, whose making is reflected in the way his arrows shoot to combine. In practical terms, the production of vermillion is made by combining sulphur and mercury in a glass beaker that is sealed to prevent toxic fumes from escaping. The beaker is then swaddled with clay and set into a fire. Unification is signalled by a crashing sound. 


The Sanskrit word rasa particularly associated with the titles of ancient tantric treatise, is an aesthetic concept that translates as essence, juice, garland of flowers, taste and also mercury. In tantric thought the creation of vermilion, was synonymous with an elixir made to give unwavering physical balance and duration. Again, back to a sense that colour and the body are joined via the elixir.



How Things Grow 6)

The archer on the horse is a reference to Shiko Munakata’s In praise of Flower Hunters. His woodblock print is boisterous in its revelry. Everything is alive and the spring is heralded at the same time as it is shot down. Nature on nature!

-Nina Royle

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