Lifestory

by on January 16, 2011

Thinking ahead to an illustrated talk I’ll give in March, I was leafing through a box of research materials for The Find, and came across this image, a detail From The Story of Life by Lorraine Malach. The post card was pinned to my office wall  for at least two years while I wrote the book; the original work is an enormous relief that runs along the entrance  wall in the Royal Tyrell Museum: ten adjacent clay panels, each one four feet wide by eight feet high.  Using human-like figures as actors/storytellers, it  tells the story of life from the Precambrian to the Cretaceous era.

I fell in love with The Story of Life at first sight. I was overwhelmed by sheer ambition of the idea, and the beauty of its execution: this is a sculpture that you walk alongside and take in  slowly, as a sequence, then step back from and try to  absorb as a whole. It’s impossible for an image of the entire work to do justice to its scale,  to the tenderness of the details, or to the tactile qualities of the clay, but it can  give you  a sense of the flow from one panel to the next: Story-of-life_mural.jpg.  You’ll see that it’s a pattern, but also a narrative. Certain shapes – arms, hands, heads – are repeated throughout, but in each panel they arrange themselves in different configurations  and become – or are in the process of becoming – something else. In this way the various body parts/visual elements seems to be working just as genetic materials do, combining and recombining,  repeating and varying. These panels ressemble fossils, and also something you might see under a microscope: cells  growing and dividing, specialising, massing together.  And at the same time, they look like a flattened-out cathedral,  and they look like  snapshots of a dance, like movement frozen in time. The Story of Life is modern and simple. The repeated figures are abstracted, but when you look closely, you see that they are also  subtly individualized. A hand touches a face or a head, one face tilts  towards another:  they’re part of a long, very slow process, but they also have an existence in the moment. Something is writing itself through them, and it also connects them, each to the other. You can see a mother and child in the third panel from the left, and you can call it a Madonna and  Child, if you so wish.

There’s little information readily available about the artist, who died shortly before the work was complete, but one thing that’s  clear is that Lorraine Malach was a deeply spiritual woman.  The Story of Life has a kinship with other great works of public art that are both secular and spiritual  –  Diego Riviera’s murals,  some Hindu temple sculptures,  some First Nations art.

When I saw Lorraine Malach’s mural for the first time, I was, to use that 70′s phrase, blown away.  I stood there,  my eyes moving from one part to another just as they do when I’m out  on the beach or in the woods –  noticing both similarities, and variation in the forms around me.I’d felt for years that art and science need to merge, rather than polarize, so it was thrilling to find a huge and brilliant work of art with  spiritual undertones  given pride of place in the entrance way of  a scientific institution - and it was  doubly thrilling  because  I  knew already that one the main characters in my as- yet-untitled novel would be a palaeontologist, that her mother was an artist,  and that the scientific discovery that began the story would soon broaden out into a far larger one…  For years, this picture reminded me of  something I was interested to explore in my writing. It kept me company, served as both inspiration and  talisman.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stuart Kramer September 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I think you’ve captured something essential about Lorraine. For her, art was able to combine the spiritual with the wonder of science. She was excited about science and it informed her art. She introduced me, as a child, to the wonders of astronomy and the mathematical beauty of the spiraling seashell. We visited her while she was working on The Story of Life, and she described in detail the meaning of the particular section she was working on at the time. It contained not only the essence of the science, but also a paleontological/evolutionary joke. I look forward to reading your book!

kathy September 5, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Many thanks for this, Stuart – a remarkable woman, an extraordinary piece of work. How are you related to her? What was the joke?

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