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.