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Dance yourself well

Dance yourself well: Opening today at Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge, a free exhibition of new work by artist Megan Rooney, includes a collaborative dance performance alongside a huge, vibrantly colourful mural that she has created specifically for her show, painted directly onto the walls of the gallery. Earlier this year, scientists from Sydney University Cambridge presented research published in Sports magazine, which revealed that dance may be better than any other exercise for improving mental health and wellbeing. The study’s lead researcher Dr Fong Yan said, ‘Dance has far-reaching health benefits. If you stick to a physical activity, the long-term, physical health benefits will reduce the risk of health conditions related to sedentary behaviour, the social connectedness and psychological effect of dance will alleviate the symptoms of mental health conditions, and improvements in cognition could aid the independence of older adults.’

If you are feeling stressed out by the relentless pressures of your hospital work, or problems at home, a visit to Rooney’s show is bound to lift your spirits, as it will transport you to another, more elemental world. In the first week of June, the artist painted an exuberantly colourful mural onto the walls of the gallery, at Kettle’s Yard, which will be painted over when the show ends. The mural seeks to respond to the architecture and natural light of the gallery and the times we are living through. Rooney recalls, ‘During the mural’s birth, we had a great deal of wind and rain, in keeping with what has been the wettest spring in the UK since records began. My paintings have their own ecosystems, they act as weathervanes, or barometers holding the weight of time. It is no coincidence that my show opens on the solstice – the longest day on the year – as light conditions impact how I paint and respond to colour.’

As part of the exhibition, Rooney has created a new dance performance Spin Down Sky, exploring the unlikely relationship between a moth and a spider – symbolic characters that have personal significance for the artist. The sensuous performances, which interact with the mural, have been choreographed by Temitope Ajose, with costume designed by Rooney herself and a new sound composition by tyroneisaacstuart. From next month a film of the dance will be shown alongside the exhibition.

Artists often use colour to explore their thoughts or feeling about the world around them. As Rooney says, ‘I have always loved colour: Colour is radical, evasive and entirely enigmatic, with a mind of its own. I imagined the mural would be very warm and yellow, reflecting a change from spring to summer, as the earth heats up and the days grow longer. In the end colour rebelled and blue chased out yellow.’

Over the past year, Rooney has been creating a new ‘family’ of paintings in her London studio, which are displayed in the rooms surrounding her mural. The artist’s sensuous and compelling paintings combine vivid colour and gesture in multiple, rich layers which embody a sense of boundless energy and life. She explains that the size of the works were determined by the reach of her outstretched arms.

We live our lives in colour, but each one of us perceives colour differently and how we react to colours depends on our eyesight and our mood. Rooney invites the viewer to look closely at a distance, to see how colours interact on canvas, or move across the surfaces, to see where paint accumulates, or where it has been rubbed away, revealing the layers underneath. They reward slow looking and encourage contemplation. As Rooney says, ‘If the painting is successful it simply asks the viewer to stay awhile.’

While she was working on the mural, it was announced the archaeologists had uncovered a blue room in Pompeii. Rooney recalls, ‘This moved me and blue took hold of me. The sheets in the hotel room are blue, the shower is blue, my feet are blue. Blue for Kettle’s Yard. My murals have a strong attachment to the ancient world and the history of mark making on walls, one of the earliest forms of storytelling that connects across generations. It is the impulse to leave a trace, to make a mark, to say I was there.’

Born in 1985, in South Africa, Megan Rooney works across a variety of media, including painting, sculpture and dance performance. She grew up in Canada and completed her BA at the University of Toronto, followed by an MA in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths College, London, in 2011. She lives and works in London.

Once you’ve seen the exhibition you unwind in the beautiful, tranquil garden, fragrant with relaxing lavender, created by Jim and Helen Ede, outside Kettle’s Yard, or enjoy a coffee, or lunch in the gallery’s vegetarian cafe. You won’t want to leave!

Megan Rooney Echoes & Hours at Kettles Yard, Castle Street, in Cambridge (22 June to 6 October 2024) Free admission; open Tuesday – Sunday 11am to 5pm; t. 01223 748 100.

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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