So I’ve finally come to the end of my project. I feel that I’m in a good place with it, and that I have surprised myself and even surpassed my expectations to a certain extent. However it wasn’t until January that I finally narrowed down my field of study, having been too broad in what I was researching.
Back in September, I had the idea of doing a performative piece, and wanted to take Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill, as predicted by the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I had had the idea of making a costume of leaves, seed pods and plants and doing a 15 mile walk wearing them, before having some kind of ritualistic ceremony such as burning them on Dunsinane Hill. I spent months collecting and pressing plants, but all the while I was also photographing many weird and wonderful species I was finding within Birnam Wood along the way.
I had started to look at the sort of mystical elements of the landscape, by reading about the Neo-Romantics, and had thought about the “numinous” side of the landscape – the “magical”, spiritual or uncanny aspects, just as artists such as Paul Nash had recognised. Meanwhile, I was also investigating the unseen elements of the wood, and had begun to experiment with growing culture from samples of fungi I had found within the wood. The cultures I had grown were giving me some rather interesting results, and I had likened the process to scrying, a type of fortune telling by gazing into water or glass. I was reading The Dark Monarch exhibition book and had come across the work of Ithell Colquhoun, English female Surrealist and occult artist who used all kinds of random techniques of mark making which she linked with fortune telling and magic. I tried her parsemage technique and had enjoyed the process, but felt that I was heading towards an occult theme in my work- an area which I really knew little about, and did not really want to pursue any further.
After a very helpful tutorial with Michele Whiting, she made me realise that my main interest was in the landscape of the wood, and how I should document my experience of it. I turned from the Neo-Romantic “numinism” to the Romantic vision of the “Sublime” – an awe-inspiring yet terrifying view of nature and the landscape. I realised that this has been a common theme throughout much of my work over the past 3 years…my fascination with invasive plants such as Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam, and with the strange lichens and fungi found in the woodlands.
I had already used some unusual fungi to grow the bacterial cultures, so I decided to experiment with this further. Reading more about the Romantic artists led me to literature on Romantic science in the Age of Enlightenment, and also to the various optical devices used by the Romantics to create a “picturesque” or “sublime” view of the landscape. I read a very interesting book about the Claude glass, and made my own Claude glass to view Birnam Wood through. I borrowed a microscope from work, and started to observe parts of plants through it. I then found an even better quality microscopic attachment for my phone, and began to experiment with making film by running the device surfaces in the wood.It opened up a whole new world to me, and made me really curious as to what I might see through the lens next. I dragged it over the bark of trees to capture strange views of mosses, lichens and fungi. I bravely ventured into some puddles and pools at the edge of the wood to capture small creatures such as tadpoles and water-beetles. I ran it over the surface of pink jelly fungus, capturing what looked not unlike fleshy parts of human anatomy. Then I took all of the footage and decided how I wanted it to be edited. I called the film “Otherworldly” as it shows a microcosmic view of the woodland, which often looks quite alien and unidentifiable. The sound of the lens scraping over surfaces in the wood, combined with bird song and other sounds was also quite jarring and unsettling, and it really sent a shiver down my spine – something which I hoped the viewers would experience too.
I continued with bacterial experiments, and, by chance, wedged a petri dish in-between a tree trunk and branch to capture the bacteria in natural light. I inadvertently also captured some of the landscape seen through the bacteria, and felt that this would be an exciting way to document what I had found – by taking it back to where I found it and photographing the landscape through the petri dishes.
The initial results that I got were unusual, but there was one which really stood out, and everyone seemed to comment on it. I found the image really attractive as I have a penchant for all things tropical, and to me, it resembled the view into a glass fish tank, with the speckled yellow and turquoise bacteria looking like fish food scattered on the water. I had shot this on my iPhone, and although I really loved the result, I felt that some of the other images I had created were struggling with resolution when enlarged. I decided to opt for another camera, so reached for my Canon SX280 HS instead. I made several attempts, and realised that key to interesting results was having the correct light, which could create interesting contrast and shadows depending on what I placed behind the petri dish. I spent a few sunny days lying in the undergrowth on Birnam Wood arranging ferns, flowers and foliage behind petri dishes balanced precariously on top of a dish laid flat, held in place with bits of double sided tape.
The further 3 images I chose to be printed onto aluminium dibond were taken with this camera, and were much more successful in terms of detail, again giving an underwater effect, as if one were looking through a glass bottomed boat. When they arrived from the printers I was delighted with the results.
Back in September I had been doing drawings and watercolours of some of the species I had found in the wood. I had been making a visual diary of what I had found, and had also been investigating the medicinal and alleged magical properties of these species. Much as I liked this work, I felt it wasn’t really relevant to my current direction of research, so I decided to do some more drawings of species which I felt were “sublime” – fascinating, unknown, weird or repulsive, yet amazing at the same time. I used a magnifying glass loaned to my by my father, who is registered blind as he only has very little vision in one eye. This enabled me to observe the smallest details on lichens and fungi which I had collected, and I made 9 very detailed pencil drawings of them. They took me many hours to complete, and required intense concentration as well as sound rendering but there was something quite satisfying about observing them through the magnifying glass, and I was really pleased with the results.
I also wanted to exhibit some of the specimens I had found, just as the explorers of the Romantic era had done in their Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity. I acquired some glass domes, which seemed really fitting as all of my work seems to have the common theme of looking at nature through glass. I began by covering oasis with usnea lichen and then adding a small twig covered in yellow lichen, and then other varieties which created a strange microcosm within the glass dome. I went on to create two further exhibits using part of a tree stump and a piece of driftwood found on the banks of the Tay. I attached dried fungi which I had collected in the wood onto them. I had small metal labels engraved with Latin wording of titles I had given them, which I felt gave them more status as exhibits. Once polished, I felt they looked very professional, a botanical equivalent to taxidermy.
Finally to sum up my experience of Birnam Wood, I made a book of photos which I had taken throughout the year. I wanted to portray the view that I had of the wood – an overgrown, junglesque “garden of delights” where strange, beautiful and grotesque species lurk where nature is indeed a force to be reckoned with. And even in the depths of winter, curious specimens of brightly coloured jelly fungus and the rare phenomena of feather frost can be found lying on paths in the wood.
Overall, I am very pleased with the work I have produced, both aesthetically and conceptually. I look forward to hanging it this weekend in Barnsley Civic Centre, and hope that it works well within my allocated space.
On Saturday night I enjoyed a rare “night off” which ironically was ever so slightly a “busman’s holiday” as I spent it in Birnam Wood. On this beautiful sunny evening, however, I was not foraging or collecting specimens, or peering down my camera (well perhaps just once or twice!)…I was there to see an open air performance of Macbeth by the Oxford Shakespeare Company from New York, under the majestic Birnam oak.
It actually seemed a really fitting way to celebrate the culmination of my work for the past three years. Not only because I had just completed a site related project about Birnam Wood, but also because of my deep relationship with nature. As I gazed around me, I saw stinging nettles, white deadnettles, bellflower leaves, red campions and the deadly monkshood. Amid the strong voices of the actors, I heard the ever present birdsong…the “elevator music” of Birnam Wood which always accompanies me whatever I am doing there. I smelled the wild garlic, now in flower, as well as the sweet aroma of aniseed from the cow parsley, which contrasted with the pungent odour of herb Robert. Would I have known the names of any of these plants three years ago? Would I have considered using them to make artworks? Very doubtful! Looking up, I saw the lush leafy canopies of the giant trees towering above me, their branches dripping with oakmoss and usnea lichen. I even noticed some pale yellow fungi growing up high on the Birnam Oak. I would never have dreamt that I would have fashioned a top hat out of lichen, or created artworks using bacteria grown from fungi found in this wood.
For me, the MA in Fine Art has been a life changing experience…It has opened my eyes to the world around me, both visible and also invisible. It has allowed me to study a discipline which I wanted to study twenty years ago , but was channeled into studying illustration instead. The beauty of this course has been the freedom it has allowed me – to pursue what I find interesting or important to me. I have rekindled a love affair with photography, which I hope to develop further by experimenting with different types of camera and techniques. I have become smitten with microscopy, and want to purchase a field microscope like Dr Simon Park’s model, so that I can play around more with microbiology. I have become an explorer searching for weird and wonderful species, which I want to show to all the world. I have also enjoyed the challenge of creating pieces of contemporary art with a concept behind them, instead of my previous passion for abstract printmaking or painting, which, although aesthetically attractive, had no deeper meaning or purpose to them.
I have become an Amazon shopaholic, and spent a small fortune on lots of great books about contemporary art, science, landscape, Romanticism, photography and optical devices (as well as some which in hindsight weren’t so great). I have loads to read about more deeply, and look forward to reading them more slowly rather than skimming pages to get to the juicy bits.
I feel that I have become much more confident in talking about my work and have a much wider knowledge of both the contemporary and historical art contexts. This has also had a positive impact on my teaching, as I feel that i can impart some of my knowledge to students, and direct them to artists who are relevant to their individual areas of study.
Finally, I have been privileged to meet some wonderful, creative and supportive artists from all over the world. My course lecturers, Caroline and Angela who have been key to all of my progress throughout the course and have been ever encouraging and inspiring throughout.. Some other very inspiring guest lecturers; Les Bicknell, Emily Speed, Lucy Day, and last but certainly not least- Michele Whiting, who was very helpful during my final project.
My cohort have all been amazing- interesting individuals all with very different lives whom I feel have bonded together really well. Through our Facebook page, any queries or problems I had were responded to swiftly with advice, information or empathetic messages – a great level of support from all of them throughout. I hope we will all keep in touch through the same Facebook page, and hopefully have some further exhibtions together internationally. Although the end is nigh, I feel that this is just the beginning of a very exciting future of which art will continue to be a major focus.
For my final series of experiments with culture, I decided to make some culture “cocktails”by mixing some of the fungal samples together before spreading them onto the agar jelly. I wanted to see if I could grow a variety of cultures which were visibly different (on the same plate), before photographing them again in Birnam Wood.
I grew three more successful cultures, in each one I included a swab of a different variety of jelly fungus, along with a mixture of other fungi as well.
Above : In situ, in Birnam Wood and Below: Contrast altered and image enhanced in Photoshop
Although the bacteria on these plates was visually quite interesting, I wasn’t happy with the photos, as I felt the lighting was not good enough, as they had been shot on a dull day. Also, because of this, the bacteria in the first photo was too dominant and looked too much like a snake. I kept the cultures in my studio, and decided to try again the following week when the weather was brighter…
The shadows do a great job of breaking up the large spreads of bacteria, creating unusual and interesting shapes within the dish. I picked different foliage, such as the fern used above, and held them at varying angles to create the shadows that I wanted.
I’m much happier with these results, and feel that they illustrate the “exotic place tinged with danger” that Gamwell (2003, p.49)* describes in her article on microscopy. They perfectly capture the impression that I want to give of Birnam Wood- a sort of overgrown “paradise”, my “garden of earth delights”, which has the potential to be just as fascinating as a tropical rainforest if one knows where to look.
I envisage these final 3 pieces, along with my favoured image that I took a few months ago, printed onto aluminium dibond and hanging in close proximity to one another in my final MA show.
*Gamwell, L. (2003) “Beyond The Visible–Microscopy, Nature, And Art”. Science [online] 299 (5603), 49. Available from: http://science.sciencemag.org.useservices.com/content/299/5603/49.full
I’ve been making some pencil studies of some strange species of fungi and lichen that I’ve found in Birnam Wood. Some of these drawings have been made with the aid of a magnifying glass, which has helped me to observe some of the very small details which I may otherwise have missed. I have purposely drawn these specimens as near to life size as possible, fitting them onto postcard sized paper, and have spent time carefully observing them to try to capture their forms and texture as accurately as possible.
Ramalina Fastigiata Lichen
Milk White toothed polypore
Oak moss lichen
Jew’s Ear Fungus
Black Jelly Brain Fungus
I haven’t done this type of detailed analytical drawing since I was at college studying Illustration over 20 years ago, when I remember doing a rather impressive drawing of a rabbit skeleton for a scientific illustration module. Although these drawings are small, they have taken many hours, yet there is something really satisfying about just drawing…especially to this level of detail. It is a process which requires intense concentration, observation and precise rendering, but the results at the end of it are very rewarding.
I am attempting to do 9 of these studies, and so far have completed 5. I was lucky to find some real glass petri dishes recently at a car boot sale, which are really beautiful objects compared to the plastic ones I have been working with. I would like to insert prints of these drawings into the petri dishes and mount them in a square formation, perhaps as an exhibit in my show. The petri dishes seem appropriate as a way of presenting the drawings, as they reference science, and the small aspects of nature which are often unnoticed or overlooked.
Above: Presented in a petri dish…the shiny, new glass dish makes a beautiful container for these weird species, trapping them and keeping a barrier between them and the viewer.
I ordered a small microscopic attachment for my iPhone last week, although I could only find one which fitted an iPhone 5, so I had to break the cover off it and customise an attachment using double sided sellotape.
I first experimented by running it over the lichen which I had placed in a glass dome, and was instantly smitten with the results. The surface of the yellow lichen was like something from an alien movie, with weird suckers and cups all over it, magnified to amazing clarity.
I decided to take it to Birnam Wood to put it to use over some of the tree bark and other surfaces. I took lots of footage by running the microscope over the surface of lichens, mosses, and even into pond water with tadpoles…it was so exciting to be able to see what was normally “invisible” without this ingenious device.
Some screen shots of some of the first footage I took above
Although I was really excited by this new magnifying tool, I was a bit disappointed that the lens was not aligned to suit the camera on my iPhone. As you can see above, part of the circle is cut off, which made me dissatisfied with the result. To improve the fit of the the microscope attachment, I cut the corners off the already trimmed plastic phone cover to which the microscope was attached, which gave me the freedom to move the microscope directly over the camera lens.
The position of the microscope was much better, and over the next few days I took a lot of footage in the wood, which was eventually edited to make a short film which I called “Otherworldly”, as I felt that this view of nature was so alien and “unknown” to me. It doesn’t surprise me that many of the Romantic poets were inspired by what they saw through the lens of a microscope…a truly “sublime” experience for anyone to behold.
You can view the video by clicking on the link below:
Liz Douglas is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media, especially painting, but what I find really interesting about her work is the fact that she incorporates scientific techniques into her process to describe parts of the landscape.
Fen Pools © 2011 Liz Douglas Mixed media on canvas 820mm x 820mm
Liz began turning to science by looking at microscopical geological images when her art school tutor encouraged her to bring other disciplines into her work to enrich and inform her landscape painting. Since then, she has worked with ecologists and biologists on various projects including work which she produced for her‘Mire’ exhibition in 2011, which was the result of 3 years work at Whitlaw Mosses nature reserve near Selkirk. When I look deeply into this painting, I feel a floating sensation, unsure if I am above or under the water, as if I am looking through a glass-bottomed boat. There is a shadowy image just below the centre, which is not unlike a mysterious ghostly figure standing over the pool, or perhaps we are looking down into the depths of the pool at objects lying below. The abstract shapes which float on or near the surface look like they have been inspired by microscopic views of the algae in the pond. The subtle monochromatic colour scheme has a calming and serene effect, broken only by the mysterious dark shapes which are carefully placed within it.
Slow Thaw (2006) © 2012 Liz Douglas Mixed media on canvas 1.5m x 1.5m
Slow Thaw, 2008 above shows three semi-transparent tube-like forms, which lie against a warm, lilac background. The ambiguous shapes may be slightly sinister, but the warm background reassures us against fear, and their transparency gives them a delicate and fragile beauty. For me, this is an example for the sublime – the uncanny attraction which we keep staring at despite an unsettling undertone.
I contacted Liz to find out more about her practice, and she kindly agreed to answer a questionnaire for me, as I find her work very relevant to what I am researching and writing about.
When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying the landscape? I was encouraged by a tutor in my final Masters of Fine Art painting year to consider looking outside art to inform my landscape work. I began by looking at Geology in relation to a site of special scientific interest that I was working on where microscopic elements existed in the rocks which had a visual quality. I also work with Biologists and Ecologists.I find the collaborative element and the information that I get opens up whole new worlds.
Why do you think artists are collaborating more with scientists – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on landscape? The scientists bring another perspective to landscape. They offer particular expertise in their field which allows the artist to explore aspects of the landscape in depth and creates new possibilities for making work. Over the last twenty or so years there has been an increasing concern about the environment and the collaboration between artists and scientists has developed.
What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world? I find it exciting to look through an optical or scanning electron microscope at structures that are invisible to the eye.I like the whole investigative process of being in the landscape -collecting material (with permission) organising, selecting, editing, as well as dialoguing with scientists and others to inform and extend my ideas at the research and development stage. These tools reveal hidden aspects of the natural world and provide possible new visual metaphors.
Do you think that having a parochial view (not meaning to sound negative here, just considering a focus on a small element of a particular landscape or environment) of a particular landscape brings more interest to a work, rather than trying to capture a vast area? I think that working on microscopic material from sites informs the wider landscape. The ‘place’, which is local, is the focus, where universal processes occur –e.g. seasonal change, global climate/geological change etc. It is a microcosm.
Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Each habitat has its own unique ecological characteristics. It takes time to work through material from a particular environment at the micro level to find metaphors that add a new element to the work and say something else about the place – e.g. spirit/essence or something new and surprising.
One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the sublime, and often terrifying forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, are you ever unsettled by what you see? It can be quite unsettling looking at the amount of microscopic creatures to be found in e.g. a drop of water and imagining their part in the larger whole. These creatures can be x35,000 what the eye can see. That can be unnerving and amazing at the same time. I constantly tussle with notions of the sublime and underlying invisible elements when making work.
Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature? I am immensely cautious about the harmful and potentially toxic aspects that exist when working in the natural world. The process of collecting living material is safe, if you know the terrain well, although the people on any particular site of special scientific interest know that I am working there so there is an element of protection. Working with an optical microscope, looking at material in the studio at x80 has no risk attached to it. The preparation of collected material for the Scanning Electron Microscope involves a lengthy process using toxic chemicals. This part of the process has to take place in a laboratory because it is hazardous and appropriate safety procedures are used. I have to work with a technician because I am not a scientist!
Do you use a camera to photograph the microscopic images before rendering them, or do you work straight from the microscope, or from your memory of what you have seen through it? I have a camera attached to my optical microscope which is great because I can download images onto a pc to work further into them. These images are at a high resolution.The S.E.M images of prepared specimens are taken by an internal camera attached to the scanning electron microscope. They reveal a much higher magnification of minute structures. I work mainly from direct observation in the landscape, drawing and photographing and from SEM images, in the development of my visual ideas.
Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information? The scientist is rarely interested in art and finding a way to dialogue with the scientist is not easy. They are the ‘experts’ and the artist is not. It is important to be aware of the history of art when working in the scientific field as it can be a bit overwhelming at times.. I always focus on the intention of making a piece of artwork.