Cocktails and Culture

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.

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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.

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Above : In situ, in Birnam Wood and Below: Contrast altered and image enhanced in Photoshop

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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…

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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.

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*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

 

 

Scientific studies

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.

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Ramalina Fastigiata Lichen

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Milk White toothed polypore

oakmaossOak moss lichen

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Jew’s Ear Fungus

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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.

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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.

Mesmerizing microscopy

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:

 


 

Jelly babies

I found some interesting species of jelly fungi in the wood yesterday, so I picked a few specimens to take away and draw in my studio. The first that I came across was Exidia Glandulosa otherwise known as Black Brain Fungus. It was growing on a branch of a beech tree, and was in reach, so I gently picked off a few pieces. IMG_8930Exidia Glandulosa or Black Brain Fungus

I find these jelly fungi really intriguing – on the one hand they are repulsive, brain-like, as if from another planet, but at the same time I think they are amazing and I am really excited when I find them.

IMG_9227I decided to make a study of this one, as it looked really strange…I also used a magnifying glass to try to get as many details in as possible.

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Neobulgaria pura var. foliacea Beech Jelly Fungus 

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 The same beech jelly fungus in a more shrivelled up state the next day

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Auricula Judae or Jew’s Ear Fungus

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Another Jew’s ear, but a bit less like an ear than the sample above

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I have kept some of the samples that I collected, as apparently they dry out, and can be revived again when moist. I’m going to experiment with this to see if I can revive them so that they also might be used in a cloche as part of my installation.

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Cultivating Oysters

Birnam Wood is ripe with fungi most times of the year, and i never cease to be amazed at all the different varieties growing there. Within the space of 48 hours, fungi can appear, then dry up, with only a few small traces of it ever existing. Some of the most impressive fungi was the Common Oyster, Pleurotus Ostreatus, which I found growing on a large log  just inside the entrance to the wood. This particular log has been host to a wide variety of fungi, and its occupants seem to change on a daily basis. For my show, I want to  try to bring some of the species growing in the wood into the gallery, so I managed to source an Oyster Mushroom growing kit online.

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I soaked a bag overnight (which was filled with recycled coffee grounds and compost) and left it for a few days. The surface of the compost started to become very white, and small textured bobbles and stumps started to appear after a few days. IMG_7374

After a couple of days of being soaked, small white bobbles appeared on the surface
IMG_7791Tiny baby “oysters” started to form

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Within hours, the babies grew into much larger mushrooms, just like the ones I had seen in Birnam Wood

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I was so amazed that these mushrooms were actually growing in my kitchen! Although edible, I really didn’t fancy trying them, so I kept them there for a couple of weeks and then I harvested them. I laid them on a plate to dry, in hope that I might be able to use the dried mushrooms for something too.

The kit is able to grow a second batch too, so I soaked it again, and this time I have cut the grow bag down so that it fits under a glass cloche, as I want to see how the mushrooms look when pressed against glass.

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I need to find or make a suitable base for the cloche, but just wanted to try this out to see how it would look. I really hope the mushrooms grow, despite being taken out of their dark cardboard box and their grow bag. I have covered the cloche with a tea towel to darken their environment a little, so hopefully that might help.

If they continue to grow, and the experiment works, I will buy another kit and try this out for  part of an installation in my show. If this works I think it will be an interesting exhibit, especially if it appears that the mushrooms are pressed against the glass, trying to escape. I might even see if I could form a small hole in the glass and allow them to burst out, leaving the broken glass beside the cloche on a bench.

 

Glassworks

I received a beautiful little book in the post yesterday, a small and fairly rare book of photography by Fay Godwin – Glassworks and Secret Lives. Godwin began to take an interest in photography at 32 years old, and started out taking portrait photos of authors, who she met through her publisher husband Tony. When she split from her husband, she turned her back on portraiture and began to take an interest in landscape photography.

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She collaborated with author and poet Ted Hughes, and produced many works which responded to his poems and the English countryside. His vision of the landscape was not unlike that of Neo-Romantics, and although Godwin denied that her work was influenced by them, it has a loneliness and desolation to it, a haunting sadness and sensitivity which some would argue is in the style of the Neo-Romantics.

c13526-69Fence by Fay Godwin

But it is her later work which this small book shows – works which she made in colour using “fast and grainy colour film” to “…explore the detail in forgotten corners, behind glass, plastic and other materials.”

g02(p153)‘Untitled, from Pioneer Glassworks,’ 1989

I really love the subtle reflections in this piece, looking at what is in front of the camera, yet still being able to capture elements of what is behind. A haunting, ghostly layering, dreamlike and entrancing.

I decided to have a go today using some “props” which I could use to photograph the landscape through. I found cling film, perspex, a glass jar, petri dish and an old plastic carton.  I took them out into the woodland to have a play around.

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Various props to photograph though

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I began with the cling film, which was wrapped between branches to form a ‘window’.

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The cling film catches the sun and gives the impression of looking through scratched glass. Next I had a go using a clear plastic carton, which I found captured some interesting reflections…

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By chance I caught the light just at the right moment to reflect the branches and trunk of the tree onto a clump of lichen – an unexpected result as I moved the plastic carton over the lichen, but unfortunately I could have done with another pair of hands to get the photograph more in focus.

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Another go with the carton in a different location…

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This is my favourite piece using the carton…it reminds me of the sweeping blurry skies of a Tuner painting, yet I love the way that the tiny fronds of fire moss can be clearly seen.

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Shadow of brach cast on scratched surface

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Hollow in a tree reflecting the bright landscape behind it

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Abstract reflections
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The shots of the leaves above (and one below) were taken through perspex, making a more layered reflected effect

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Below; Perspex over frogspawn, with water droplet on top

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Finally, I took a few shots through a jam jar…lichenjar1

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This technique creates a vortex effect similar to some of the landscape paintings from the romantic era, a blurred vignette which draws the eye into the central point of focus.

I want to experiment more with photographing elements of the landscape through transparent surfaces which have different thicknesses and discrepancies or patterns. I’m going to continue collecting old cartons, bottles and jars to see what results they give. The reflections in the glass give mysterious effects which give the images a kind of spiritual quality – one method of capturing the ‘spirit of place.’

Lichen Landscape

Today I decided to have a go at making a diorama, as it is one way of presenting the miniature, overlooked specimens which would allow them to be viewed from a different perspective.  I have a collection of lichens which I have collected from the floor of Birnam Wood over the last few months, some of them are really quite spectacular, and are not unlike something one might see under the sea in a coral reef.  I have a few that have been drying out, as well as some oakmoss and usnea lichens which have been pressed, so I gathered them together and began to plan how I might display them underneath a large glass cloche.

I used a brick of oasis and pieced it together to form a circle of the desired size.  I began by covering the surface and sides with pressed usnea, which is a pale green hairy lichen, as this gives good coverage and seems like an appropriate base on which to add further specimens.

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I glued the usnea down with florists glue, and also used a few pins to keep it in place. When it was all covered, I inserted the larger pieces of lichen, and also included a twig which I had picked which was covered in crotal (yellow lichen).
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To finish it off neatly, I glued the pressed oak moss right around the sides of the circle, allowing it to stand proud around the edge to add a further layer of interest for the viewer.

diorama19The finished diorama reminded me a bit of a decorated cake, although it would be certainly fatal if consumed!  Below is an aerial view of the miniature landscape…

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I placed it inside the cloche to see how it would look on display. I was quite happy with the result, and it reminded me of some of the exhibits of coral that I had seen in books about wunderkammern that I had been reading.

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I took a lot of photos from different angles both with and without the glass, and was surprised at the “alien” landscape which emerged through the lens. The camera really magnifies the texture and form of the lichens which I hadn’t realised were so amazing. The two photos below are taken through the glass cloche, giving a distorted and surreal effect in some areas.

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The blurred foreground against the crisp texture of the yellow Croat lichen gives a ghostly, otherworldly effect.

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Without the glass, I feel like I am looking into a strange and sinister yet intriguing landscape – almost certainly a sublime landscape where trees and plants have evolved into threatening monsters, a bit like the photographs of Paul Nash.

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Making this piece has allowed me not only to display an unusual collection of lichens, but also to take a digital walk through a miniature landscape, where the weird and wonderful details that lie under our feet become menacing and monstrous when we enlarge them. By magnifying the details, we notice the strange suckers, cups, wrinkles and veins on these specimens which would feel at home in the movie Avatar. The lens is a great tool to illustrate the sublime aspects of the world around us.