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.