Reflection and evaluation of MA3 Final Project

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.

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Reflecting under the Birnam Oak

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. CjySVNSUkAAx4L8

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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.

Romanticism, re-enchantment and retail therapy

Having a real interest in landscape, nature, folklore and mythology are great, however when it comes to narrowing down what I wanted to do for my MA I was finding that I had lost direction a bit, and had began to focus too much on the “magic and art” thread, and in doing so had lost my real passion which was in nature and the landscape around me.  A tutorial with Michele Whiting really helped me get back into the swing of what I felt was where I should be going with my final project, by bringing landscape back into it, and advising me to look at a number of books and artists, such as Mark Dion, Tania Kovats, Caspar David Friedrich and the writing of Simon Schama and Goethe amongst others.

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A Walk at Dusk By Caspar David Friedrich (Getty Museum).

I had already been reading a book called The Dark Monarch which was a catalogue for an exhibition which was held in 2009 at Tate St. Ives, and the mention of Friedrich got me thinking about the 20th century artists who were inspired by him and other Romantics such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.  Artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravillious, Graeme Sutherland and others who were known as the Neo-Romantics.

RAV33031 The Long Man of Wilmington or, The Wilmington Giant, 1939 (w/c on paper) by Ravilious, Eric (1903-42); 44.2x54.5 cm; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; English,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories possible copyright restrictions apply, consult national copyright laws

The Long Man of Wilmington or The Wilmington Giant Eric Ravilious. Ravillious is an artist whose work really epitomises the beauty and mysticism of the British Landscape, choosing charming and alluring subject matter

These words by Michael Bracewell, from a chapter in The Dark Monarch really sums up what I am trying to show in my work:

“The Neo-Romantic sensibility is at one with the lowering sky and the unnaturally protracted sunset…it admits to the presences of magic as live spirits contained within nature, or as psychic vapour, colouring those hidden places just re-discovered.” (2009:15)

I took deliver of a really useful book which I ordered on Amazon last week called This Enchanted Isle by Peter Woodcock, which gives loads of information about the British Neo-Romantics, so I have begun getting stuck into it and find it easy to read, yet very informative.

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I have also ordered The Spirit Of Place. Nine Neo-Romantic artists and Their Times by Malcolm Yorke, so if it’s in the same league as This Enchanted Isle I will be delighted.

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Although I share the Neo-Romantic idea of portraying the genius loci (or spirit of place) of the landscape, my own interest in the landscape is more with the micro than the macro, so I have been considering the hidden, unseen, overlooked and unnoticed details and specimens and how I can present nature’s own works of art as exhibits. Having also been doing experiments in the lab and using scientific equipment has led me to consider the wunderkammern or cabinets of curiousity of the 17th century. I couldn’t resist buying a few books about these to feast my eyes upon!

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Above and below: These two gorgeous books arrived on Friday with loads of weird and wonderful displays inside

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These books have inspired me to make my own Cabinet of Curiousity to capture the genius loci of Birnam Wood. I’m thinking that this may feature as show case for all of my work and research throughout the final project, including specimens, photos and sketchbooks. Designing such a cabinet would also let me take into account some of the sensory elements that I want to include in my show, for example sound and smell, as these could be concealed within.

SILK seminar – Exploring Cultural Values and the potential for a more-than -usual-approach in landscape management

Last Friday I attend ended a seminar by Amy Woolvin, a research assistant at the Centre for Mountain studies at Perth College UHI.  Amy’s PhD research explored the multiple ways that people value landscapes using walking interviews, arts-based methods and key-informant interviews (with local and national landscape managers) . Within minutes of her talk, she had revealed some beautiful paintings that she had completed on location in her two sites of study, Assynt and Applecross. Although she is a geographer, she is also accomplished painter, and her paintings had a real charm to them with appealing use of colour, composition and the way she captured the light in the landscape. I found it interesting that she tries to capture her experience in the landscape through the medium of painting, just as the Romantics and Neo-Romantics had done, giving the paintings a more textural and descriptive feel to them, paying attention to the overlooked details, the way that the wind affected the heather or trees.  She is not just merely painting a pretty picture or an obvious scene but instead opting to capture locations off the beaten track in the middle of nowhere, giving me the feeling that I wanted to walk through the canvas and place myself in these wild surroundings. She mentioned how through art we are able to capture the memory of a particularly walk or time in the landscape, whether through drawn, painting, photography or collecting souvenirs. The landscape is constantly evolving with the changes in weather and growth/decay – the only constants are day and night.

amyholden-paintingMuch of what she said resounded with my interests, for instance how we consider landscape, do we look at the micro or the macro. Where do we look when we go for a walk? Straight ahead at eye level, or do we look down at the details or the ground under our feet? Are we gazing at the landscape as spectators, or are we embodied within it, experiencing the smell, sounds and the haptic sensory experience of walking or moving through the terrain? We also need to take into account our emotional response to the landscape. Does it hold particular memories, or trigger emotions as we make a new discovery or see a familiar sight?  Is there more of an interconnected way of seeing landscape, by joining up the elements such as land as sea or land and sky?

Amy’s work investigated some of the productivity aspects of landscape and whether old practices such as crofting should be revived, or perhaps landscape needs to be rethought and new sustainable ways of using it such as bee-keeping and hydro schemes might be considered.  She worked with people from the two communities and went on walking interviews with them, used artspace methods to encourage them to use their creativity to express their relationship to the landscape around them, and she ask conducted key informant interviews with stakeholders such as landowners, councils and the local landscape partnership schemes.

Another interesting aspect which came out of her research was that the locals felt like a second wave of “highland clearances” was taking place, where people weren’t allowed to use their land due to very strict conservation issues, which seem perhaps to be counterproductive in some ways.

I managed to have a quick chat with Amy after the seminar, and have since spoken with her via email. I’m hoping that sometime in the near future (after my MA is completed) we might be able to do a collaborative research project or exhibition together concerning landscape. I’m very pleased to have made her acquaintance and found her work very interesting.

Parallel Worlds

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I went for a walk in the rain through Birnam Wood this morning. The river had flooded the wood, and still surrounded some of the trees. Where it had subsided, most of the leaves which had carpeted the paths had been washed away. In some ways, it felt like nature had hoovered up the mess, as the leaves had been turning to mush and mud, and were no longer the crisp attractive autumnal delights which they had been a few months ago.

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Signs of greenery brightened up the wood on this miserable day

Walking near the river bank, I saw signs of greenery, which was actually quite refreshing on such a dreich day. The Birnam Oak sat in a pool of water – a sight which is really rare… so I decided to capture some images of this on my iPhone.The reflections were quite impressive, and made me think, as always, that I am looking through magic mirror into a parallel world. It also brought to mind some research I have been doing lately into divination and scrying – a technique where the future could be read from glass, crystal, water or flames.

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A rare sight – the Birnam Oak standing in water and casting its reflection

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Inverting the photo – a glimpse into a parallel world?

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I began to think about the seasons, and how the location looks completely different in winter, bare, cold, desolate, unwelcoming – compared with the lush and warm wood that I know in the summer, and the amber adorned trees of autumn.  It’s no surprise that the ancient dwellers of this land, the Celts, worshipped the Sun, building stone circles and doing circular dances in its honour (which is where the Scottish dance the reel is derived from).

When I got home, I played around with some of the images I had taken in Birnam Wood,  overlapping photos taken throughout the seasons to create new and mysterious fantasy locations, parallel worlds, dreamlike, as if they had appeared in a vision or prophecy.

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“How deep is your love?”  (digitally manipulated photography)

The steps leading to the wood, combined with Common Knapweed and foliage. Knapweed was used by young women in love divination spells.

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“Sanctuary” (digitally manipulated photography)

The “door” in the Birnam Oak and Greater Burdock/ foliage. Burdock is used in magic to ward off negativity and for general protection.

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“Knowledge is power” (digitally manipulated photography)

Beech trees and dew drops on their mossy bark. The Beech is linked with time, wisdom and knowledge and can grant wishes if you write onto its bark and bury it. Club moss is linked with power (I couldn’t find a magical use for Bonfire Moss, which is actually the variety in the photo). The dew drops look very like crystal balls.

These images are liminal spaces between fantasy and reality, like one dream which merges into another. They are reminiscent of Triptography, a surrealist technique discovered when artist Christopher Thurlow ran out of film and ended up using the same roll over and over again.

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Christopher Thurlow’s accidental image, which he called Triptography

I really enjoyed making these fantasy landscapes and can see potential with making some faux-magic imagery and illusions, or perhaps even melding together images from Birnam Wood and Dusinane hill, as in the prophecy of Macbeth.

Thoughts on the lecture by Haidy Geisner

In a lecture earlier this evening given by Digital Anthropologist Haidy Geisner, I was alerted to an object/artefact in her presentation, which was a tribal cloak. She discussed how she and some colleagues had investigated various ways to present the cloak, and how they might make it more interactive for the viewer, as it was a fragile artefact that could not be touched, and was only able to be laid flat for preservation reasons.

This got me thinking about the idea I had had of making a cloak from the leaves and plants of Birnam Wood, which I had considered wearing whilst making a pilgrimage. The dilemma of how to present this artefact – which may end up damaged and dishevelled after my wearing it for 7 hours or so. Haidy also touched upon the issue of authenticity with the artefacts, and this struck a chord with me, as I really do strive to keep everything I do as authentic as possible, especially with regards to gathering materials from particular sites.

I was interested in Haidy’s use of technology to create sound from images (the woven patterns of the cloak) and the interactive lights which connected to the sounds made. Exploring the sensory experience for the viewer is something I have tried in the past, by serving foods and beverages to visitors at an exhibition which were made from the same materials as some of the artwork (invasive plants /weeds). This year, I’m exploring the idea of giving an olfactory experience to visitors, to give them the sense of the smells one encounters when walking through Birnam Wood. The strong scent of Herb Robert, the gentle notes of aniseed from Sweet Cicely, the strong smell of cat’s urine from the Elder leaves, and the damp, earthy smell of the woods after the rain.

The use of technology was something I have toyed with for a while now, in particular the use of Augmented Reality software, as I had a notion to show details in the landscape which are overlooked or unseen to the human eye. Having looked at the Layar software, I realised that any attempt by myself to try to create the results I craved would be futile, without an enhanced software package and lots of expertise.  I asked her whether she had explored the use of such software, and she agreed that it would have been too difficult to create a successful experience without a greater level of expertise.

Something else in her lecture jumped out at me – going back to the cloak…when she mentioned the cloak as a symbol of power. This is an avenue I had not previously considered exploring, as I still don’t want to commit to definitely making a cloak, but nevertheless it is something I will certainly look at in terms of research sometime soon.

The final year project

Having had a very wet summer in Scotland has left me unable to get outside as often I wanted into the woodlands around me which I love. Instead,  I have relaxed this summer, and tried to recuperate from a very stressful past year, allowing myself the luxury of reading books which aren’t about art and watching mostly Nordic noir or 70s detective shows on TV.

This seems to have allowed me the breather I needed to think what I want to do for my final project, and I feel that putting pressure aside has actually made it a bit easier to focus on what I want to do next.

I have been leading up to what seems to me to be a natural progression into a project which encompasses all of my research interests; landscape, walking, mythology and natural history. Living about 10 minutes (by car) away from Birnam Wood,  the location made famous in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, means that as an area of study it is easily accessible for me to visit frequently and undertake research of the plants, trees, fungi and soils which can be found there. Having experimented with the use of plants and natural materials in my practice over the past two years, I feel that I am now ready to use my acquired skills to take to a higher level, into a very extensive yet focused  final project.

The walking element of my practice may possibly also involve the connection between this site and the site of Dunsinane Hill, which was also referenced in the witches prophecy of Macbeth.

Although very excited by this new challenge, I realise it will be a very big challenge, both mentally and possibly physically (depending on the methods I choose to research). I am currently sourcing reading materials which might be of use to me, and will hopefully begin to harvest some natural materials with the view to make some work from them. This is all a bit vague at the moment, yet I’m told this is normal and not to worry, as my proposal will evolve over the next few months.