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.

 

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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.

Are you ready for this jelly?

I came across a few blobs of what appeared to be clear jelly growing on an unidentified fallen log in an open area within Birnam Wood a few weeks ago. I assumed that they were some kind of fungus, so I took a sample home with me to see what might happen if I grew it in the lab.

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I later found out it is Exidia nucleata or crystal brain fungus, a translucent/opaque jelly cell-like formation, which is quite tough and rubberyI took it into the lab last week, and as it was quite hard, I held it with a pair of tweezers and rubbed it around on the agar jelly, before sealing it up to incubate.

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I decided to try a new approach in photographing the growth; instead of taking the picture in the lab, or at the window, I went into the wood near to where I had found the specimen, wedged the petri dish between a small branch and tree trunk, and photographed the result with a bit of light behind it.

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I cropped and sharpened the image and altered the brightness and contrast to give the result below.

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I’m really excited by this result, and feel it is a great way of photographing the hidden aspects of a particular part of the landscape. I used the same approach in photographing another less vigorous result which I had grown this week also, again from a jelly like fungus, Tremella Mesenterica or Yellow Brain Fungus.

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Above :Tremella Mesenterica or Yellow Brain Fungus.

I really love the photo of the first growth that I took, as it is more abstract and less obvious. I want to experiment more with this approach and need to get back into the lab as soon as it is free so that I can cultivate some more growths.

Pseudo-superstition, symbols and supernatural snapshots

This morning was lovely and sunny, so I decided to go to Birnam Wood to attempt to make some rubbings from the trees, rocks, and anything else of interest. Unfortunately, once I arrived at Birnam (which is about 5 miles from where I live), the temperature had dropped and the sun didn’t seem to be shining in the village. The trees in the wood were really wet, so my attempts at making rubbings were a complete waste of time. I did take a few photos of the Birnam Oak, which had an even larger pool of water around it then the last time I visited.

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When looking into the pool, I began thinking about superstitions and sayings and that I could invent one about Birnam Wood and a flood…

“If Birnam Wood, e’re doth flood….

it won’t do man nor beast no good

the spirit will then change its mood

for forty days you’ll need a hood “

Just a nonsense rhyme, but probably not any worse some of these superstitious rhymes that already exist.

When I came home, I was playing around with the photos on my laptop, and I noticed when I rotated the “mirror image” photo of the Birnam Oak, a few unexpected “guests” appeared…

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I say what I can only describe as a tree sprite down the centre of the image, with a grotesque beaked head near the bottom centre of the picture. I played around with a few filters to try to enhance the image, until I ended up with the result below.

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I think this image looks really evil, and I noticed what looked like symbols drawn at the bottom of the page. Its amazing what you can find in a simple landscape shot when you learn to look in different ways.

I copied the symbols and enhanced them a bit using photoshop. They look like alchemical symbols, although the first one reminds me of the head of a wildcat with a figure standing above it, maybe it could represent a witch and her familiar.

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I might try building these symbols from twigs and natural objects and perhaps hanging them in Birnam Wood.

Magic Mirror

Lecanomancy  is an ancient divination method which was practised by Babylonian priests, who floated oil and sometimes other foodstuffs on water in attempts to see into the future. Today I decided to play around with some marbling ink to see what random patterns came to light. I found 3 circular canvas boards which I thought would be an interesting format to use, as they reminded me of circular mirrors, and this also made me think of the magic mirror of John Dee which I have been reading about lately.

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John Dee’s Mirror and some of his other magic tools, on display in the              British Museum

Dee’s magic mirror is a circular obsidian Aztec cult object which was brought to Europe in the late 1520s and was subsequently owned by Horace Walpole, an English art historian,  antiquarian and politician. Dee, a mathematician, astrologer, alchemist and student of the occult was said to have joined forces with Edward Kelley (a young con-man who practised the dark arts) and used the mirror, and other tools including a crystal ball to call on “angels” to scry into the future.

Dee’s magic mirror is an object which has inspired a few artists including Damon Albarn (who wrote an operatic work Dr Dee in 2012) and Joachim Koester, who made silver gelatine prints of his photos of the mirror (see below).joachim-koester

Joachim Koester, The Magical Mirror of John Dee, 2006, silver gelatin print, 25.5 x 33.5 cm

I filled my tray with water, and again, added a small amount of water from the sample bottles I had taken in Birnam Wood, before adding some black marbling ink.

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I stirred the inky mixture using  a “wand” made from a piece of a beech branch which I found in Birnam wood. Beech is renowned for its divinatory properties.  First I made some prints onto A4 pieces of paper, before moving into larger A3 watercolour paper, and then finally marbling the circular boards.

Below : some of the first experiments on paper

The first circular board I used as a recycled one – it had a few traces of pink ink on it, and ironically – as I actually predicted it (through sod’s law!) it was the best print of all! An air bubble had  created a large white oval shape within the circle, and the marbling had created a beautiful border of mystical pattern around it.

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I love the result of the first one – unfortunately it was printed onto a recycled board, and traces of pink ink are showing through. It appears as if one is looking into a hole or void of some kind, which allows the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the blank space.

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This piece has a smaller void – is it a doorway into another galaxy, a a magic white stone (as was used by Scotland’s own Nostradamus, the Brahan Seer) a magical megalithic monument or an aerial view of the landscape such as a loch, hill or boundary?

magicmirror1The final circle is very beautiful, but completely covered, leaving less cause for consideration of space. I have an urge to paint over this one, picking out the shapes to create more blank areas within the swirls, and omitting some of the marks with white acrylic. But perhaps that is being just a tad self-indulgent, so for the moment I will resist the temptation.

I did take some film of the swirling ink, which again reminded me of Macbeth, and the cauldron of the witches. I wonder if this could be projected from inside a cauldron onto a ceiling, and how this might look as a video installation?

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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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.