With Little Toller Books, we are pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a beautiful, limited edition hardback version of our hand-made artists’ book, EXCHANGE. This book, which comes with a unique frameable artwork by Chris Drury, is the result of a two-year collaboration with Cape Farewell, an arts organisation concerned with climate change, which is also the subject of an exhibition at the Fine Foundation Gallery in August. Full details about the book and exhibition are below.
Chris Drury and Kay Syrad
Frank Davies Memorial Lecture Series, Art and Vision Science
Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science, Chris Drury, Tuesday 3 December 2013
Trace the flight of an Albatross circling the Antarctic over a period of eighteen months and use this to frame an ice-blue knot of continental wind patterns registered on one day; rake a spiralling trail based on Native American weave patterns in the Nevada desert only to see it blown away again overnight. These are some of the ways in which artist Chris Drury maps the complex patterns that govern landscapes and climate, and repeat in the rhythms of the human organism. ‘Double Echo’ was the title for a discussion of drawings and sculptural works which respond to scientific studies with an embodied experience of place as well as a conceptual concern with the language applied to the conjunction of imagination and understanding: the repeated phrase ‘everything and nothing’ captures an overwhelming encounter with the vastness of the Antarctic; and perhaps the difficulty we all have in connecting our own lives to the big picture.
Introducing his talk with a suitably big event, Drury described how the landscape formed by a meteorite landing billions of years ago triggered a fascination with life’s patterns of destruction and regeneration that has inspired work on all scales from the geophysical to the thumb-sized. In this context, a study of the tenacious processes of bacterial and fungal growth that can both spell death and survive a nuclear wipe-out have resulted in fragile mushroom clouds that hang in an interior space, and glass etchings that trace patterns left by a drop of deadly spores. A related video work reflects on the shattering effect of the explosions at Nevada’s nuclear test site. Registering the vibrations of a column of smoke when hit by force of sound, the silent film also memorialises the spiritual-cleansing rituals of Indigenous practice based on the burning of desert sage brush. And a technological encounter with climate-change monitoring resulted in a series of layered drawings which combine physics with an individual’s physiology. Hearing the pilot of the survey plane describing the wave-like echogram of a cross-section of Antarctic ice-sheet as being like ‘taking the heart-beat of the earth’, Drury introduced him to cardiographers working at a London hospital, in order then to combine images of the blood flow in this man’s own heart with those pulses registered in the iced-over mountain range.
Drury’s works demonstrate a political engagement with climate change grounded in scientific research that already challenges comprehension when it extends into limits of particle physics and chaos theory. Exploring the aesthetics of such complexity, the art responds imaginatively to fragile habitats while also playing with contrasts of scale which -as pointed out during the question session – evoke a metaphysical fascination with the microcosm and the macrocosm. The key to this appeal lies in a delicate balance between immersion in an environment and the objective study of universal patterns. The result is an image of a whole which complements the research scientists’ atomized view of detail. And this rounds up the series rather neatly by bringing us back to the first Frank Davis lecture on perception and visual wholes, and yet also leaves plenty of complex paths still untrod.
| Tags: talk
| Tags: art/science
3 October, 10.30am. Exhibition Tour by curator Liz Wells
Start at The Polar Museum: Admission free
29 October, 6.00pm. Artist in Conversation: Chris Drury
The Polar Museum: Admission free
Exhibition opening times
The Polar Museum, Tuesday – Saturday, 10.00am – 4.00pm
Ruskin Gallery, Monday – Saturday, 10.00am – 4.30pm
Scott Polar Research Institute
Lensfield Road, Cambridge, CB2 1ER
Tel: 01223 336540 Email: email@example.com
Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science
Courtauld Institute of Art
I will be giving the 5th and final lecture on Art and Vision Science at the Courtauld Institute of Art on December 3rd.
Art and Vision Science
Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
17.30 – 18.30, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre
Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury
Speaker(s): Chris Drury (artist, UK)
Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission
Organised by: Tim Satterthwaite and Dr Meredith A Brown
We never see nature as it is, we always see it through the veil of culture. Art and science are part of this culture, as two sides of the same coin. Chris Drury’s work seeks to connect the rational and emotional, through different means and materials, and in collaboration with scientists from many disciplines, as well as with small communities and indigenous peoples throughout the world – from Antarctica and outback Australia, to his own home town in Sussex. Science can inform and shape our world but a wordless art can move us in ways we cannot predict. For the final lecture in this series, Chris Drury explores the creative connections between art and science, in search of new ways to describe human experience and our relation to the natural world.
Chris Drury is often described as a land artist, but he finds the label too narrow to capture the range of his work. He collaborates with scientists and technicians from a broad spectrum of disciplines, using whatever visual means and materials best suit the situation. He has had many international solo exhibitions and has made environmental art works all over Europe, America and Australia. Many of these works are illustrated in land art survey books; his monograph Silent Spaces is published by Thames and Hudson. Recent projects involve residencies in Antarctica, South Africa and Australia. His work Carbon Sink in Wyoming sparked a worldwide furore about the burning of fossil fuels and the die-off of forests in the Rockies. He is currently working with a group of First Australians in Western Australia, on a project concerning the mining of uranium on their land.
The 2013 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series explores the intersection between art and vision science. More than fifty years after Gombrich’s pioneering Art and Illusion, the science of perception remains, for the most part, marginal to art historical practice, despite extraordinary recent advances in our understanding of the visual brain. In this series of five international lectures, leading vision scientists and art historians argue the case for a new engagement between art and science, in which scientific models of vision inform the theories and approaches of art history. The complex dynamics of perception, unlocked by contemporary vision science, contain implications for the study of art that are only now being realised.
You can access a video interview from the 2012 Schlossmediale festival at Schloss Werdenberg in Switzerland here
I have recently started the research part of a rural residency in The Sydling valley in Dorset, working with 3 organic farms. The idea is that I make something on the land and something in Exhibition road. Watch this space over the coming months.
More images from the Highgreen Walk On weekend.
This was a practical offshoot of the show Walk On, curated by VARC and currently touring the country.It highlights artists who use walking as a part of their practice. The weekend took place at Highgreen up on the moors north of Kielder reservoir. Artists taking part were: Simon Pope and Sarah Cullen, Tim Knowles, Ingrid Pollard, David McCracken, Gwennie Fraser, Mike Collier and Keith Bowey, Atul Bhalla and myself.
I had devised a meandering infinity mindfulness walk around 2 figure 8’s set in the landscape. One out on the moors around a sheep fold – out around a curve in the stream and back and the other set in a wood. The idea was that we would walk from light to dusk to dark, and that each infinity would involve an inner/outer experience in the way they were set out.
About 30 people signed up for it and we set off at 8.30 pm with a 40 minute walk in. Then 30 minutes walking the sheep fold until sunset, then 40 minutes following the stream down to the wood in the gloaming and a further 30 minutes walking the candle lit infinity in the dark.
For me it was all magic, especially the sheepfold /stream walk, but the candle lit walk had to be curtailed because in the still dark air of the wood, the midges came out in force! The weather was fine and hot throughout the weekend and all of the walks were amazing and different.
For the Centenary of the of the MRC the Genome Damage and Stability Centre will be showing both science and art for one day in the Fulton Building on campus: https://www.facebook.com/events/152769394906692/
I will be showing 3 works from the Life in The Field of Death series together with Destroying Angel Nevada.
Two pieces will stay in the foyer of the Genome Centre for the rest of the summer.
As part of my 2013 HC Combs Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University School of Art, I was commissioned to make an environmental work for the ANU Sculpture Park, for the Centenary of the Founding of Canberra. The Installation was a collaboration between myself, the ANU School of Art Sculpture Workshop, an ANU Arborist and the ANU Gardens and Grounds. With particular thanks going to David Williams, Nick Stranks, the sculpture students Isabelle and Deidre, Melinda Walker, the chief Arborist, Vince the tree surgeon and Matt the groundsman. Many other students and ground staff helped and my thanks goes to them too.
The constructed element is 2.5 metres high x 3.2 m.long and 2.2 m wide. The planted trees are roughly twice the height. There is a standing stone in the centre 1.5 m. high surrounded by rammed earth, surrounded by carved Eucalyptus trunks, charred black. Over time the tree trunks will rot away, the rammed earth will erode and the trees will grow. The trees are the white barked Eucalyptus mannifera, which are fast growing large trees and may live 50 years or so. Towards the end of their life, these four trees will encircle a standing stone in a mound of red earth. The work faces out across the lake to the hills from which the river and lake rises.
Documentary video by Tim Dolstra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2A1ldw8Y4c
| Tags: environmental, growing
First thing on Tuesday Morning I visit the site we chose last year. We had marked the centre with a hole – it is still there and all my first instincts were right – it is the best site for the work.
On Wednesday I go with Melinda – chief arborist of the gardeners to a horticultural centre to look at the trees she has identified. She would really like the redbark, but although these trees are beautiful and big they are not straight and will be difficult to plant between the logs, so instead we chose 4 beautiful mannifera, a white barked Eucalypt. As saplings they are about twice the height of the logs and will be perfect.
Over the following days the logs which have been set aside for us, are cut in half down the length of the trunk, carved and charred – 10 0f them
And the standing stone is raised on the site
It is wedged shaped and is angled towards the mountain across the lake from where the river rises.
The idea for this piece is that it will be a living changing thing. Over time,the logs will rot away and the rammed earth around the stone will erode, re revealing the rock. Meanwhile the trees will grow, so that in 30 – 40 years there will be 4 massive white barked mannifera enclosing a standing stone.
Itinerary for the next 6 weeks:
Perth, Dwellingup, Mt Franklin National Park, Nortcliffe, Walpole, Denmark, inland to Wave Rock, Menzies, Leonora to talk to some first Australians about protest sculptures (uranium mining), back to Perth.
Perth – Sydney – Canberra to take up a months fellowship at ANU where I will make the work the work The Way of Trees, Earth and Water.
The work is a temporary installation at Abbaye Jumieges, near Rouen in France for the festival of Water in the region Seine Maritime. It takes the shape and dimensions of the big arch of the ruined church and fills it with a flow pattern of water and blood from the heart, drawing a link to the nearby river Seine and the Abbey’s violent history over the centuries. The work is 24 m. x 8 m. and is made from split logs and stones from the ruin. The exhibition of 6 works opens on 14th May 2013 and will run for the summer/Autumn season.
| Tags: envirenmental, flow pattern, installation, land art
Art Circuit have curated a traveling exhibition and events around 40 years of Art walking featuring the work of some 30 artists. Venues include Pitzhanger Manor Gallery, London, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. I have four works in the show and am curating an infinity walk at Highgreen in Northumberland in July for a two day event.
A LANDSCAPE PROJECT FOR MILTON KEYNES AT ASHLAND
This project is in 2 stages:
- In collaboration with the community, to design and make a landscape sculpture for the woodlands area of the park – for which there is funding.
What is proposed is a long snaking form made from twisted tree trunks which leads the walker into the wild area through an arch, provides encircled areas for children to play and adults to picnic and which then leads onto a path over a bridge on the brick water channel and onto a boardwalk through the marsh tussock grass and back to the lakes area. The work colonises a small cleared area leaving the rest of the woodland wild for animal and bird habitat.
2. In collaboration with the Parks Trust and community, to design features into the lakes area, to increase habitat for biodiversity and a more interesting rural experience for the residents.
Following on from the snaking form, it is proposed to create more life in the pond-lined lakes by having floating islands snake through them. These vegetated islands will in time build up a unique bio-diverse aquatic environment. At the far end of the lakes, the snaking log form will re emerge to form a spiral with a growing willow tree at its end. In times of flood this log piece will float.
To the south of the lakes it is proposed to plant wave forms in fruit trees, shrubs, grasses and reed – again to encourage wildlife and provide residents with a food resource. This is an ongoing work and is subject to consultation with the project committee.
This is a landscape projects with several international artists making interventions around the beautiful ruined abbey of Jumièges, near Rouen. The exhibition opens on May 25th. See: http://www.seinemaritime.net/docs/dossier-presentation-artistes-jumieges2013.pdf
The proposed work – Window on Blood and Water, takes the shape and dimensions of the main arch, lays it flat and uses the frame to enclose flow patterns from the heart (blood) and the Seine (water). The overall theme of the Seine Maritime festival is water. The patterns will be made of split logs around stones from the Abbey.
After an invitation to make a work outside in Denmark, Western Australia. I will take a two week research trip to see the land and coast, then head inland into the desert to meet with some indigenous Australians to talk to them about collaborating on a work which highlights the desecration wrought by uranium mining on their land. There is talk of doing some kind of ceremony while we are there. Then back to Perth and on to Canberra to start my fellowship and sculpture at ANU.
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY FELLOWSHIP IN CANBERRA
Following on from my research last year, I am returning to realize the sculpture I have proposed on the Campus at the edge of the lake. The work will be titled The Way of Trees, Earth and Water. It will be a living, changing and growing work. Making use of the large pile of tree trunks nearby, these will form the outer mould for a rammed earth monolith – rammed with red clay around a standing stone. Four sapling trees will be planted between the upright trunks. In time as the trees grow up, the rammed earth will erode, slowly revealing the rock beneath. The trees will be scored and scorched black in moving, flowing wave patterns.
This project for the Southern tip of Sweden on the Baltic is still seeking funding, but an available boat hull has been located. See: Portfolio – Commissions – Cloud Chambers.
This is an ongoing research project with Clare Whistler, an artist, dancer and choreographer, into Money and finance. It will hopefully evolve into a performance in the city of London and is already spawning a number of peripheral ideas.
This is a collaboration with geneticists at Sussex University into finding parallels and connections and highlighting the work they are doing there for an exhibition to the public. It is hoped we might apply for a Wellcome art/science grant to take this exploration further.
Bullied by coal companies and their allies in the Wyoming legislature, the University of Wyoming earlier this year caved to threats that millions of dollars in funding were in jeopardy if they didn’t remove an outdoor art installation on the university campus that Big Coal deemed offensive.
The sculpture, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around,” was installed on the campus by British artist Chris Drury in July 2011. A spiral of logs made from trees killed by a pine-beetle infestation, the center of the 36-foot-diameter sculpture featured coal-blackened logs surrounded by lumps of coal.
“While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget — I’m a great supporter of the university — every now and then you have these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” state Republican majority leader Tom Lubnau told the Casper Star-Tribune.
Martin Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, pointed out in the same newspaper that the university “get[s] millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas, and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me and demonizing the industry. I understand academic freedom, and we’re very supportive of it, but it’s still disappointing.”
Initially the university insisted that the sculpture would remain in place for at least two years and perhaps indefinitely as it naturally decayed. But behind the scenes, much stronger language and tactics were being used to cow university officials, as revealed by emails requested by Wyoming Public Radio and recently obtained by the Star-Tribune.
“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis demanded of the university’s director for governmental and community affairs.
In an email to oil and gas company officials, civic leaders, and major donors to the university, Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Bruce Hinchey wrote:
“The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate. They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change.”
Elected officials from Campbell County, home to some of the biggest coal mines in the U.S., called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture prior to its installation. “We are going to get to the bottom of who knew what and when they knew it,” Rep. Kermit Brown of Laramie, where the university is located, wrote in an email to a UW trustee.
Tom Lubnau, who represents Campbell County, emailed university officials saying he was considering introducing legislation “to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”
Rep. Elaine Harvey of Gillette, also in Campbell County, emailed university president Tom Buchanan, saying, “It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university.”
Meanwhile, a joint committee of senators and representatives in charge of budget decisions demanded an accounting of art at the university, including a description of the art and how it was paid for.
The threats and fear-mongering worked. Less than a year after “Carbon Sink” was installed, the university quietly and without public announcement removed the artwork. When asked why the sculpture had been removed, school officials said it was due to water damage.
But the newly-public emails reveal that President Buchanan, who had come under increasingly heavy fire from the fossil fuel industry once they learned that he had approved the sculpture, decided the piece should be removed “given the controversy it has generated.” And immediately after the decision was made, another university official emailed coal-friendly legislators saying the piece was “being demolished.”
“The only way the University of Wyoming could have handled the removal of controversial public art piece ‘Carbon Sink’ any worse is if they would have used the coal and wood from the artwork as a pyre to roast the artist,” editorialized the Star-Tribune.
It’s tough to blame President Buchanan, who is charged first and foremost with promoting academic excellence and keeping his university a successful going concern. But it is a sorry statement that Big Coal and its allies in the state legislature are so paranoid that a piece of art on a university campus would send them into fits of apoplexy and prompt them to shamelessly quash freedom of expression by demanding its removal.
“It has always amazed me that the coal folks talk about how their industry supports the state and the University, but in reality the coal comes off of public lands and is leased at under market value to the companies,” says Wyoming-based Sierra Club organizer Steve Thomas. “The coal is public coal being sold to private companies. The bulk of the money coal generates comes from the sale of that coal. So really, the university is partially paid for by the sale of public coal not by the largess of the coal companies.”
Rep. Lubnau — he who would “never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget” — and his Campbell County colleague Gregg Bilkre have called for a sculpture of energy workers to be erected on campus.
All photos courtesy of Chris Drury
This is the best piece of writing about “Carbon Sink” in the last few weeks. It is incisive and powerful in the analysis of what UW might have done…
Art That Irked Energy Executives Is
Gone, but Wyoming Dispute Whirls
The University of Wyoming removed “Carbon Sink,” by Chris Drury, after receiving complaints.
By DAN FROSCH
Published: October 26, 2012
LARAMIE, Wyo. — The idea behind the sculpture that appeared on the University of Wyoming campus about 16 months ago was simple but provocative: a swirl of dead wood and lumps of coal, intended to show the link between global warming and the pine beetle infestation that has ravaged forests across the Rockies.
But in a place like Wyoming, where the oil, gas and mining industries are the soul of the economy, some view such symbolism as a declaration of war.
And ever since the British artist Chris Drury installed the 36-foot-diameter sculpture, called “Carbon Sink,” the university has been embroiled in a bitter controversy, which eventually led to the quiet removal of the artwork last spring after energy officials and their political allies complained to administrators.
The dispute over the sculpture — part of a series of campus installations commissioned by the university’s art museum — has continued to dog the university after it released e-mails discussing the artwork.
The e-mails, first obtained by Wyoming Public Radio, showed that the university’s president, Tom Buchanan, privately asked that the sculpture be dismantled a year ahead of schedule because of the uproar surrounding it.
In a note on April 13 to the director of the university’s art museum, Dr. Buchanan wrote that it would be best to remove the sculpture, “given the controversy that it has generated.”
His note followed objections raised by local lawmakers and officials in Wyoming’s energy industry, which helps support the university through state taxes and felt betrayed.
What is this? Marion Loomis, the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said to a university official in an e-mail, using a mild profanity for emphasis. “I am all for freedom of expression, but putting a permanent piece blasting the coal industry while taking millions in royalties, A.M.L. fees and severance taxes strikes me as a stab in the back.” A.M.L., short for abandoned mine lands, refers to a reclamation fee.
In another e-mail, to Dr. Buchanan, State Representative Thomas E. Lubnau II threatened to introduce legislation that would ensure that “no fossil-fuel-derived tax dollars find their way in the University of Wyoming funding stream.”
Mr. Lubnau, a Republican from energy-rich Campbell County, said he subsequently told the university that he was not serious about cutting financing, and emphasized that he never called for the sculpture’s removal.
“I don’t think the university planned for the consequences of its actions very well,” he said. “But I have never commented publicly on the artist or the merit of the art. I’ve always maintained that tensions in ideas make us stronger.”
Mr. Lubnau added, “I’m not afraid of any idea.”
Mr. Loomis, of the mining association, said that the group was not trying to tell the university what art to display, but that it had a right to complain about something it deemed offensive.
“We felt like it was a slap,” he said. “So we reacted. We may have overreacted. We’re over it.”
But if the controversy is finished for the energy industry, it is not for the university.
E-mails show that one university official told an alumnus that the sculpture was removed early from its perch on an expanse of grass because of water damage — an irrigation line had broken in the area.
An editorial on Monday in The Casper Star-Tribune criticized the university for misleading the public over the reason the artwork was taken down.
Dr. Buchanan declined to comment on the matter. Chris Boswell, a vice president at the university, said that the explanation given to the alumnus was a mistake, and that no official reason had ever been released.
Mr. Boswell also pointed out that the sculpture remained intact for nearly a year — evidence, he said, that the university had not acquiesced to pressure.
“There are scholarly efforts, research efforts that occur on campus which I’m sure industry is not thrilled about, but occur on a daily basis,” he said. “At the same time, the university is very well dialed into the industries of this state.”
“Any institution is smart to be mindful of controversy,” Mr. Boswell added. “Does that translate into the muddling of opinions? No, I don’t believe so.”
Amid the fallout from the controversy, lawmakers passed a measure that requires artwork for a newly renovated campus recreation center to reflect Wyoming’s history of transportation, agriculture and minerals.
The measure also gives Gov. Matt Mead, along with the university’s Energy Resources Council — composed primarily of energy industry representatives — final say on the art selected.
Mr. Mead, a Republican, said at a recent news conference that he did not feel it was appropriate for him to review the art.
Jeff Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities who has been outspoken in his frustration over the university’s handling of the sculpture, said outrage had grown among students and faculty members.
“I’m disappointed that the university caved in to that sort of extortion and that sort of implied threat,” Dr. Lockwood said. “And I’m angry that this sort of behavior on the part of private industry, as well as their effectiveness in lobbying our elected officials, would lead to an act of artistic censorship on a university campus.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 27, 2012, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Art That Irked Energy Executives Is Gone, but Wyoming Dispute Whirls On.
| Tags: Carbon Sink, energy, environmental
Owen Bullet, James Cooper, Annie Catrell, Joe Currie, Judith Dean, Chris Drury, Tessa Farmer, James P Graham, Tim Knowles, Tania Kovats, Keith Rand, Peter Randall-Page, William Peers, Michael Shaw, Cathy Ward and Eric Wright, Julian Ward, Hugo Wilson, David Worthington.
John Martin Gallery
38 Albemarle Street
London, W1S 4JG
T +44 (0)20 7499 1314
Mon-Fri 10 – 6, Sat 11- 4
The gallery exhibition brings together related drawings, paintings and sculpture by artists
taking part in Pertaining to Things Natural at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Curated by David
Worthington and running until 31 October, Pertaining to Things Natural features the work of
21 artists installed in the grounds of London’s oldest botanic garden.
Pertaining to Things Natural
Sculpture at The Chelsea Physic Garden, until 31 October 2012
66 Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HS
Open: Tue-Fri, 12 – 5pm, Sun 12 – 6pm
Admission price: £9/£6 concs.
University of Wyoming are now censoring all sculpture installations on Campus. Any new proposed work has to go before a committee which includes members of the energy companies. Read Jeff Lockwood’s new article in Wyofile.
The Festival at Schloss Werdenberg is now open and in full swing. It’s concept is INVISIBLE TRACES and it encompasses, installations, sound installations, music installations and site specific dance and music, including an aerial dance up the side of the outside of the castle. Go to the website to see the program and images, interviews etc: http://www.schloss-werdenberg.ch This is a truly amazing event. My own works will be up there for the whole of the summer season.
I am working now from 19th April – 4th May on the three Mushroom installations at the castle. Please see the blog for updates and information.
WAVES OF TIME
In the spring of 2011 I was invited by the Nirox foundation to research material for a commission out on the Cradle of Humankind. I have been making site-specific work all over the world for the last 30 years. In that time I have worked with heart surgeons in the UK looking at the connections between systems in the body and systems on the planet; with astronomers in Nashville, Tennessee and glaciologists in Antarctica. I look at place and context, nature and culture. Underlying all of my work is a concern for how we can live sustainably on this planet. This was my first visit to Africa, long overdue and much anticipated. At Nirox I spent three weeks exploring the landscape, talking to experts and trying to get under the skin of it all. The Cradle holds the origins to the human race, but first I wanted to go back in geological time and see something of the early formation of the planet itself. So I went with Professor Roger Gibson, a geologist at Wits, to the Vredefort Dome.
We started and finished the day at the epicentre of where a 10 kilometre long rock hit the Earth two billion years ago and which made a crater 300 km wide with a 40 km upwelling in the centre, of which only a semi-circle of low hills at the perimeter remains today. We looked at granite which had been reduced to plasticine. We saw huge seams of melted rock caused by massive friction. We saw mountains of upended horizontal rock strata, and rock which had been shattered in hatched patterns, seen nowhere else but impact craters. How do you stretch your mind to include such a massive event that happened in an unimaginably distant time? As the sun set we returned to the epicentre, to a line of boulders, which was all that remained of an eroded seam of pseudotachylite melted rock, and on which acid drips from an ancient forest had eroded cup-like indentations. 30,000 years ago the San people had lived and hunted here. They noticed these water-filled cups in the rock and made these boulders the site of ritual trance dances to bring rain, fresh grass and the migrating herbivores that they hunted. Images of these same animals – Eland, Wildebeest, Hippo and Rhino – they carved into the rock with extraordinary delicacy.
I can recognise parallels in the San trance dances to many of my activities as an artists that involve repetitive tasks, such as hand-written text works and the weaving of maps and structures. The small corbelled stone buildings I make are created in a kind of concentrated dance; days of lifting rock while assessing shape, size, line, etc. Then there are the land drawings: four years ago I worked on the Paiute Indian Reservation at Pyramid Lake in the Nevada desert making a vast raked whirlwind drawing out on the playa of a dried-up ancient lake bed. Two of us made this drawing over 18 hours, mostly by moonlight as the blinding reflected heat was too hot during the day. The process was: etch the arc of the line with a stick attached to a radial string, then whack to break the surface and drag, whack and drag. Imagine doing this by the surreal light of a full moon – it is a trance dance. By 10.00 am the following morning we were done. We returned at sunset to take the photos from a high point, by which time huge black clouds were gathering and the rain started to fall as we packed up the cameras. By the following day the drawing had gone. The Nevada Museum of Art, which commissioned the work, returned a month later with a team to re-rake it, and exactly the same thing happened: it rained.
This is a desert where rainfall is very scarce. I make no claims for this beyond coincidence, nor am I after an altered state, but when thinking is born of an embodied experience, then somehow the boundaries between microcosm and macrocosm, inside and outside, disappear. The Paiute, like the San lived in small nomadic bands, and during the summer months they moved from one local rainfall to another, hunting the deer and rabbits which grazed the rejuvenated grasses. The Vredefort impact crater is a place of destruction, but in the same way, the San turned it into a place of creation, of life and regeneration.
The history of the Earth, laid down in the fossil bands visible in the Cradle of Humankind is one of continual destruction and creation; waves of life and waves of destruction. What interests me is that this is also where our human origins began. During my time at Nirox I spent a day with Professor Lee Berger, a palaeontologist at the University of Johannesburg. Three years ago Lee made a life-changing find just a mile from Nirox. By searching on Google Earth he was able to pin point several caves that had never been looked at. Close to the surface of one of these he found two complete hominid fossil skeletons: a young child and its mother. Almost everything about these skeletons is human: the pelvis, the upright stance, the hands and feet. Only the longer arms and the small craniums are closer to Australopithecus. I saw these ancient bones laid out in boxes and they are remarkable. It appears to everyone that this is pretty close to the missing link that palaeontologists have been searching for and they are two million years old. They know this because there are three strata layers in the rock where the radioactive isotopes have reversed. This means that during each of these time frames, revealed in the fossil layers, there was a polar reversal, which is a catastrophic event that happens at intervals in the Earth’s history and could well happen again. The two hominid skeletons were found amongst bones of other animals including a sabre-toothed tiger and were just above the earlier of the three pole reversals, which is how they could be dated. The speculation is that this event caused an extreme drought and all species were looking for water down the caves, where they fell in and perished.
So a picture is emerging of waves of time, destruction and creation. In my daily walks through the Cradle I collected rocks, fossils, bones, feathers, porcupine quills and plants. I peered into caves, watched the game and jackals and listened to the lions roaring at night. I became particularly interested in the concentric patterns of various plants, tortoise shells and stromatolite fossils. Stromatolites are fossilised layers of cyanobacteria algae, which formed here around two billion years ago. These primitive life forms were the first organisms to convert CO2 into oxygen, eventually giving the planet its atmosphere and creating the conditions for life on Earth and the biodiversity we know today. Cyanobacteria organisms still exist in our soils today. On the Nevada Nuclear Test Site similar cyanobacterial organisms survived the blasts of 100 atmospheric nuclear tests. This is where things come full circle, as stromatolites were virtually the only living organisms on the planet at the time of the asteroid impact two billion years ago. Many of them will have survived and been the seed of regeneration for new life after the event.
So my challenge is how to represent these ideas visually on the land at Nirox; how to create in the viewer an experience which embodies these ideas and allows for further connections to be made.
My instincts are the following:
- · That the work should have both an inside and an outside aspect
- · That the experience within should be cave-like
- · That it should in some way reveal layers of time
- · That it should place the work in real time, within the cycles of planetary time
- · That the form and the material should echo the forms found within and around the Cradle
My intention is to strip away and reveal an area of dolomite rock, and to build within this area a small domed chamber in red sandstone in the shape of a stromatolite. The interior of the chamber would be plastered white and painted with bands of red ochre in patterns which echo layers of fossil time, stromatolite and tortoise shell concentric rings, and impact shatter patterns.
The chamber will also act as a camera obscura by cutting out the light and using just a small aperture in the apex of the ceiling. Images of trees, branches, clouds and the sun would be projected over the murals onto the walls and floor. Furthermore an analemma (figure 8) would be traced out in steel pins set into the plaster. The Earth moves around the Sun in an ellipse, so at the same time every day, over the course of a year the sun traces out a figure 8 pattern. At the intersection is the equinox, at the top – the winter solstice and at the bottom – the summer solstice. By entering the chamber at midday the image of the sun would be somewhere on this analemma and the time of year would be revealed.
My proposal therefore is for a permanent site-specific work on the land at Nirox, which brings together, time, geology and man’s presence in this unique environment. The work will be both an object and an experience connecting the viewer back to the ancient roots of the Cradle of Humankind.
The Nevada Museum of Art has an article by Michaela Rife on their Facebook site:
Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: A Marker of Western Realities
by Michaela Rife
Chris Drury, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around”, 2011. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming. Photo author’s own.
Visit the official Wyoming state tourism website and you will be greeted with promises of “untouched” beauty. Nature is a crucial part of the state’s public image, packed within the “Forever West” campaign that greets visitors on billboards, websites and television advertisements. The message could hardly be any clearer: Wyoming’s greatest cultural resource is its land, wide open spaces and natural wonders. And lest you feel the need to hurry, don’t, the west is forever, limitless, like its sightlines. Yet drive any of the state’s roads and in addition to uninterrupted western views, you will find numerous oil derricks, energy plants and windmill farms looming large on the horizon. Of course none of these visions fit into the tidy packaging of “Wyoming: Forever West,” and despite the attempt to sell Wyoming as the land of inexhaustible natural wonders, it is virtually impossible to live in the state without acknowledging the financial debt owed to the energy industry, and members of the industry are quick to remind the public of the role their money plays at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
In this environment the University of Wyoming Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer has undertaken a program of public sculpture, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, which stretches across Laramie. On July 23, 2011 I drove to Laramie to see the most recent addition, British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. With Drury’s commission the University received a new level of publicity, with coverage in both the New York Times and the London Guardian. The discussion was not an examination of the merits of the sculpture or its place in a larger program of public art, however, but reportage of the controversy surrounding what Jim Robbins described as a “coal-themed sculpture.”(i) Both the New York Times and the Guardian picked up on the Casper Star-Tribune’s article entitled “University of Wyoming sculpture blasts fossil fuels,” in which Jeremy Pelzer elicits comments from Wyoming Mining Association executive director Marion Loomis, who seemed to take Drury’s work as both a personal attack and an attack on the energy industry, suggesting the installation of a sculpture honoring coal. As the story gained traction Wyoming representative Tom Lubnau used the Gillette News-Record to casually threaten the University saying that the occasion afforded him an opportunity to “educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.” (ii) Despite the controversy, Moldenhauer and Drury held firm to the position that Carbon Sink is not a didactic piece, not a targeted attack on big coal. Still, Carbon Sink has neither been examined as an important part of Drury’s oeuvre nor as a nuanced consideration of the reality of the contemporary American West.
Early in his career, Drury accompanied British artist Hamish Fulton on a 1975 walk in the Canadian Rockies. Drury cites this mountain walk as an integral point in his artistic development, noting the impulse to make site interventions as both shelter and marker. Broadly, he describes his work in terms of microcosm/macrocosm, of working around the globe but ever conscious of patterns (such as the vortex) that appear in the smallest fragments of cells. His practice has taken him from Antarctica to Sussex and, in 2008, the CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS saw the artist install works both within the museum walls and in site specific locations outside, weaving together a consideration of regeneration and the state’s history of nuclear testing, while allowing for views of the expansive western sky through a rooftop cloud chamber. Looking back from the perspective of Carbon Sink, MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS reveals Drury to be an artist un-swayed by the romance of the West, sensitive to its often difficult realities.
When commissioned to create a piece for Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, Drury traveled to Laramie to explore concepts. During a conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, Drury became aware of the spate of dead trees in the Rocky Mountain region. The culprit is the pine beetle, an insect native to the region but typically killed by freezing winters. As Western winters have warmed, the beetles have thrived. Lockwood observes that while people notice this change, no one has connected Wyoming’s financial success, gained primarily through the energy industry, to these beetle-killed trees. This relationship, of livelihoods and energy with earth and insects coalesced perfectly with Drury’s interest in life and death cycles (as in the mushroom at Nevada) and the vortex form he had been exploring, as a naturally occurring pattern. So when Drury returned to Laramie in July, the campus was treated to a new sculpture, one that consisted of a vortex of charred, beetle-killed pine logs and Wyoming coal, swirling into a hole dug into the ground. Drury had previously worked with both wood and coal, and was fascinated by their intertwined fates. As a resident of the first industrialized country, Drury is particularly fascinated by coal and had previously used it to construct a chamber in the crypt of St. James Church, Piccadilly, London. In that case, the coal not only acted as a shelter for the human body, but was itself sheltered by the architecture of the capital city. In the case of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming coal is exposed not just to the eyes of passing pedestrians, but to the elements. And rather than offering the idea of shelter, Drury conceptualized the form to pull people down into the sink, which it demonstrably does. Perhaps it is the fact that coal is extracted from beneath the ground, hidden away for most of its life, which allows us to consume it so voraciously. In Wyoming, the visual impact of its extraction is relegated to mining sites; however, the pine trees that stretch across the Rocky Mountain region are not only highly visible, but an integral part of the natural beauty that Wyoming is so eager to promote. Carbon Sink connects the cycle of tree to coal, and joins what happens below ground to the landscape captured in family vacation photographs and postcards.
Chris Drury, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” (detail), 2011. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming. Photo author’s own.
As I drove to Laramie to see Carbon Sink, I became acutely aware of the seas of green and red, alive and dead trees stretching into the distance. The wide open views of Wyoming are not restricted to the picturesque; they often allow for unpleasant jolts of reality. As we discussed wind farms as renewable energy source, Drury wryly observed the problem that people don’t want to see windmills ruining the uninterrupted western vistas, a problem that has also plagued the erection of windmills in Britain. Unfortunately, a towering metal windmill turning in the wind does not fit the “Forever West” slogan. The same Western space that can make the heart sing can lead to the delusion that one is alone in the world, that gutting a state for its resources will not affect both the microcosm and macrocosm.
Despite the controversy generated by his installation, Drury retains a nuanced view of the issue. As an artist who flies around the globe, he acknowledges his own carbon footprint but refuses to ignore environmental issues. Though he chooses not to call himself an overtly political artist, Drury is adamant that land is, and will always be, political. Yet, the link between land and people is also intensely emotional, a complicated relationship that is particularly evident in Wyoming. The American West is home to many canonical works of land art, but they are predominantly sited in remote areas. Carbon Sink festers like a sore in the skin of the University, tugging people to it. As we discussed the controversy, Drury remarked that if the work were “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”(iii) At the time it was doing anything but sitting there. I expressed my own hope that it could draw not just environmental attention to Wyoming but the eye of the art world. Prophetically, Drury predicted that in the face of big energy the controversy would die out. Yet although media attention surrounding Carbon Sink has subsided, its prominent location on Wyoming’s only four-year university campus ensures that it will linger in the state’s visual memory. As Drury hopes that his pieces create discussion, I hope that Carbon Sink will serve as a marker for memory in the minds of Wyoming’s students, those headed for careers in policy and energy, the future leaders who will someday be faced with reconciling Wyoming’s conflicting positions as land of natural beauty and the nation’s energy colony.
i) Jim Robbins, “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”, New York Times “Green Blog”, July 21, 2011. <http:></http:>
ii) Representative Lubnau quoted in: Laura Hancock, “Criticism of ‘Carbon Sink’ art at UW generates heat,” Gillette News-Record, July 17, 2011.
iii) Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.
PLEASE NOTE: Photos of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink are the author’s own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michaela Rife is an arts writer based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and will begin the University of British Columbia’s program in Curatorial Studies in fall 2012.
I shall be updating the site at regular intervals and will be archiving my old blog on: http://chrisdrury.blogspot.com while continuing that blog on this site.