Sunday, 12 June 2016

Giants in Thimbles IV - Outside the Thimble

Poplar leaf, 76 x 56cm, Daler Rowney paint on Saunders Waterford

As I work away, my focus swings like a pendulum and I am back thinking about the Leafscape collection as opposed to the individual pieces. Just under a month ago, I displayed every thing in the Spanish studio and examined my changes in scale and tried to work out if I needed to fill in any obvious holes in the limited time I have left. It wasn't an easy task and consequently my brain started over firing. Visualising differences in scale is hard work. With a blown brain, unable to deal with that sort of problem solving, I ended up carrying out financial calculations on exhibition costs, which blew my brain a little bit more. What was my expensive hobby is now my expensive career! I went to bed over tired and anxious. The next morning I just got back on with it, as one does - ‘grinding away at the leaves’* and prepared some drawings for my next pieces for my spell in the pop-up gallery in the UK this summer.

Poplar wood
Poplar wood, Belicena, Spain. Photograph taken through the lens of my sunglasses

Before I left Spain I went on a short walk. I hadn't been taking walks regularly for a few days; walks were becoming infrequent as I focused on my work, but this is never a good idea. I need to walk. It was a windy day and all the Poplar woods are talking. These woods never fail to stop me in my tracks. The week before they appeared as an amazing wall of solid black which hung underneath the canopy like a curtain. I had my sunglasses on which altered everything. I am glad they did though as I would never have noticed that band of sold black and the way it drew you in like the edge of a cliff. Plants really do seem to create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together like this. At the time I remembered how Bachelard once said in his Poetics of Space, that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". This was clearly evident on that very day.

Darkness of the woods

On last week's walk, the sun was obscured by clouds and it was very windy, so the trees took on a different guise. There was no silencing black hole. I wondered, had the infinity within escaped? I crept into one of the woods and watched the mumuration of leaves and as I did I let my eyes go out of focus on the silhouettes along the woodland edge where it was lightest. The leaves quivered in rhythmic movements like water, but as I let my eyes blur even more, they then took on the appearance of an untuned television screen. Every movement was completely random; like gluons (nice bit of quantum physics for you there) the whole wood had no order. The realisation that I was standing in chaos was just as terrifying as it was liberating.

Poplar seeds in the sun, Belicena, Spain

After this walk we experienced a lot of bad weather and I didn't venture out of the house for several days until then, the day before I left for England, the sun returned. I sat in the garden and looked up at the clouds and I saw millions of little, white specks floating in the air like sun snow. Little feathery Poplar seeds were flying everywhere like fairies. They collected around the sun giving it a halo as the light reflected from them. They stretched for as far as the eye could see and I was left wondering where their reach stopped - the atmosphere's edge, 10 miles up, or beyond? Like little galaxies they are all on the move, white dots moving around space. They somehow made the sky look bigger, yet also smaller - they transformed it into a claustrophobic space, but they also gave the sky depth, deeper than a sky scraper would. There was something synergistic and heavy about the combination of random movement and space. I imagined the journey of one speck and felt nauseous. It was too much to deal with. 

Disappointingly Youtube has reduced the resolution on this so you can't quite see how far these tiny dots go into the sky...

The words “sky” and “heaven” have numerous meanings and connotations, ranging from places and states to beliefs and feelings. Heaven once referred to both God and the material roof over the world, but now, through art, magic and science it has become to signify either the one or the other separately. Yet if we trace it all backwards to the point where the dichotomy began, the sky returns to being a more wondrous willful place.

 “… deluded by self-love and the illusions of his senses, man long thought of himself as the center around which the heavenly bodies moved, and his vain pride has been punished by the terrors they inspired in him. At last, several centuries of endeavor have removed from his eyes the veil that obscured the system of the universe. He now sees himself living on an almost imperceptible planet within a solar system, the boundless extent of which is itself merely a faint point in the vastness of space” (Laplace)

A solar spectrum. The absorption lines represent the principal atomic components of the sun's atmosphere: magnesium in the green, sodium in the yellow-orange, hydrogen in the red.

The distinctions we make today between symbolism and reality, between religion and science, were once blended together. It was not really until the Renaissance when ideas of our own freedom of thought became more common, which then paved the way towards big changes in our philosophical approaches and political thought. Now, in the modern world, astrology, spiritualism, religion and science provide us with utterly contradictory pictures of the sky, yet to some degree we accept them all. 

Primitive man must have looked at the sky above with such wonder, possibly more than the wonder we have today depending on ones beliefs, as today the surrounding sky that still influences our lives no longer seems so perplexing. Through our systems of measurement we have reduced our universe to a series mathematical formulae. We know what makes it, what lies beyond it and how big it is. Thinking about this has encouraged me to just accept things the way they are, to leave wonderment whole.

A field of stars. Seen through a prism, each star is registered by its spectrum (red at left, blue at right), which indicates temperature at the surface of the star; the visible lines correspond to the various types of atom found in the star's atmosphere.

As my little venture into the sublime continues I am also becoming aware that I am taking part in a paradoxical journey, since I am attempting to measure the immeasurable in order to understand my artwork and how to replicate its effect. I am beginning to realise that art does not bestow the fomulae that make art 'art'. After looking deeply into my use of light, space, sound and size I now feel myself hurtling towards the consensus that the sublime is just very simply - a taking to the limits - to the point at which fixities begin to fragment into infinity. Equipped with this knowledge I am currently experimenting with different approaches to try and portray vastness to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror that my leafscapes only softly allude to with their encroaching mounted edges.  I am now, in my spare time, creating pockets of infinity using the disorder around me (see below).

"My wish is that we might progressively lose confidence in what we believe and the things we consider stable and secure, in order to remind ourselves of the infinite number of things still waiting to be discovered." (A. Tapies)

Latest project: Infinity Phytocosmiramas ©

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us” (astronomer Maria Mitchell)

Obscurity appears to be the key here. To make a thing incomprehensible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. Once we are made aware of the extent of any danger or how something came about, a great deal of apprehension and wonder vanishes and thus the sense of awe is lost. The sublime is the impossibility of knowledge. It is when we are brought into a state of submission which consequently disorientates our purpose. 

"Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (Burke). 

Cyanotypes by Lia Holliran Source: Brain Pickings

The word 'astonishment' comes from the Latin 'estar' - to stand, and 'stupeo' - to be stunned or stiffened (think Harry Potter charms here) and thus temporarily disorientated. Lately, I have become quite obsessed in my pursuit for the irrational gasp (aka temporary disorientation). I am happy to say that several times this week I have managed to generate a few with some of my very new botanical work (above) which seems to be mimicking both birth and death in one fell swoop. The gasps are nearly always a deep rooted and primal, shrouded in shock, horror and suspension. I am left wondering if these gasps are an emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time? I find that people assume that I just paint pretty flowers and so they aren't expecting to be confronted by a something as disturbing as Phytocosmirama!! I have to say I am very happy with this latest work of mine - it is going where I want to be going. The RHS is ever-so-slightly becoming a distant sign post as I march onwards (possibly past it) into new territory, one without bounds. 

I have started to think about using mirrors too, although at the moment I am not sure how to do this in an original way as I found out this week that another artist, Yayoi Kusama has already created an entire collection of work based on the use of mirrors to create pockets of infinity (below). Her work most certainly touches on creating the level disorientation I am in pursuit of. It is amazing what one can do with a 'box'. So, with my mind buzzing with ideas I am now toying with the idea of buying Alan Lightman's latest book ' Yearning for Immortality' and I might just bite the bullet today in an attempt to uncover what is really going on here as I continue to search for the edge. 
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996)

Populus nigra botanical illustration in watercolour
Black Poplar leaf (Populus nigra), 76 x 57cm, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper

Anyway - latest leaf for you... I am calling this one 'Jaws' because he has a 'fin' and is quite a menacing chap. 

* One of Rory's old sayings  - see Martin J Allen's blog


Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press
Pecker, J-C., (1963), The Sky, Robert Delpire, Paris (translated version)