Program of work for the MA Major Project 2019
The Queen of the AirRecord of research and progress of work leading up to my submission for the Major Project assessment and exhibition 6th August 2019
In brief my schedule of activity consisted of individual tutorials on 4th June, 20th June, 9th July, and 30th July; researching my subject and experimenting with different processes 1st June to 19th July; preparing and engraving perspex panels 22nd to 29th July; installation of work on 31st July.
|Woodcut block with oval|
Inspired by reading John Ruskin's book The Queen of the Air,(1869), I became intrigued by the subject of air itself giving life and the notion that everything in nature, the clouds moving above us, the shape of a tree bent by the wind, even our own bodies, have been shaped to some degree by this invisible force.
My research question began to focus on finding a way to depict this invisible medium in a 3-dimensional sculpture or installation work.
|Woodcut block without oval|
|Woodcut block: second design|
My first designs shown here were not giving me the effect I wanted. Continuing my research I discovered the work of Timorous Beasties, designers of famous fabrics and wallpapers. Timorous Beasties work shows a strong connection with John Ruskin's views on on the link between art, nature and society, where animals, plants and society are visually inextricable.Timorous Beasties designs have a strong element of nature and what effects nature: weather, wind, air currents, air movement. My design started turning into a sort of weather map of air movement!
|Pencil drawing on paper of new design|
The problem I needed to solve next was the question of material for my work. The problem with using wood is that it gives a sense of weight and density, the opposite of what I wanted.
|Colour woodcut block|
In my research into the many different materials used by artists, the answer presented itself. British sculptor Anthony Caro created art out of steel, wrought iron, bronze, wood, stone, and even paper. then he discovered perspex, a material he described as "there and not there".
|Perspex plate without oval|
Perspex is a material I had not attempted to use before so I started by experimenting with making some small scale drypoint printing plates.With perspex I felt that I had resolved my problem of finding a suitable material for my invisible subject. Something that is "there and not there".
|Perspex plate with oval|
|New design on perspex|
In The Queen of the Air, written by John Ruskin in 1869, the Goddess Athena is "Physically, the Queen of the Air; having supreme power over its blessing of calm, and wrath of storm."
"Spiritually, she is queen of the breath of man, first of the bodily breathing which is life to his blood, and strength to his arm in battle; and then of the mental breathing, or inspiration,which is his moral health and habitual wisdom; wisdom of conduct and of the heart, as opposed to the wisdom of imagination and the brain; moral, as distinct from intellectual; inspired, as distinct illuminated."
"Listen to the air. you can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it." John Fire Lame Deer
In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes air as being "the most pervasive presence I can name . . . Yet the air, on the other hand, is the most outrageous absence known to this body. For it is utterly invisible."
MA Fine Art: Major Project
Title and contentThe title of my submission is: The Queen of the Air.
My onsite exhibition consists of two panels of 3mm thick clear perspex. each piece measures 3 metres wide x 1.5 metres high. The two pieces are engraved by hand on one side and are designed to be used as drypoint printmaking plates.The pieces are suspended horizontally, 600mm off the floor, and parallel to each other, with a gap of 1.2metres between, and secured using wire rope fixed to overhead beams.
Subject and research
The subject matter of my work was inspired by John Ruskin's book: The Queen of the Air, (1869).
Informed by his intense study of Greek mythology, Ruskin describes the goddess Athena as, "physically, the Queen of the air, having supreme power over its blessing of calm and wrath of storm." He continues: "The conception of the physical power of Athena in cloud and sky is easy to grasp because we know what clouds and skies are. The conception of the power of Athena in giving life is more difficult because we do not know clearly what life is, or what way the air is necessary to it, or what there is, besides the air, shaping the forms that it is put into." (Ruskin 1869).
Although it was my fascination with mythology that sparked my interest in The Queen of the Air, I became more intrigued by the subject of air itself giving life and the notion that everything in nature, the clouds moving above us, the shape of a tree bent by the wind, even perhaps our own bodies, have been shaped to some degree by the movement of this invisible force. So, Ruskin's "Queen of the Air" begins to have affinities with broader philosophical ideas such as Plato's "Anima Mundi"
Continuing my research, I discovered David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. Although essentially a book about his concerns with the advance of the Antropocene, Abram devoted a whole chapter: "The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air," to air as a medium. Abram describes air as "the soul of the living landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment." (Abram 1996).
Research question and process
The challenge that my chosen subject posed was to find a way to give visual expression to something we can hear, feel, smell, but is totally invisible. The question I began to research was: To what extent is it possible to give visual expression to this life sustaining but invisible medium in a three-dimensional installation or sculptural work? In past modules I favoured the idea of using natural materials like wood or stone. My medium of choice in my practice for some time has been in creating woodcut or wood engraving blocks, to be used as either 3-d sculptural pieces or for the purpose of producing prints.My original intention for this module was to make and exhibit a large scale woodcut block, possibly using the jigsaw method. After experimenting with with many different ways of depicting air or air movement in drawings, I tried out some of my compositions on wood panels and made several small scale woodcuts. this experimental process was interesting but was not producing the result I wanted.the problem that it highlighted is that however thin the wood panels are, wood itself gives a sense of weight and density, the opposite to what I was trying to achieve; the work seemed to embody rather than evoke air. Using my woodblocks to make prints, I experimented with using different types of paper. The nearest I came to finding the solution I was seeking was when I made a print using Gampi Japanese paper, a very thin and quite transparent paper that shows the printed image on both sides. Using Gampi paper I could achieve this sense of weightlessness and transparency. The problem here was that the largest piece of Gampi paper produced is 90cm x 60cm and unless I joined lots of pieces together, I couldn't produce a piece of work to the scale I wanted. For my invisible subject, I needed to find a material that is made in large panels but is also a material that gives a sense of lightness.
British sculptor Anthony Caro created art out of steel, wrought iron, bronze, wood, stone and even paper. Then he discovered perspex. Caro had tried working with glass but found it too difficult. With perspex he found a material that he described in an interview as "there and not there".This quality suggested something like the nature of air! Perspex is a material I had not attempted to use before so I started by practicing on a small piece using hand tools to make different marks.The most exciting part was finding that I could use use the same tools on the perspex as I do on my woodcuts and the technique used in making a drypoint is very similar to drawing with a pen or pencil on paper. When making the composition I had three main objectives: 1) I wanted the design to be as invisible as possible; 2) There should be tension between the flat surface and the marks to give depth and movement; 3) To try to give the work a sense of the all surrounding nature of air.
I went through a lengthy process of drawing different compositions and finally decided on the one I wanted to use. I scaled up my drawing to suit and incised the image into two 3m x 1.5m perspex panels. When completed I felt that I had combined the ancient and the modern: the ancient art of engraving using hand tools and the modern material: the perspex.
The secondary question which arose at this stage the was the matter of how and where the work should be displayed. The engraved lines on the perspex drew attention to the medium in a way that was "there and not there"! Paradoxically, this made the site of display very important. I felt that the work should be placed in a well-lit area with as much free space as possible surrounding it. Thanks to the immense help and consideration of tutors and students my work is now placed in an open area with a generous amount of
natural light. After many hours of hard graft that made great demands on the patience and ingenuity of the technicians, my work is hanging freely "in the air", so to speak. the piece has a sense of floating and weightlessness which gives added meaning to the concept. the building it is in was constructed in the Gothic style, (thanks to John Ruskin), and my work is close to a beautiful Gothic window. The ancient features of the building connect with the ancient craft of hand engraving and form an interesting contrast with the modern perspex material. One can look at the material or one can look through and beyond it.
The aim of my composition is to depict air movement or currents of air and to allude to the notion that the air has played a major part in shaping our world since the beginning of time. My work aims at inviting the audience to reflect on this invisible medium, this unseen enigma that enables all life to live. Air is also the medium of interflow between humankind and the non-human element in our world: animals and plants. As Abram points out: "What the plants are quietly breathing out, we are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. And thus the health, balance and well-being of each person inseparable from the health and well-being of the enveloping earthly terrain." (Abram 1996).
Ruskin wrote the Queen of the Air in 1869, 150 years ago, and he warned us then: "By care and tenderness we can extend the lovely life of plants and animals; by our neglect and cruelty we can arrest it, and bring pestilence in its stead."
"If we damage the natural world we are damaging ourselves." (Sir David Attenborough 2019)
Achievements of the work
Overall I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do in this module and that the use of the suspended, engraved perspex addresses my research question originally and successfully
I feel that my work interacts in a positive way with the work of the other students in the room, but still retains its sense of space.
The process of making the work has made me keen to develop the concept further, possibly introducing site-specific "draughts" to give an added sense of air movement. Having reached the end of the course, I am keen to continue working on the same subject, perhaps with a younger audience.
Weaknesses of the work
Referring back to item 2 in my objectives for the composition, I feel that I could have achieved a greater sense of depth in the composition by having more variation in the width of the engraved lines. Also, in a future piece of work using the same material, I feel that the sense of movement would be greater in an installation with several panels.
Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. p226 New York: Vintage Books.
Ruskin, J. (1869) The Queen of the Air. p5&p29. London: Smith Elder and Co.
Ruskin, J. (1869) The Queen of the Air. p30. London: Smith Elder and Co.
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