How to draw the wind …

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.

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa - Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

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.


Artist’s Talk: Shirin Neshat

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Artists’ talks provide both the chance to observe an artist’s public self-fashioning, and to venture behind the scenes of art production. Shirin Neshat’s profuse account of her professional trajectory insists on the collaborative origin of her work. Her narration is marked by two moments of rupture: the first when she decided to quit her art education, which she deemed too conventional and too focused on the discovery of talent; the second when she decided to give up photography and take up video instead, creating double-channel projections that could circulate outside of the elitist world of contemporary art. In her words, she is “addicted to new beginnings,” such dramatic changes having ultimately increased her will to collaborate with other artists, actors, curators, or directors. (In fact, this very event was conceived as collaboration between the newly appointed member of the Courtauld faculty, Sussan Babaie, the director of the London Film School, Ben Gibson, and the independent curator, producer and writer, Vali Mahlouji).

The talk started off with the projection of a video entitled Passage (2001) conceived and realized with American musician and composer Philip Glass. Amidst a stark yellow desert, a traditional Islamic funeral ceremony is being prepared: the camera intercuts between the procession of men, carrying the body enshrouded in white cloth and the circle of women digging the grave with their hands. Nearby, a young girl plays with small stones. The procession reaches the burial site as the soundtrack climaxes and the overall tone becomes highly dramatic; a fire ignites behind the girl and encircles the gathered group.


This short film integrates all distinctive features of Neshat’s work: the portrayal of the two separate worlds of men and women, the reassessment of traditional rituals, the choice of contemporary political debates that are of interest both for Islamic and Western audiences (after all, the artist moved to New York as a young adult, in 1978, bridging both cultures in her biography). After being attacked by activists, artists and critics for her work, she has resolved to make highly stylised films and photographic installations, in the attempt not to take any political position. Even when asked about her personal religious belief, she is evasive: Neshat is careful to keep any matter of possible political conflict aside.

What emerged out of this talk, then, was the existential difficulty of being a successful artist directly confronting such politically charged issues: as a consequence of her success, Neshat is constantly pushed by galleries to make recognisable (and sellable) work all the while being criticised by members of the same artistic milieu. Confronted with a young audience such as the Courtauld’s, Shirin Neshat felt compelled to offer this advice: fight to make any creative work available to wider audiences, consider making tangents, and most importantly, collaborate.