Archive for June, 2013

I like numbers. Numbers can be cool. On the surface they can be quite straightforward and be about tangible quantities of things – like boxes of eggs or boxes of screws, but it’s when they do strange things, or stop being tangible that they start becoming really interesting.

It hasn’t always been that way for me though. I remember when I was 14 my maths teacher asked the class if anyone hated maths. Well, maths at 14 is pretty dull compared with the other things in life so I presumed everyone would put up their hands. No? But it was just me. OK, it was the top set in the year and all that, but honestly – no one else hated maths? My argument was that maths was ok when you were adding things up or working out practical stuff, but do you really need to understand logarithms and quadratic equations to buy half a dozen eggs? The irony of that was I subsequently worked in photography where logarithms were a daily event for calculating things like reciprocity failure or the change of development time with increased temperature.

My youngest kid is still getting to grips with quantities. At the moment he is obsessed with big numbers like a googol and a googolplex. A googol is 1 followed by a hundred zeros. That’s a really big number. I think a five year old knows it’s big too but I don’t think most people realise how big that physically is. It’s certainly more than the total number of things on this planet to give you an idea. And then a googolplex is a 1 followed by a googol zeros. That’s a number that’s so big that there aren’t enough atoms in the known universe for it to actually exist. I like that we can create numbers so big that they can’t physically exist.

lots of jars

So the 30,000 bottles I’ve got to install this week seems tame in comparison. It’s still bigger than you could possibly count in one go.

I’ve often wondered how scientists count flocks of starlings. They’re far too big to count individually and as flocks are less dense on the outside, counting a section isn’t going to accurate enough.


a murmer of starlings fly over my house every winter

Counting big numbers is quite difficult. Some birds can recognise quite large numbers of birds in one go, however most people would struggle to count more than nine birds in a field without physically counting them one-by-one. We can easily recognise when there are two objects without counting them. In fact most people can recognise up to nine things just by looking at them. Anymore than that and you have to physically count them one at a time – or in twos, threes or small chunks. So to count all 30,000 jars, given that by the time you get to a hundred you’re down to one a second just to say the number in your head – even saying “twenty-three thousand three hundred and seventy-seven” – takes three seconds, –  it’d take over eight hours – or all day more or less.

One of the best shows I saw last year was Mark Wallinger’s ‘SITE’ at Baltic, Gateshead. His piece – 10000000000000000 – a series of chess boards with a pebble on each square was beautiful on so many levels. Made from a grid of 32 x 32 chess boards, there are 65,536 pebbles in all. This is what’s called a superperfect number – made by squaring numbers up from 2 – 2×2=4, 4×4=16, 16×16=256, 256×256=65,536. The title is that number represented in binary form. That it’s 1 followed by sixteen zeros is kind of perfect too.

view of site show

Beyond the number bit, it’s an awesome sight – the scale of the piece has such presence up close. Lie on the floor and the piece just disappears into the horizon. I’ve written before about the unique emotional response artworks of a certain scale have. There’s something about a work made of quantities you can’t count that’s a little awe-inspiring.


Mark Wallinger: 10000000000000000, 2012 (detail). © the artist. Courtesy of the artist, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photograph: Colin Davison

By pure chance, ‘Carpet’ will be about the same size, although only half the number of objects. Whereas in Wallinger’s piece we know exactly how many pebbles there are, it’s unlikely I’ll ever know how many jars will be in ‘Carpet’. That’s kind of nuts. How can I make a piece when I don’t know how many things I’m using? The jars come packed on pallets. Because they are round they kind of fit together to fill the space and then stacked up, but because it isn’t an exact fit the quantities are just an approximation. So I can’t even go by the number I start with. There’s also likely to be failures and disappearances, and given I’m not going to spend 8 1/2 hours counting them, the final number will never be known.

Yet all these numbers are mere fist-fulls compared with Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010. ‘Sunflower Seeds’ saw part of the Turbine Hall filled with 8 million hand crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. This took an entire town over a year to manufacture. At that quantity there’s no way of counting them numerically. That can only be estimated by weight, and even then there was bound to be failures and loss during installation, let alone the numbers which ‘disappeared’ during the exhibition.

sunflower seeds

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds 2010 Photo: Tate Photography © Ai Weiwei

It was a shame that the infamous health and safety rules stopped people from walking on them. When I saw them late one afternoon the view from behind a security tape under the watchful glance of a uniformed invigilator didn’t really give you a feel for the sheer quantity involved. Also, despite the huge volume, it still only occupied less than a quarter of the vast Turbine Hall. That aside, as a volume work, it was pretty incredible.

people walking on the seeds

people walking on the seeds at the start of the exhibition. Image from leiweb blog

I’m now thinking my lowly 30,000 pieces seems very reserved. Still, at a strike rate of one every five seconds, that would still take me over 42 hours on my own. So glad I have a team to count on.

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I’ve finally lost my marbles.

I’ve thought the same thing a number of times in the past. Every time I do something ambitious or occasionally reckless. But since I’ve still managed to get this far in life afterwards, they were probably false alarms. This time it’s for real. I know that because in a week’s time I start installing an artwork so vast in ts constituent parts that I have no idea even of the scale of it. For a couple of weeks I am creating an artwork based on the 7th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, in the very place they were originally written, using 30,000 jars of liquid colour.

carpet at Lindisfarne Priory

mock-up of the ‘Carpet’ installation


I have no real idea how many that is – I’ve never counted something that big before. I’m clearly delusional.

Still, commit to doing I have and it all starts next week.

So how to capture the effect of the colours of the original illuminated manuscript and explore the impact they must have had back then. If the sheer volume of pieces wasn’t enough, my original idea was to use the exact colours the 7th century monks used – a little bit of dark ages authenticity in a contemporary artwork. I was really interested in how the colours were made, where they came from and why they were used, but it’s ended up with me looking at my own relationship with the different colours…

There’s something about the colour blue I have a problem with. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s a useful colour after all, but there’s something awkward about it. I know where I am with red. I feel very comfortable using it, and in a strange sideways movement yellow is manageable too. But Blue I find tricky.

It’s got all these cultural connotations with it – sadness, lightness, distance – although even here the cultural stuff is confused – different cultures see blue in very different ways. In fact in most of the world blue doesn’t exist. Some places have very different words for light blue ad dark blue, but not a generic blue. In many others, blue and green are one and the same. So it seems I’m not the only one who has problems with blue…


Sometimes I’m not sure which weather is worse for me – rain, snow or sunshine. I guess in a very English way I’m easily distracted by the weather, whatever the weather. Lately it’s been doing a lot of this: Living on top of a fell in the North Pennines, I don’t get much of that stuff in the best of years, so it seems silly to waste days like that sat at a desk or beavering away in the studio. Instead I’ve been out wandering as much as I can while the weather holds. taking the opportunity to further explore the landscape on my doorstep.

blue sky

It’s usually a colourful time of year out in the North Pennines with the spring flowers coming into bloom and the trees very verdant with their new leaves. A couple of years back I did a piece for a paper making client of mine down in the woods at the bottom of the fields here – near the secret waterfall.

blue boxes

I think I made a couple of hundred of those paper boxes in all. I remember it took me ages to cut them out and fold them up, and there still didn’t seem to be enough, but the effect worked well. Particularly when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds and I got some dappled light on the ground.

This year, the bluebells have gone crazy. In fact all the spring flowers are far more voluminous than normal. It’s something to do with the colder than average winter and the late spring – a good four weeks later than normal here. I’m not sure the mechanics of increasing the flowers but it’s very noticeable.


The other week, I ventured up to Widdy Bank Fell, overlooking Cow Green Reservoir in Teesdale in search of some very old plants. Spring Gentians are Alpine plants normally found on the higher slopes of the Alps and the Atlas mountains. Tiny, tiny delicate blue flowers which ony open up in the sunshine. Very beautiful and extremely blue. But also unique here in the UK.

Spring Gentian

Back at the end of the last ice age (well, still this one technically, but let’s not go there for now) Upper Teesdale, like most of the UK was covered in ice, the big glaciers carving out much of the landscape we see today. The climate of upper Teesdale was very much like the upper reaches of the Alps then and alpine plants thrived here. However, as the glaciers melted and the planet warmed up again, those Alpine plants survived on Widdy Bank Fell and are still there today. These spring gentians have been there for well over 20,000 years. These delicate blue flowers are mind-bogglingly ancient. Older even than the landscape. That’s nuts. But cool too.


But back to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

It had long been presumed that the blue on the manuscripts was made with lapis pigment. There were certainly well established trade routes to Holy Island in the 7th century. At the time the only source for this precious colour was a single mine in Afghanistan. However, the most recent analysis of the colours suggests the blue isn’t mineral but rather organic.

detail of a carpet page

Detail of a ‘carpet page’ from the Lindisfarne Gospels

There are two primary sources of organic blue pigment. The first was from boiling up the mucus of whelks and steeping them in urine for a number of weeks. The resultant blues eventually gathered tend to be on the purple end of the spectrum although richer dark blue and indigo is possible. It’s certainly possible this was done on Holy Island. There’s no shortage of whelks on the shores.

The other likely source was using woad. It was certainly widely used at the time. There are records of Vikings using it to dye cloth at the time and the Roman records of the Picts painting themselves blue was almost certainly a woad product.

I’ve not been able to find a supplier of whelk-based indigo, but I did manage to get a pure woad watercolour paint to use in my designs on paper.

woad blue

woad blue

The other peculiar property of blue is that so much that we see as blue isn’t actually blue. The sky for instance isn’t really blue – it’s just the way light is refracted through the atmosphere.

The iridescent blue of birds and butterflies isn’t real either – again it’s a trick of refraction through clear cells.

It’s this property of blue which has complicated the blue for the installation. Having got a blue liquid that worked well as a mass, when I started testing it outside in the sunlight, strange things started to happen.

up against the light, the liquid is a good vibrant blue…

bright blue

however, in bright sunlight against the green grass, instead of just looking darker it starts to look distinctly purple and verging on red.

blue jar going purple


The current solution (forgive the pun) is to mix a much diluted colour solution. Individually against the light it appears very light and watery. However, when viewed as a mass it becomes a much richer shade.

blue jars

Yes, I know it’s not the same hue as the woad pigment samples. THe idea of replicating the original colours just wasn’t working on a piece of this scale and within the landscape. It was too earthy and natural-looking, whereas for the piece to have the impact of colour – which is the whole point behind the piece – the colours all needed to be much richer.

I guess from this I’ve learnt a little more about how blue works and I’m beginning to see how it’s functioning both within the piece and the broader landscape. I think within the jars it’s taking on a more ecclesiastical quality which fits well with the piece. I’m beginning also to understand its unique properties in the way it interacts with light.

Somehow I don’t think this’ll be the last piece I play with blue.

but I hope it’s the last time I do something with 30,000 pieces. What was I thinking?!

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