I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.
- Charles Darwin
After his famous journey on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin returned home to Down House in Biggin Hill, Bromley. Over the next 40 years he would conduct field experiments in his extensive gardens. In 1881 he published his findings in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worm, with Observations of their Habit; despite its somewhat unexciting title it would sell over 6000 copies in its first year, more than his Origin of Species. If one of the greatest biologists who ever lived could devote such a period of his life to an intricate study of the natural world lying just outside his house then surely there is something to be achieved in making an artistic evaluation of the seemingly common natural world that surrounds us.
After childhood many of us abandon our instinctive draw to examination; it would be considered foolish or a waste of time to spend even an afternoon with our heads close to the biological microcosms that surround our dwellings. It is with the freedom afforded by the job title ‘Artist’ that I have been allowed to return to such an endeavour. Whilst resident artist of Down Stairs Gallery and living in the grounds of Great Brampton House, I have made my own ‘fools’ experiment’. During my three weeks I have conducted an in detail investigation of one of the most overlooked, walked over, elements of the English garden. The grass.
The experiment (apologies to the real scientists who might be appalled by my use of this term) consists of creating a 4.752 metre x 3.564 metre photograph of an area of lawn at Great Brampton House. The term photograph may too be contentious as I am not using what would traditionally be referred to as a camera. I have instead used a Canon CanoScan LiDE 600F flatbed scanner and my laptop; here is a brief account:
- An area of lawn 4.787 x 3.609m is selected, four stakes are placed, one in each corner, lengths of wood are placed along the top and down either side.
- Along the top length of wood marks are made measuring out 21.6cm sections; on the left hand side an additional allowance of 3.5cm is made for the body of the scanner.
- Down each side length of wood marks are made measuring 29.7cm sections; at the top endsan additional allowance of 4.5cm is made for the body of the scanner.
- This creates a grid of 264 A4 portions, 22 horizontal, 12 vertical.
- The portions are numbered A1 to V12.
- Each portion is scanned at 800dpi; the top length of wood is moved down the lawn each time a horizontal section is completed.
The product of this is a set of data, 264 images, intricate beyond the grasp of the human eye, portraying a world in almost microscopic detail, the fine ridges lining each blade of grass, their frayed ends, minute hairs and idiosyncratic features are all present. Tilted onto a vertical plain it becomes easier to analyse these aspects, a surface to navigate across becomes an image to look closely into.
However, the work also serves to expose the fallibility of its own production method, and by some extrapolation the fallibility of all methods of representing the world. A scanner can be considered a camera if we accept it as a camera whose focal range is little more than a few millimetres; beyond the elements pressed against its pane, details quickly blur. It differs too in its means of capturing the image; rather than exposing the image onto photographic film in a fraction of a second a scanner moves across a surface piecing the image together over a period of time; time therefore becomes a more present factor in the result.
The image I am creating faces another flaw in its production; in piecing together all 264 fragments it is impossible to align the edges. In fact, because each new scan requires the scanner to be pressed against the grass again, rearranging it slightly, it is likely that no two edges will align. What is created is therefore an entirely false composition, fraught with inaccuracies.
I am however, interested in what these inaccuracies say about the creation of an image. Each medium has its own particular failings; nothing we create can ever truly grasp the conception of the human eye, and we must admit that the eye too is also a flawed mechanism.
“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”
- Charles Darwin
Consider the view of the world we accept when we look at the Earth via one of Google’s navigation tools. Google is constantly updating its vision of the world, adding new layers of information, picturing more streets, adjusting its 3d models; yet it will always be a flawed portrayal. Looking at Great Brampton House on Google Maps the lawn is reduced to a homogenised patch of green, lacking any details. This suits the purpose of the user but it also shifts the way we respond and perceive the world. We are now often reliant on these secondary sources of information to navigate our daily lives, shrugging off the primary information provided by our eyes and intuition.
By making such a detailed analysis of this patch of grass I hope that the absurdity of these digital technologies becomes more exposed. I have created a work that is as intricate an image of the lawn at Great Brampton House that I can make but is also an utterly false representation of it; many of the tools we use to look at the world feature a similar paradox. We are delving into a world where we are increasingly reliant on the created image and as that happens we are likely to erode the relationship we have with our own senses.
- Elliott Burns, www.elliottburns.com