I have always been fascinated by scale. I can vividly recall looking at the palm of my hand as a young child and having a sense that it could be any scale, boundless and vast or conversely an infinitesimally small Lilliputian world. These experiences must have occurred at a very young age, because I remember them more as physical sensations rather than thoughts.
Jigsaw puzzles were a big part of my formative years too and I spent hours putting all the pieces together and being intrigued by how each was a standalone and how they were also an integral part of the ‘bigger picture’.
The local butcher’s window had large ceramic (or they could have been plaster) models of sheep, pigs and cows and I was fascinated by how their bodies were divided up with lines drawn on them, fragmented like the puzzles I played with at home with my elder sister.
The intrigue of those butcher’s models stayed with me and later I would recall them. In the early eighties I worked for a company of ornamental plasterers, as a sculptor in clay and plaster. I used to cycle to work at that time and early in the morning I would pass Bence the Butchers, where I often witnessed them carrying in sections of carcasses. Hung on hooks and stiff as boards, often splayed out on timbers, they echoed scenes of torture and crucifixion.
At the time I was sculpting cuts of ham and sides of beef, as a commission in the early eighties. They were wrapped in muslin and hung as dressing in the kitchens of National Trust properties.
Some time later in answer to a call for proposals, I considered the idea of working with plaster casts of sections of a cow to reassemble it into a partially completed sculpture of the animal with the seams still evident.
In a moment of lateral thinking I thought about using the actual cuts of meat and that was the forerunner of the idea, that became The Hams of Today are the Pigs of Tomorrow submitted for the performance market of the Marina Abramovic Live Art Symposium. The work was eventually performed in the old slaughterhouse at the Royal William Yard Plymouth, having been banned from appearing in the covered market by Plymouth City Council.
This concern with constituent parts, is a theme that runs through my work and is perhaps most prevalent in work from 1994 onwards, when much of my practice was concerned with subatomic physics, creating an interplay between matter as described by quantum physics and our everyday experience of corporeal embodiment of space and the interconnectedness of the infinitesimally small and cosmological immensity.
This can be seen in works such as Learning to Wave, About Emptiness and Just Passing Through, in which the trajectory of sub atomic particles are referenced and used to delineate the body’s surface, defining the empty space within and the energy involved.
Night Glass was devised to surprise the viewer by confronting them with images of stars in the interior of a body, normally the realm of the microscopic. This produced, a ‘bouncing’ between micro and macro.
Although Fall was predominantly an ant-war statement, it dealt with the massing of constituent parts into a whole, which in this instance invited a different reading and meaning by the viewer.
Fall appeared to be on first inspection to be a pile of autumn leaves but up close it could be seen to be fallen soldiers, (25,000 plastic toy soldiers painted in various shades of blood red) drawn up into a pile with a rake.
The result was an ambiguity of interpretation, which threw up conflicting and yet compatible possibilities for the viewer.
The implication of the frailty and impermanence of the human body present in Fall, can also be seen in Planters a Sci-art Commission produced for the Eden Project in 2002/03, funded by the Welcome Trust. Soil particles, bound together temporarily by plant roots were encouraged to grow in the form of human hands, cast from life from the gardeners at The Eden Project.
This was an ephemeral installation and was intended to last only for as long as the plants thrived and the outcome was eventually composted and returned to the earth.
The Eden Project have in commissioning me, asked me to interpret the theme ‘Micro Macro’.
I saw this as an opportunity, as in much of my previous work, to pay attention to small constituents within a given whole, in this case microbes within the human body and, on a larger scale mankind in the context of our planet I decided to produce something that brought people together via a project that inspired through process and scale.
The dance involved close to five hundred people on the day of the shoot but that is only the beginning. By engaging with the installation visitors can ‘join in’ the process, both physically at Eden and digitally, through the use of web and mobile phone technology.
Leaving the dance open in this way allows it to continually grow and expand in a similar way to that of a colony of dividing and replicating bacteria.
Engaging visitors within these digital realms has involved working closely with Dr Simon Lock from Plymouth University’s i-DAT research group.
As the exhibition is permanent, it is conceivable that millions of people could be a part of this microbial ‘dance.’
In offering the viewer an alternative perspective through the use of a birds eye view, I hope to challenge preconceptions of the world being ‘out there’, in front our field of vision. Our usual view of the world keeps us disconnected but the aerial shot can, conversely, act to re-connect us by letting us imagine ourselves as a part of the whole. Possibly that shift lies in the anonymity of the crowd scene, the absence of faces and personalities and a shift away from a common world-view. When we see people teaming about beneath us, like ants or tiny organisms, it can be a humbling reminder of how insignificant we are in the grand universal scheme of things.
Any biology text book you read at school can’t prepare you for Bonnie Bassler’s mind-blowing statement, that we are comprised of ‘90% bacterial cells and a mere 10% human cells’.1.
Add to that the fact that on a sub-atomic level our bodies comprise 90% empty space* and only 10% matter and that oxygen and carbon which are major constituents in our bodies, originated in the dust of exploding supernova and we have a very different description of the human body, than the one we subscribe to in our daily lives.
Information of this kind is overwhelming and one can’t help but take stock. What on earth are we if we are only 10% stuff and 90% of us, is non-human bacteria?
As a species we evolved from bacteria. When we leave the womb, (the only time we comprise100% human cells) we are home to these teaming colonies of microbes, that have life and functions all of their own, in that, which is us their hosts, our bodies, (which in comparison to them is a vast empty space)
We too exist in the vastness of space, we contemplate our origin and the purpose of our being and, if we think such thoughts, our microbiome is responsible in part for that thought process too. Not only do microbes carry out many functions within our bodies but the ‘intestinal microbiome’ has played ‘a critical role in the development of even the brain itself from the time of birth’ 1.
The bacteria in our gut can synthesise neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and gaba as well as being able to distinguish them in their host, which ‘‘suggests a bidirectional environment where the microbiome can influence the host and the host influence the microbiome. This … and its mediation by a commonly shared evolutionary pathway of intercellular signaling suggest that “they monitor us” and “we monitor them” ’’2.
Bacteria communicate with one another, both inter and intra species, through a chemical language, Quorum Sensing. Working together as multicellular organisms, they carry out tasks that they could not accomplish if they simply acted as individuals. This can all descend into disarray and decay but for the most part they work harmoniously within the given whole.
The human ‘family’ can be seen to face a choice in this global age. Do we stand apart as individuals or work together with a common understanding to achieve our goals? Surely if simple, single-celled microbes can achieve this surely we can.
With that in mind, on the 15th March 2015, five hundred people came together in a spirit of co-operation and community, five hundred bodies depicting their own internal invisible mechanisms, through the language of dance, which is 5e+16.