Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Schiehallion bivvy part 2

I posted some time back about my experience of bivvying on the summit of the mountain Schiehallion, where Jim & I created two pinhole photographs. I also filmed much of the creation of the work and have finally edited it.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

burning mountain part 2

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that during my recent trip to Australia, I was hoping to visit a place known colloquially as "burning mountain". Well, I did manage to get there, and indeed, to climb the mountain. On Mount Wingen, (it's official name) there's an underground coal seam that has been burning for around 6000 years and which currently reaches the surface almost at the very summit of the hill, a fortunate occurrence it seems. Long thought to be a volcano, it's only relatively recently that it's existence as the oldest naturally burning coal seam on earth has been confirmed.

The term mountain is, to my Munro climbing eyes, a bit of a misnomer as the summit can be reached by a well constructed pathway in about an hour. As you reach the summit field, you reach a raised deck designed to keep you off of the friable, brittle earth. There's no smoke dramatically billowing from holes; only a gentle warmth in the air. There's a strangely pleasant and mild smell of sulphur that reminds me of the glass jar filled cabinets of the chemistry lab of my school days, and an awareness that the ground resembles the burnt out embers of a coal fire. Bird song, exotic to my Northern European ears, resounds all around.

Once you ignore the warnings and leave the safety of the deck, the true nature of the hill begins to reveal itself. The smell of sulphur stays the same and you become quite acclimatised to it, but you gradually notice more that the ground is not quite the same as anywhere else you've ever been. Cracks and chasms open up where the seam has riven open the ground during the burning head's passage years earlier. The sharp, brittle, almost hollow nature of the ground is confirmed as your feet crunch upon the pale burnt out embers as you pass slowly over them. Then you begin to really sense heat, more than just mere warmth. A heat haze rises from patches of the ground, sometimes only very faintly. There are kangaroo droppings where the ground is pleasantly warm, the animals clearly using the hill top to find solace during the night. And finally, as you've wandered the summit field, you edge over to one side to discover the burning head of the seam and are met by a fierce heat. Not so hot that you can't stand upon it, but hot enough that you wonder whether the soles of your shoes will melt a little, and that radiates an intense heat towards your face that quickly becomes oppressive. I film the experience with my camera, and the heat at this climax causes my lens to flare in bursts. I look down at my footprints and think of Armstrong and Aldrin's on the lunar surface, the texture seeming so oddly similar.

Of course, most will also have noticed on the way up that the ground moves gradually from being fertile and populated by vegetation, to a forest floor where not much grows, the burning head having passed below in the past. Those more observant and educated in such things may recognise a shift in the types of gum trees that grow along the way from eucalyptus that thrives in temperate areas, to those more commonly seen on the fringes of the outback and capable of withstanding greater heat and aridity.

(note, detail of heat haze in the above video is more clearly visible when viewed on Vimeo)

Monday, 19 September 2011

coffee grounds

Back from Sydney, Jim and I showed the collaborative work we made in Australia at Vault Art the other weekend. For that we exhibited 12 of the 28 images we made in our series "coffee grounds". They were created by photographing the remains of our coffee left in the bottom of our cup each morning and made negative, although other than that, there is very little manipulation.

Here is a selection from the series.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Landscape with a double rainbow,John Constable,1812,
 Oil on paper laid on canvas

Monday, 29 August 2011

dark cloud constellations : the emu and coalsack nebula

our campsite in the bush near Gilgandra
Camping in a forest of eucalyptus in NSW, we looked up through a clearing to find the most wonderful night sky with stars of exceptional clarity and brightness. This low-tech image below, a 60 second exposure where I left the camera on the ground, shows the varied colours of the stars. What it doesn't convey however, is the dark area in the milky way. Initially surprised by how clear the milky way was in the night sky, we suddenly noticed that there was a significant amount of darkness within it which I've subsequently learned is called the coalsack nebula and the "Emu" - an aboriginal constellation consisting of darkness rather than stars.

the sky in the southern hemisphere photographed near Gilgandra, NSW.
(click on the image to enlarge enough to view) 
Like it's northern hemisphere counterpart the great rift, the Emu is an area of darkness in the night sky that makes it evident that the night sky is never really totally dark. However, these dark areas are not voids, or absences; the dark patches are star forming regions in our galaxy. Proto-stars (newly forming stars) generate molecular dust that doesn't allow light in the visible spectrum to shine through. However, with the advancements of telescopes that see in different light waves (e.g. x-rays or infrared) we now know that there is activity in these dark areas. This too reminds me of my earlier post on a new man made light absorbing material.

the "emu" (image by D. Smith)
I feel I've a lot to learn about aboriginal culture, and being here has sparked an interest in it for me. But I'm especially fascinated to learn of a culture that values the dark spaces, the interstices of the sky as much as it's light and objects.

We were en route to the Warrumbungles and Coonabarabran which have two observatories, being at a higher elevation (1160m above sea level) than the surrounding countryside. Clearly, this is good sky-watching country. Sliding Spring Observatory is housed inside the Warrumbungle National Park, and is Australia's largest optical astronomy research facility.

Back to solid visible objects, as you drive along the road to Coonabarabran, you pass various models of the planets in our solar system with the 37m dome of Sliding Spring Observatory representing the sun.

These are scale models (38 million times smaller than the real thing) of the planets in our solar system with relative distances between them as you drive. It was designed to give you an idea of the vastness of the solar system. There's at least an hour and a half of driving between Jupiter and Neptune, the two planets we passed; I'd almost forgotten about it until Neptune popped up, reminding me of the huge space between them. Remembering there's only 5 minutes drive between the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, the distances to the outer planets are phenomenally huge.

Jupiter, west of Coonabarabran
Neptune, in Gunnedah

(See also here for a post on the Guugu Yimithirr people of Northern Queensland).

Saturday, 27 August 2011

fruit bats

A short video I made in the botanical gardens in Sydney of the extraordinary colony of fruit bats. Apparently there are so many of them they are beginning to damage the trees. As the bats are a protected species, the gardeners have been given special dispensation to try to reduce/control their numbers.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

burning mountain part 1

the coal seam at the top of Burning Mountain (Mt Wingen)

Looking into places to visit on our road trip in Australia (we collect our camper van tomorrow), I'm attracted to a place called Burning Mountain. I'm told "you won't see much there", or more commonly "never heard of it" from various locals here in Sydney, but to me, it looks fascinating. Burning Mountain, or to give it it's proper name, Mount Wingen, was thought to be a volcano, but it's now known to be an underground seam of coal that's thought to have been burning for almost 6000 years. The plant life en route to the summit has suffered, with little growing on the forest floor. The burning head of the seam can be seen and the fire pours out sulphurous gas and smoke.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

scott's hut

Visiting the exhibition on Scott's hut (and after seeing the recent documentary in the UK on how it had been preserved at Cape Evans) I was looking forward to seeing it's recreation in Sydney at the National Maritime Museum. Unfortunately, it hasn't really been recreated; all there is, is a floor map not unlike the stage set for Lars von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay, mapping on the floor the relative positions of where the crew would have slept etc.

the real Scott's hut at Cape Evans, Antarctica

In the gift shop, things got worse, with poor old Robert Falcon's fate reduced to a snowstorm paperweight. Not sure whether it's hilarious or in bad taste..

Friday, 5 August 2011

challenges to navigation

Having just arrived in Sydney, Australia, and going out walking after sunset (abruptly early having come from our Scottish summer with long hours of daylight) we looked up to the winter night sky and it occurred to us that we didn't recognise anything.

Similarly, orienting oneself with sun proves confusing until one realises that whilst the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, it's movement over the sky is in the northern half of the sky, as opposed to the south in the northern hemisphere.

"The shadow of a sun dial moves clockwise in the northern hemisphere (opposite of the southern hemisphere). During the day the sun tends to raise to its maximum at a southerly position, whereas in the southern hemisphere it raises to a maximum that is northerly in position (as it tends towards the direction of the equator). In both hemispheres the sun rises in the east and sets in the west."

the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere
Climbing mountains here, the North face is the gentler side, the more temperate.

Friday, 29 July 2011

thoughts on walking

I attended a symposium at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern art yesterday entitled Critical dialogues on Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge with presentations by Alec Finlay, Matthew Beaumont, and Misha Myers, part of the Walking, Art, Landskip (sic) and Knowledge Reasearch Group at the University of Sunderland.

I felt closest and most sympathetic to Eck's presentation, where he spoke of various walks from his history, and I was especially pleased to listen to his description of his daily family walk from his childhood in Stoneypath, where he recounted so much topographical detail as to almost present us with a form of verbal cartography.

Eadweard Muybridge, girl running, Collotype, 1887, 203x318mm
Almost as an aside however, Matthew Beaumont showed this slide by Eadweard Muybridge amongst many others in an idiosyncratic presentation "beginning with the big toe - a peregrination on bipedal plantigrade locomotion" (or as I interpreted it, a cultural and physiological history of the big toe).

My 10 month old son recently started walking. I've been interested in the connections between art and walking and their relationship to process for a long time now, but for some reason didn't connect Angus' tentative learning of a new skill with the more conceptually based ruminations and meditations on walking in relation to my art practice until I saw this Muybridge photograph again.

His tentative first steps are becoming more steady, and he crawls less, but still he falls often although we no longer measure his achievement by counting his steps - they're far too numerous for that. But this too reminds me of Laurie Anderson's brilliant "walking and falling", a work that's personally very dear to me.

Falling, falling down, falling in love, free falling, foot-fall, falling slowly; falling seems to metaphorically sit as an edgy counterpane to the activity of walking, of attempting to find stability, to move oneself forward, step by step.

Thomas Eakins, Marey wheel photographs of unidentified model, c.1884

Friday, 15 July 2011


Earlier in the week, a group of us (mostly children) made some rafts to sail down Loch Aline. This is my effort made from twigs, grass and leaves. The first image is pre-launch, with the second in the water. Great fun.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

the photographs of frank hurley

a radiant turret lit by the midsummer midnight sun
Made during the first Australasian Antarctic expedition, 1911-14
After seeing the film made by Herbert Ponting recently, I started looking a bit more into the other major figure to document the great early Antarctic expeditions, namely the Australian Frank Hurley. Hurley accompanied Shackleton on the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 on the Endurance, where he worked as expedition photographer, but he also had the same role on other voyages, such as the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14.

I think I find Hurley's work more interesting because it seems more varied and often, more intimate, showing details on a human scale. There are of course many wonderful and breathtakingly beautiful images of ice landscapes by Hurley that display grandeur and are intended to create a sense of awe in the viewer, such as in the image above, but his pictures often also seem to contain details that pleasingly undermine this distance from the subject, or which manage to convey some of the physicality of place that can be difficult in the stilled form of the photograph.
Out in the blizzard at Cape Denison adjacent to winter quarters, 1913, Carbon print
For example, the famous image of two men hunched against the wind, ice axes in hand as they struggle to move in the midst of a blizzard (above) is well known, and has almost become emblematic of the difficulty of conditions in the Arctic and Antrctic. Below is a less well known image made on deck where the structures of the ship grow a coat of rime frost and ice.

But I'm far more interested in this completely puzzling image (below) where an unidentified activity semms to be being carried out. Skis are plunged into the snow in an antarctic dusk and an ethereal light emanates from a hole in the snow below. I simply can't comprehend fully what's going on in the picture, and this seems to me to be highly unusual in the images both Hurley and Ponting brought back home in that nothing is "learnt" about the antarctic from this image. There appears to be no
scientific/heroic/pictorialist basis to the creation of the picture (unlike most of the others) and the purpose of the image remains unclear. (I'm guessing that perhaps a snow hole has been dug, with the occupants' artificial light illuminating the entrance, but it's still significantly obscure to continue to intrigue and hold my attention).

The image below is perhaps more conventional, but still I like the presence of the man, looking out to the ice, Caspar David Friedrich-like. With his hands in his pockets, and wearing a balaclava but no coat, braces visible, he stands so very casually as he surveys the ice and the unending immensity of the cold horizon beyond. He looks as though he might just have been passing by for a stroll when Hurley made the picture. Perhaps he was.

He also made a series of early colour images of the Expedition using the then-popular Paget process of colour photography. The colours are rather weak, and the autochrome process would supersede it, but it still comes as something of a shock to see them at all. Even it's failures hold beauty.

Mid-summer, 1915
Unidentified landscape

Sunday, 22 May 2011

the great white silence

I watched Herbert Ponting's film of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-12 at the cinema today, where Capt. Robert Falcon Scott led the attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Newly restored by the BFI, the film is certainly worth seeing if you have the chance. It's redolent with an outdated version of English patrioism and heroism, but that is probably to be expected considering this was the officially sanctioned document of the expedition.

But watching it in the light of more recent criticism of Scott's strategies, notably the excellent I may be some time by Frances Spufford, the expedition's use of Siberian ponies and a forerunner to the tank to haul loads looked foolish even before they set out on their journey across the empty continent. The dogs, however, look brilliantly adapted to the task, relishing the work in the way the horses never would. Had they used the dogs to pull the sleds, they'd likely have survived to tell the tale - though perhaps we'd not still be thinking of them had the story had such a banal ending - simply coming second to the Norwegians. Amundsen in many ways deserved to reach the pole first, being less arrogant that he might "conquor" the antarctic wilderness, and humble enough to employ the survival techniques of indigenous peoples of the polar regions, rather than bringing in European style expedition tactics.


One can't help but think, "these men would soon die" when watching the film. Like all old photographs, they're infused with a sense of mortality, but our knowledge of the outcome of the expedition makes the sense of pathos palpable. In the end, they would die stormbound in their tent a mere 11 miles from the safety of "one ton depot". At the beginning of the film as they set sail from New Zealand, they look so strong and potent that failure must have seemed inconceivable to those around them.

What perhaps surprised me more about the film though, was the use of colour filters (not unlike the gel overlays in the 1925 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera), creating different atmospheres for time of year, quality of light, and location. Even more noteworthy, I think, are the little animated sequences that appear to, at first, be time lapse views from high up of the sleds being manhauled over the Beardmore Glacier, but which soon become clearly made in a studio once Ponting got back home. The're a little comic, with their jerky movements, looking like bizarre dolls house props, but I found them interesting all the same. I was strangely reminded of Sonja Braas' forces series, when looking at these sections.

Sonja Braas, Forces No 10, 2002, c-print behind diasec

I did find the extended footage of the penguins a little tiresome (Werner Herzog truly got it right in Encounters at the End of the World), and their anthropomorphism in Ponting's intercut text/narrative irked a little, but there's no doubting that this is an exceptionally privileged account of an adventure and tragedy made with great skill and beauty.

Friday, 20 May 2011

dirtying the paper delicately

Attending a meeting at work yesterday where staff were assembled to talk about drawing, I heard the wonderful phrase "dirtying the paper gently" used in describing the act of drawing. Stephen Farthing, our guest who had the previous day given a lecture on drawing (which I missed, sadly), borrowed the phrase from Ruskin. In fact, Ruskin said that "all art is but dirtying the paper delicately" in The Elements of Drawing. It seems to be such a wonderfully poetic description for the activity that forms the majority of my creative practice, particularly the recent works using powdered graphite such as Gravesend and Grindelwald

Here too, is another work by Ruskin, one of many pieces he created in Chamonix in the French Alps, and another which shows his interest in geology. Indeed, in Modern Painters, Ruskin displays an obsessive attention to classifying every detail and permutation of rock formation and landscape feature, all dirtying the paper delicately.

John Ruskin, Cascade de la Folie, Chamonix, 1849
pen & ink, watercolour and bodycolour on paper

John Ruskin, Aguille structure, 1856
(engraved by JC Armytage)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

the mountains of Holland base camp

Thomas A Clark, 2011
Feeding my love of art referencing mountains, with thanks to Peter Foolen and Tom Clark.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

the fram

Blankets from the cabin of The Fram. L Punton 2006/2011
The Fram carried both Nansen and Amundsen on their expeditions to the poles and occupies a unique position in the history of exploration, being the ship with the record of sailing both furthest north and furthest south. Visiting the Fram a few years back in Oslo, I found myself fascinated by the minutiae of it's interior, rather than it's great bulk. The details somehow suggest more of the history of it's occupants.

Monday, 25 April 2011

a walk to Loch Ternait

Back again at Ardtornish in Morvern, we took a walk to Loch Ternait and Leacraithnaich Bothy. Jim and I last walked here 9 months ago, just 7 weeks before Angus was born, a time when we visited Staffa, and revisited the lead mines of Strontian a place where I'd made work many years ago.

Ternait too, is a place of memories from my childhood, though the bulldozed track that easily leads to the loch is a rather brutal scar on the land. But with the work that's happened in connection with the hydro scheme (damming past the outflow of the loch and diverting water through a pipeline) mud and silt has been dredged up on the track that has made the passage of wind on the surface water behave in an extraordinary way. Jim and I documented it on my digital camera, and this is the result.

In the middle of the loch lies a tiny crannog that used to house a shelter.

"Those accused of crimes from Lismore or Mull or neighbouring places, if they got permission from the Chief of Ardtornish to reside forty-eight hours on the island, were free from any liability to punishment. The island was thus a sanctuary – hence name Tearnait or Tearnaech Inaid, “place of safety”."

Loch Ternait from Leacraithnaich Bothy
The crannog can be seen towards the left of the image above (once zoomed in) as a greenish patch on the loch. Another place of safety, the  tranquility of the well maintained bothy seems to be constantly under threat from the forces of commerce, with the massive Glensanda Superquarry just visible from it's door. Still, it's a great spot, with summer water levels revealing sandy beaches around the fringes of the loch. It remains to be seen how the water levels will alter in future though once the hydro scheme is completed, and whether the beaches and indeed the crannog may be lost.

Map of Loch Ternait showing the crannog.
Leacraithnaich lies on the West side of the loch. 
Leacraithnaich bothy interior

the real death star

Mimas, photographed by the probe Cassini
Mimas, one of Saturn's moons is the smallest object in the solar system to be round due to the pull of it's own gravitational force. It's impact crater Herschel (named after the moon's discoverer) is 81 miles across, it's walls approx 3.1 miles high, and it's central peak rises 3.7 miles from the crater floor (Mt. Everest is 4.1 miles high). The impact on this moon must have been immense as there are fractures on the far side that may have been created from shock waves from the impact traveling through the body of the moon. Often thought to be the inspiration for Star Wars' death star, the crater was in fact discovered after the creation of the film.

Herschel crater

the Death Star from Star Wars