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Monday, June 25, 2012

Slices of Earth, Slices of Time

“Geological mapping involves more than just producing a colourful map to show the distribution of formations within a given area. The trained geologist is able to produce an interpretation of not only the surface rocks but also of their subsurface structure”
-         Lisle et al. (2011)

At the beginning of the 19th century, English geologist William Smith realized the first geological map of Britain or, with Winchester’s (2001) words “the map that changed the world”. Different colours were used to mark different rock units and their surface distribution. As seen in the last post, geological maps are true distillations of experience and, consequently, they share a common ground with the artistic process. It is not a case that geological maps and geological mapping often appear within an artistic context.William Smith did not focus on surface geology only, but he produced two-dimensional slices of Britain’s subsurface structure: geological cross-sections. 

Geological cross-section by William Smith. Picture from the Oxford Digital Library

An artistic cross-section and the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
In parallel to geological maps, cross-sections often present a marked aesthetic appeal, as shown by the beautiful album cover of ‘Faultline’ by the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Similarly, geological cross-sections have been the subject for body art, as exemplified by the ‘cross-section tattoo’ portrayed in Zimmer and Roach (2011).
Still nowadays, cross-sections frequently complement geological maps in order to describe the three-dimensional structure of a given area, with the final aim of extrapolating the fourth dimension: time. Such fourth-dimensional nature is manifest in Laura Moriarty’s sculptural paintings, realized with layers of hot wax. With the artist’s words: “Referencing diagrams found in earth science textbooks, I study the way events and phenomena occur in the geological time scale, creating micro/macro records in paint of what I imagine happens below a terrain's surface”. The last sentence fits perfectly to the hand-coloured cross-sections made by Charles Darwin, who aimed to understand the subsurface geology of the Andes. In his Red Notebook, Darwin wrote “Geology of whole world will turn out simple”.
Geological cross-section as body art. Image from the Discover Magazine Blog.

'Subduction into Trench' by Laura Moriarty. From the artist's homepage.

Geological section sketched by Charles Darwin. Picture from the Cambridge University Library webpage.

Darwin's message is oxymorically conveyed by the colourful, abstract but concrete artworks of John ‘the Rock Doctor’ Jackson. With his geological hammer and a paintbrush, the artist explores both the surface and the subsurface of our planet. The result are forms and textures on canvas, true cognitive maps of the geological world. Although the depicted phenomena are complex, the Rock Doctor’s pictorial rendering makes them accessible either to the mind or the emotions. According to this viewpoint, Darwin’s optimistical thought sounds true.

'Gas Hunting' by John Jackson. The artwork is an artistic cross-section depicting a gas reservoir and its geological features.
'Window on the Worm' by John Jackson. Image from the Art and Soul Gallery.
John Jackson produces slices of Earth of various dimensions, from the scale of mountains to the minuteness of worm burrows. Indeed, in his ‘Window on the Worm’ the work of tiny organisms is manifested through their U-shaped burrows. In some cases, the effect of tiny burrowing organisms is so pervasive to modify entire ecosystems, severely affecting habitats and their inhabitants. This phenomenon, known as ecosystem engineering (Jones et al., 1994), can be seen in numerous human activities and poses important ethical questions. These points have been investigated by Jarod Charzewsky in his artwork ‘Scarp’, merging geological cross-sections and ecological awareness. I had the opportunity to explore this subject through a first-hand interview with Jarod Charzewsky himself.

In three sentences or less present yourself: Who are you and what you do?
I am an ambitious yet procrastinating surfer. Much like surfing, what I do is all about patience and timing. I wait for precisely the right moment and then I give it all I’ve got.

'Scarp' by Jarod Charzewsky. Image from the artist's webpage.

What inspired you to create "Scarp"?
The elementary school where I grew up in Winnipeg Canada had plenty of landfill sites, like most cities do. My high school was located on a landfill site. I use to imaging the layers of garbage beneath my feet. I thought what would it look like if I could cut away the earth to expose the wasted materials beneath my feet. I considered this idea as mankind reshaping our landscape with our discarded items. The idea stuck with me until now.
I love these renderings of a landfill. Its supposed to make sense of the chaos that is a landfill site.

Geology plays a huge role in this artwork. How would you describe its importance in your set?
I have spent a lot of time around Canada and North America and I have always felt an intuitive connection to the land. I spent time in the Alberta badlands where the geology of the region is abundantly exposed. These naturally formed layers made sense on the level of my landfill idea in fact this was the link I needed. I think most of us can identify with these stratified layers in one way or another. They are easy to be amazed with. The visual similarity is what makes my work accessible.

Particular from 'Scarp' by Jarod Charzewsky.

You used 5000 articles of clothing for realizing ‘Scarp’. Please give us some insight on your journey in making this artistic project.
At first I did not think the project was possible. I could not afford nor did I want to purchase all the materials for the piece so I quickly forgot about it.  Then in 2008, I got a residency at The Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art. This gave me two months inside a large gallery space – enough time to do what I wanted. If there ever was going to be a time to create the piece it was now.  I went to Goodwill Industries because I thought they might have the materials. I told them what I wanted to do and they understood it instantly and offered to loan me whatever I wanted. But only a loan. Everything would have to come back to Goodwill. I could not be happier with that arrangement. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck with all that clothing after the show came down.
Why did you choose clothes to realize ‘Scarp’?
This is a good question. When I went to Goodwill In 2008 I did not know what I was looking for. I knew I needed a lot of it and I was limited on how I could move the stuff around. Other things Goodwill had were ceramic plates and furniture. These were too heavy and fragile, but the clothing stood out right away. It was the most abundant material they had which meant they would be more eager to help with the project. Plus the colours and textures that I could acquire would make for a nice visual effect.

When a geologic section becomes art?
This is tough, when you think about it. You cannot just get some rocks and put it in some gallery and call it art. But it’s also easy. There is so much natural beauty in the world it doesn’t take much some times.

You realized many works focused on Nature. Which of these works do you consider ‘geologic’?
 Geology is in all of them I think. Some are more specifically about water flow and even more about what’s natural and what’s “simulated natural”. This is a paradox I exploit frequently. These terms are being exploited is our culture, usually to expand real estate or fossil fuel development. But I am not against growth but only to do it responsibly.

'The Geology of the New Earth' by Jarod Charzewsky.
Geology appears also in your ‘The Geology of the New Earth’. What media, what artistic metaphors have you used?
I like to use whatever I can find in the clothing. I did a piece in Calgary Alberta where I just happened to get 54 baseball hats. Or in Raleigh North Carolina I happened to find 238 men’s neckties. This is what helps link the work to the region where it’s installed. Somehow, and I am not use how, but those neckties are an indication of the societal condition of Raleigh NC. I like the thought of that.

You made vast use of technology in your ‘Tides’. What do tides look like through kinetic sculpture?
 I like to use the concept of tides as a metaphor for our changing landscape. It’s a poetic to think of the earth moving (naturally and unnaturally) with time like a tide. Currently, I live right on the Atlantic coast. Every time a storm comes through my favourite beach where I surf is different in its shape as the entire beach is moved or completely gone. It’s astonishing how fast it happens. Also the mining practice of mountain top removal. It’s amazing to think that there are companies that can and will move an entire mountain to extract the minerals within.

'Tides' a kinetic sculpture by Jarod Charzewski.
How important do you think it is for artist to know about geology, and why?
I can’t say it’s important for all artists in the same way that it’s not important for all artists to be familiar with the figure, but it can be helpful. To know where your materials come from and how they are made can be informative. I use a lot of plaster in the classes I teach. And I talk a lot about where gypsum comes from and how it’s turned into plaster. It informs what you make. The density of lumber in the past 10 years has reduced due to younger trees being harvested. This effects the strength and the weight of that you are building. We use plenty of iron ore and coke coal in our foundry at the College of Charleston. It helps to understand how expensive it all is if you know where it’s transported from. I guess it’s all about our natural resources and being aware of what it is that you use.

Lisle, R.J., Brabham, P., Barnes, J. (2011). Basic Geological Mapping. Fifth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester

Jones, C.G., Lawton, J.H., Shachak, M. (1994). Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos, 69: 373-386

Winchester, S. (2001). The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Harper Collins, New York

Zimmer, C., Roach, M. (2011). Science ink: tattoos of the science obsessed. Sterling, New York