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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Distilled Experiences

In his website, the influent artist Richard Long says: “my intention was to make a new art which was also a new way of walking: walking as art […] These walks are recorded or described in my work in three ways: in maps, photographs or text works, using whichever form is the most appropriate for each different idea. All these forms feed the imagination, they are the distillation of experience”.
The words of Richard Long provide a link to geologists, ‘distillers of experience’ through the act of walking. Indeed walking is the mean by which geologists record and interpret the landscape, while distillations come in a wide variety of forms. Among the commonest distilled experiences, geological field notes often provide appealing visual material. In some cases, the distinction between science or art is not obvious, such for the layers sketched by Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Arduino. 

The Arno valley sketched by Leonardo da Vinci. Note the accuracy in drawing sedimentary layers.
Geological section realized by Giovanni Arduino in 1758.
Nevertheless, geological maps are probably the most emblematic forms through which geologists distil their field experience. Geological maps show the spatial distribution of geological units with different colours, therefore they are usually rich in structure and patterns. It is not a case that they are often part of vibrant works of art.
For instance, Nien Schwarz used geologic maps in various artistic contexts. She used 55 grocery bags made from geologic maps (‘From Legend to the Market’), tectonic maps (‘Groundwork: an illustrated poem’), and hand-coloured geologic maps (‘Transpose’). With the words of the artist (Baucon, 2009): “Transpose is a recent painting with map collage. It is constituted by hand coloured  geologic  maps  1:67000  of  the Northern  Territory  in  Australia  dating from  the  1960s.  The  paint  is  made  with pure earth colours (no mixing of colours) –  pigments  and  rocks  I  have  collected over  the  years.  I  grinded  and  sieved  the rocks  and  matched  the  colours  in  the geologic map. This  painting  is  2040  high  by  1240 wide  and  70  mm  deep.  It  is  made  on  2 house  doors  covered  in  canvas  –  doors as  the  the  literal  and  symbolic  threshold between inside and outside – the divider between  nature  and  culture,  and  desire and need.”
Nien Schwarz used 55 grocery bags made from geological maps for realizing her 'From Legend to Market'. Picture from

Another excellent example is the art of Chris Drury, who created various artworks by weaving geological maps and topographical ones. 

Particular of 'On the Ground, above and below Wyoming' by Chris Drury. Picture from the artist's website.

Detail of the 'Geologist Series' by Perdita Phillips. Image from the artist's website.
 The mentioned examples show clearly how artworks and geological maps are both distillation of experience in the field. At this regard, Perdita Phillips artistically described the act of geological mapping in her ‘Geologist Series’. She accompanied a field geologist in the Kimberly region (Australia) and recorded the  everyday tools and practices of art and science. The artist was  interested  “in  the similarities  and  differences  between artists  who  walked  in  the  field  (i.e. walking  as  an  art  medium)  and scientists who performed fieldwork” (Baucon, 2009).
Intriguingly, this concept reconciles with the words (and the art) of Richard Long. According to the principle of the ‘distillation of experience’, art and geology are languages for describing the world. When I interviewed Perdita Phillips on the subject, she gave an illuminating answer: “Imagine two outstretched hands flat out in front of you that rub up against each other. This is how I see art and science in  the  field:  their  practices  are  parallel and  sympathetic  and  ultimately  both aim to explain the world around them – the difference is in how the observer is situated in the self-same world”.
Du Noyer is among the authors of this geological map. Detail from IHM.
This interpretation is supported by the work of a 19th century geological celebrity: Georges Victor Du Noyer. Field geologist and artist, Du Noyer surveyed vast areas of Ireland and produced accurate geological maps. At the same time, he described his study areas through delicate watercolours, illustrating the beauty of many geological structures. It is manifest that Du Noyer’s geological maps and artworks are the distillation of the same experiences: geology and art are connected by a vibrant line of continuity.

Watercolor by Georges Victor Du Noyer depicting folds in the Old Red Sandstone. The outcrop is located near Mallow, in the same area of the geologic map above. Image from the GSI website.


Baucon A., 2009. Geology in Art. An Unorthodox Path from Visual Arts to Music., 120 pages