After months of anticipation we finally crammed into the miners cage and made the 7 minute descent 1100m below ground to visit the Dark Matter Research Facility at Boulby Mine near Whitby on the dramatic north east coast.

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Led by astrophysicist Dr.Chamkaur Ghag and his colleagues Emma Meehan and Chris Toth we were transported to a hot and dusty world beyond the reach of cosmic rays and background radiation that would distract from the search for the illusive dark matter particles.

Kitted out in orange boiler suits, heavy boots, hard hats, safety goggles, ear defenders, shin pads and tool belt we were inducted into the safety procedures and alerted to the hazards of life underground. The most alarming was the  instruction on use of the self rescuer (a metal box containing breathing apparatus that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide) ‘better to use in doubt than die in error’. Only three breathes of deadly carbon monoxide and you are unconscious, possibly dead.

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On descent there is a series of air locked passages to pass through, ears popping before stepping out into the vast network of tunnels that extends over thousands of kilometres under the sea. With our headlamps dimmed here is total darkness.

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We walk 20 minutes to visit the original research laboratory now being ripped diagonally in half by the slow liquid like movement of the salt walls sliding against a fault line.

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The floor and ceiling are ruptured and so the highly sensitive equipment is being moved to a new purpose built reinforced steel clad lab.

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From the abandoned clutter of past experiments we cross another grimy passage to enter the pristine white cavernous space of the new laboratories.

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Still in the process of being equipped and put into full use we can only see a small part of what will go on here.

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Behind the blank face of the technology in large metal containers sprouting many wires and screens with data passing across in repeating wavering lines is the ongoing hope to witness a tiny scintillation of light that can be identified as the result of a collision of a dark matter particle in the target matter of pure Xenon.

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The three hours underground pass very quickly as we are in constant awe at what we see and hear about the extraordinary past and present projects that take place in this hidden arena. 1605 dmboulby detector

Prohibited from taking anything battery powered below we rely on borrowing a lab camera to take a few snaps before we have to return to the lift shaft to be hauled back to the surface this time tightly packed amongst the silent salt dusted mine workers.

We returned to the surface exhausted and full of information to assimilate. The next stage is to let this experience feed into and stimulate new work engaging with ideas of charting the unknown and extending our vocabulary and ability to interact with the matter of our universe that at present we can only surmise about through theory.

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I was delighted to be asked to show work in Aether curated by Lumen at Imperial College London. Aether is a curatorial project, focused on the philosophical aspects of astronomy and space exploration. The participating artists explore phenomena existing in outer space  considering how “invisible” objects are made tangible in the fields of both art and astrophysics.

These pieces from the everydaymatters series were inspired by the discovery that we can only see less than 5% of the matter in the universe.  Sparked by an interest in aura of place and dreams of paradise this has expanded into a fascination with how we encounter the physical and the spiritual world and the unseen activity of matter in the universe. The images, from real locations called Paradise such as Paradise Industrial Estate, Hemel Hempstead are dissected into the proportions of dark energy, dark matter and the visible world that current science believes constitutes our universe.

I have been pursuing further investigations into matter as part of  The Matter of Objects collaboration with Medieval and Renaissance research historians. This project interested me as it combined an investigation into the physical matter of objects and also more intangible things such as agency of object. I thought the Medieval period would also be interesting as a time when science and religion clashed as being the source of truth. I was paired with PhD researcher Bruno Martinho based at the European University Institute in Florence. His work explores the consumption of non-European objects on the Iberian Peninsula during the second half of the sixteenth century. Something I had never considered. The object he chose for me to respond to was a C16th Fall-fronted cabinet probably made in Gujarat for a Portuguese merchant. This work has taken me in unexpected and new directions.

At first I thought I may only experience this object as a digital image so was pleased to discover it was at the V&A and I could visit it and get a sense of scale and materiality. The most striking thing about the cabinet are the patterns. I could see the incredible detail, the minute pieces and precision in the workmanship.

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I think it is hard to connect to an object when you can’t touch it. It’s tantalizing not being able to open the drawers – they are tied shut just in case you are tempted to try.  At least it’s not behind glass so you can get up close and sniff it. I learnt from Bruno about its heritage from a mixture of cultural traditions seen combined in the patterns (European, Islamic, Indian) and materials (tropical woods, ivory). These cabinets were highly sought after at the time, they were the latest must have item to show wealth and status. An object of beauty, rarity and symbolism; commissioned, bought, sold and smuggled. They became part of 16th Century life but not always in a good way. A play “The Avaricious Cabinet” written at the height of the cabinets popularity criticized the hoarding practices it encouraged in merchants that were causing stagnation of the Portuguese economy. It could be written today about the unpopularity of the avaricious banker who dodges his taxes and is more concerned with his own wealth than the welfare of society at large.

The cabinet’s basic function was to store expensive objects, such as jewels or money, and important documents, like contracts or letters, and also all sorts of personal items such as lace and porcelain. There were antidotes against poison (like bezoar stones or unicorn horns), perfumes (made of musk extracted from Asian civet cats), coral (to make toothpaste), and also rosaries made of jet (that was believed to protect against melancholia). These appear as alchemical and mysterious objects today adding to the sense of mystique that surrounds the cabinet.  The warm tones, exotic aromas and smooth surfaces made using the cabinet an intimate and sensual experience.

The idea of using spices came from my conversation with Bruno about the aroma the cabinet would give off from the exotic woods it was made from and the smells it would absorb from its contents and surroundings. I thought of the mix of cultures that came together to produce this object, the markets of India and Spain and all those places in between. I made inks from ground spices and copperplate oils to fill the etching plates that would operate as markers of the route from Asia to Europe along the spice route.

I hoped that as the viewer leans in they will smell the spices and the colours would be natural and earthy like the materials used in the cabinet.

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I wanted to try and include something personal into the work about this particular cabinet but so much is a mystery. The V&A don’t hold a lot of information about its personal history. They sent me the purchase order and had a look to see if there were patterns inlaid inside the drawers – there are not. So the history of who this little cabinet belonged to and the items it stored seems lost. All that we know is it made the journey 500 years ago when navigating across the globe was reliant on reading the stars.

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containment –  60 x 60 cm,  screenprint on board, etched aluminium, spices


This one object that potentially holds so many other objects all with their own reasons for being, the trail is endless and diverse. After many weeks of conversation it was good to finally meet Bruno at the event at Queen Mary University and to see work produced by the other collaborators. Everyone felt it had been a worthwhile experience opening up new ways of thinking on both sides. The exhibition was then taken to the extraordinary setting of  Barts Pathology Museum where matter and objects have a very direct conversation.

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I went to the Materials Library for their Pigments, Paint, Print event.

1605 pigmentsThere were various minerals on hand that can be used to grind into pigments but we were only offered synthetic materials to make into ink and ready made inks to print with so wasn’t quite what I hope for but I did get to see aerogel.

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This was like looking at little pieces of sky or transluscent mini icebergs. Apparently NASA uses this – the lightest material on earth, to collect stardust in the tails of comets. It looks a bit like a very fine mesh yet is brittle and very fragile and also very expensive.

Helena Pritchard’s show Encounters at T.J. Boulting was a dialogue between materiality and light, the play of one off the other created in collaboration with Ilenia Bombardi.

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Mesh cloyed with plaster scattering light to create movement, light bouncing from projectors and splitting into spectrums.

Spencer Finch ‘The Opposite of Blindness’ at Lisson Gallery is also an investigation into light –  how it hits the back of our retina to burn images into our mind which hover beyond our ability to physically recreate them. What we see and what we imagine take place in the same arena.

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Spencer Finch Sunrise (Mars)

There are paintings made up of concentric dots that animate themselves as our restless eyes dance over their surface creating ever changing patterns

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Spencer Finch Sunflower (Bee’s View)

then as relief, soft grey fog to wade into. The paintings, like after burn on the retina, are pared back to leave just the essential essence that Finch wishes to convey.

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Spencer Finch Fog (Lake Wononscopomac)

Finch has taken light recordings from the Pathfinder unmanned mission to Mars and recreated the exact colour tone of a sunrise as would be experienced on the red planet.

Photographic images created from space agency data by Micheal Benson in Otherworlds: Visions of our solar system at The Natural History Museum  included one of the sun setting on Mars.

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Tracing space exploration from the first images in 1967 to the present day his aim is to create images as close as possible to what the human eye would see were we able to travel to the far reaches of the solar system.

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Francis Upritchard Orrery IV

The speakers at Tate Talks New Materialisms: Reconfiguring the Object were considering how investigating materials can stimulate new ways of thinking. Francesco Manaconda gave an overview of his curatorial explorations into how materials can be presented in new ways by imagining viewing an exhibition from the perspective of an alien in Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art and Radical Nature which focused on our relationship with nature. Anne-Sophie Lehmann and Iris Van Der Tuin discussed the importance of material literacy and the exactitude required in differentiating between materials, matter, materiality and materialisms. It is important that if we are to understand the matter that surrounds us we must test the resistance of the materials we encounter.

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