Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Annie Cattrell: I was born, at home, in Glasgow and am the youngest of three children. My father was a medical physicist and mother a painter and art teacher.
We moved to Edinburgh, several years later, where I then attended the Steiner School from the age of five. The ethos of the school was based on interpretations of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, Anthroposophy (anthropos-human and sophia-wisdom) whereby he emphasized a scientific understanding of the spiritual. Steiner was greatly influenced by Goethe and his theory of knowledge and of colour.
It was an interesting and close-knit community to be part of, during this formative time. The educational process also encouraged pupils to make interdisciplinary connections between all taught subjects. This cross-disciplinary focus has been one of the main values that has remained with me and subsequently influenced my thinking and general approach to research and making work.
After this, I studied for a BA Hons in Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art, based in the Murals Department, which subsequently became known as the Environmental Art Department. It was an energetic, rigorous and creatively stimulating place that encouraged the students to explore ideas in-depth, be innovative and experimental. The choice of academic enquiry was determined in discussion with tutors who were all practicing artists. I was fortunate to have been taught by, amongst many others, Sam Ainsley and Thomas Joshua Cooper.
My initial focus was on an understanding how the human body and mind work, to this end, I gained special permission to spend time drawing and gathering information in the Museum of Anatomy, which is part of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum. This was considered to be quite an unusual thing to want to do at that time. The museum was for medical teaching only and there was a vast array of old preserved anatomical pathology specimens with detailed labeling telling the stories of the illnesses and diseases. The exhibits had been collected and donated to Glasgow University by the Scottish pioneering obstetrician and anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783).
Also, on the Murals course, there was guidance through the processes of pitching for public art projects and commissions. We undertook actual community art projects, such as in the Drumchapel area of Glasgow, which gave us first hand experience of the sociopolitical complexities of that community. It made me question what we were doing there, why and if there was any value or benefit in this process for the community.
Once I graduated from GSA I undertook an MA in Fine Art at the University of Ulster in Belfast run by performance artist Alistair MacLennan. Ten years later, then living in London, I became fascinated in the optical and conceptual possibilities and properties of glass. I was fortunate to be given scholarships to study a further MA in Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art.
I have worked at the RCA as a Visiting Lecturer in C&G since 2000 and more recently on the Fine Art and Humanities Pathway of the MRes course and as a PhD supervisor in the School of Arts and Humanities.
Also, I have undertaken permanent academic positions as Reader in Fine Art at De Montfort University in Leicester and Senior Lecturer in the Sculpture Department at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
AC: There are many things that do and have influenced my art practice.
Firstly, I have always engaged in immersive experiences that cannot be ‘switched off’, which are in essence 360 degrees, such as climbing mountains or watching brain surgery. It is the phenomenological observations I can make while in these situations of the place, space, sounds, textures, smells etc that influence decision making later in the studio. Often in the countryside or in specific environments, I find this can amplify my awareness and expand and transform sensation into ideas, thought and artworks.
One example of this approach was when I was on Orkney in 2010, undertaking a Royal Scottish Academy residency hosted by the Pier Art Centre. Daily, I was able to observe, film and draw the tidal and wave energy of the surrounding sea, particularly the Pentland Firth that separates the north of mainland Scotland and Orkney. So observing deep time, as visible in the coastal geology at the precipitous Jesnaby cliffs, and then discussing renewal energy developments and challenges with research scientists at the Herriot Watt University at their campus in Stromness. This process of conjoining of a theoretical understanding of the surrounds and site visits to observe time made for thought provoking combinations, then and now.
Another example of a particularly intense immersive and influential threshold was in 2002 when I was given permission to watch neurosurgeon Mr Henry Marsh undertake an ‘awake craniotomy’ procedure at the Atkinson Morley Wing at St George’s Hospital in London. This was a pioneering surgical technique to remove tumours close to or involving the speech regions of the brain. During the operation the patient is woken up and the anaesthetist speaks with them continuously while they are awake, allowing the team to test regions of the exposed brain throughout the procedure to check the patient’s speech function in relationship to the removal of diseased brain tissue. Mr Marsh encouraged me to look down the microscope he used to view into the patients brain. As I did this he said:
“thought is physical”.
Earlier influences were many, but one stands out which was as a child watching the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s annual Christmas Lectures, then broadcast on BBC1 in the 1970’s. The programs made scientific research, ideas and theories accessible and clear to absorb and helped understanding. The beautiful bespoke sculptural models and apparatus where one of the highlights often appearing magical, transformative and defying reason. It fuelled and nurtured my imagination, making anything seem possible and brought science to life.
So in 2002 it was a privilege for me to be the first Artist in Residence at the Royal Institution supported by the Leverhulme Trust. This opportunity meant I could meet with researchers, staff and members, plus spend time in the extensive archives seeing original texts and books such as Faraday’s hand bound and written illustrated notebooks.
Books of all types have had considerable influence on me, such as The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, in which her poetic prose share a thoughtful and highly perceptive understanding of the Cairngorm mountains as interconnected organisms of rivers, rocks and trees. Other writers and poets such as Martin Kemp, Lavinia Greenlaw, Mary Douglas, Rebecca Solnit, Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan.
There are too many artists to mention who have influenced me at different times and for many reasons. Here are a few. The drawings and paintings by Albrecht Durer, John Ruskin, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger and Vija Celmins. Time based work by Margaret Tait, Lisa Autogena and Christian Marclay. Films such as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser and Being There. Sculptures by Helen Chadwick, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Wilson, Yoshihiro Suda, Gian Lorenzo Bernini & James Turrell.
Engineering feats such as the Forth Bridge cantilever system and the cast concrete dome of The Pantheon in Rome have inspired my further appreciation of ingenuity, materiality and scale.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
AC: I am a multidisciplinary visual artist. My focus is informed by acts of paying attention, noticing, contemplating and watching. At times, it seems almost forensic. I am drawn to discrepancies and inaccuracies, seeing if and when structures, patterns or meanings can emerge. Part of this process involves observing subtle topographically changes in say the landscape, or atmospheric fluctuations and weather conditions or more intimately inside the human body and brain.
This noticing is partly aimed to capture the fleeting and the what is not obviously visible. Therefore, highlighting the almost imperceptible changes, flux and transformations that are ceaselessly occurring inside the human body and in the natural world. This sculptural arresting or pause is designed to allow for in-depth scrutiny and reflection to occur. As part of this enquiry and process I often use sequences and comparative series to highlight the visible flux and changing behaviour of the materiality of what constitutes life.
I constantly draw, take photographs and film as a way of recording and thinking aloud and making visual notes. Additionally, I daily gather relevant information and collect materials and stuff that trigger ideas. In the studio I cast, assemble, fuse, weld and etch using techniques in bronze, glass, wood and many other appropriate materials. This brings the ideas into form and structure.
New digital approaches have led me to explore and use state-of-the-art technologies, for example topographical Lydar laser scanning. This virtual casting process proved critical when working within the Forest of Dean, when I was initially developing ideas and gathering data to produce a permanent sculptural commission called ECHO. Also, I have used FMRI, MRI and PET brain and body scanning techniques and data to realise a series of work about the body and brain. The data produced is generated non invasively and in SENSE maps the active regions of the five senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. The files are actually built using SLA rapid prototyping techniques and then I embedded them into transparent resin. This permanently located the 3D prints in a solid dense space. SENSE was until recently on show in the Wellcome Trust’s Medicine Now ten year exhibition. It was made in collaboration with Professors Morten L Kringelbach, Mark Lythgoe and Steve Smith.
My focus also involves cross disciplinary discussions and is informed by a dialogue between the empirical, phenomenological and theoretical. To this end to, I have undertaken a number of fellowships, residencies and public art commissions, working with historians, in museum archives, researchers and different communities. These have included working recently at Cambridge University, where I was Lead Artist for their building development at the New Museum Site between 2014-19. I have just completed a large scale two part commission at the Old Cavendish called Remains to be Seen (I & II). It was conceived of after viewing CTR Wilson’s Cloud Chamber, an apparatus that he was inspired to make after his observations of condensation trails while working on the Ben Nevis Observatory. The Cloud Chamber was the first apparatus to show subatomic particle movement.
Aligned to this aspect of my practise of making public art, in 2008, I produced a large scale suspended sculpture called 0 to 10,000,000 for Oxford University’s new award winning Biochemistry Building designed by architects Hawkins Brown. This numerical range refers to temperature within matter and suggests an understanding through measurement of the complex relationship between a single unit and a mass of units. The concept grew from considering the essential components of matter, how it is generated and the idea and potential of plasma.
RB: How important is the nature of impermanence, rhythm and time in your work?
AC: All have and are important in different ways. Some of my work clearly shows impermanence, rhythm and time.
The process of drawing is very significant to me, I approach it in part by referencing space, time, volume and density. Drawing can be a beginning and end in itself. Some drawings are made using a knife to produce marks. The vector shaped incisions penetrate the thick watercolour paper and reference directional flow (Pour and Currents).They physically alter the integrity of the paper which weakens and begins to sag and buckle making it appear three dimensional. I also, more traditionally, use inks and graphite to draw with. These show interconnected structures such as in Sustain. The amount of time spent producing these drawings is visible in their complexity and immense detail. The linear rhythm show my intention to make visible the accuracies and inaccuracies of attempting precision and control by hand.
Impermanence and the transitory was part my thinking behind Conditions. This was a sculpture I was commissioned to make for the Out of the Ordinary exhibition at the V&A in 2007. It focussed on the ceaseless nature of cloud formations over the period of a year. It comprised twelve heavy optical glass blocks, each block being equivalent to one of the 12 months of the year. They were individually subsurface etched with specific cloud formations such as cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus. This appeared to freeze flux and make time standstill.
Rhythm is implied in Resounding, a commission made in 2015 for the new John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes University. Resounding is shaped as a bell and a splashing droplet. The acoustic and water references the moment when, in a university such as Brookes, cognition can take place and the implications of that reverberate.
Time is also embedded in my work physically. For example in the geological casts that form Echo (2007), Fault (2018) and SEER (2018). The casts are taken directly from specific geological locations in England and Scotland. Echo from a quarry of Pennant sandstone, in the Forest of Dean, which was formed during the Carboniferous period about 350,000,000 years ago when it was part of the Supercontinent of Pangaea situated near the equator. This deep geological time is physically evident, in the cast, in the layered rigid structures of the rock and impermanence of the trees, pine needles and earth. Fault and SEER were also cast, this time directly from either side of Loch Ness. Each side of the loch are distinct land regions called the North West Highlands and Grampian Mountains that were formed from two tectonic plates converging and forming Loch Ness. James Hutton (1726–1797), the “father of modern geology,” wrote the Theory of the Earth (published in 1788) that proposed the idea of a rock cycle in which weathered rocks form new sediments and that granites were of volcanic origin. At Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm Mountains, near to Loch Ness, he found granite penetrating metamorphic schists, this proved that granite was formed from the cooling of molten rock. As a result of this observation regarding geological time scales Hutton famously remarked:
“that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
RB: In works such as From Within, Sense, Capacity and Echo, there is a fascination with scientific convention and process. Can you say more about this?
AC: Over the years I have considered and adopted some objective scientific conventions as part of my own artistic and aesthetic methodologies. I tend to avoid direct personal narratives in my work, however the impetus behind each piece can often be triggered by specific experiences or memories. The scientific methods and processes of experimentation seem to afford me an objectivity that is helpful, structured and clear. I am interested in where and how the scientific and the poetic meet.
RB: Your project Transformation references Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne of 1652. Can you say more about this project, its elements and its relation to Bernini’s sculpture?
AC: Transformation is a public art commission and exhibition title. The commission was generated for the new Science Centre at Anglia Ruskin University. Part of the overall project involved funding for the Public Engagement surrounding the ideas behind the work which was shown in 2017 in the Transformation exhibition at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge.
This opportunity allowed me to explore further how the idea of transformation has been historically used in art and specifically sculpture, how an artwork might embody change and be able to imply or actually move and respond to the its surroundings and the outdoor elements.
In 2000, I was ACE Helen Chadwick Fellow based initially at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing and then at the British School at Rome where I regularly visited the nearby Villa Borghese to see the Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculptures, in particular Apollo and Daphne.
Bernini had skilfully transformed a solid block of marble into a detailed dynamic sculpture that worked from every vantage point. For me, it physically and literally speaks of transitional states of emotion as expressed in the pose and the actual carving such as in the marble feet and hands of Daphne which appear to become leaves and roots. Apollo and Daphne depicts an episode from ancient Greek and Roman mythology as told by Ovid in his epic tale of creation and history.
In 2016, when I was invited to have a solo exhibition Transformation, at the Anglia Ruskin Gallery nearby to where the final public art commission would be installed the following year. Curator and academic, Marius Kwint kindly agreed to curate the show, write the catalogue and organise an academic symposium. We also jointly secured funding from the Henry Moore Foundation for a research trip to travel to Rome to see Daphne and Apollo once again.
Our working group comprised dance artists Andrea Buckley and Charlie Morrissey and videographic artist Frances Scott, hosted by art historian and curator Marina Wallace. I had first seen Andrea and Charlie when they performed for the Table of Contents at the ICA in 2014, an archive dance project of the work that Siobhan Davies and Jill Clarke had made. This re-enactment or reinterpretation from an archive made me wonder how they might respond, as dancers, to seeing Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. After hours of on site observations at the Villa Borghese, we filmed Andrea and Charlie afterwards in Marina’s garden, reimagining the sculpture and how it was made, through improvised movement. This finally became a nine screen time based installation for the exhibition. After Rome, at the University of Portsmouth, Andrea and Charlie were motion captured making similar gestures and movements. Further to this I produced rapid prototyped sculptures showing the complete movement set.
TRANSFORMATION, Situated on the New Science Centre, Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, 2017, anodised aluminium and metal substructure, each face is 10,100mm x 7,250mm
RB: The Transformation public art piece on the side of the new Science Centre cannot be viewed all at once, the viewer has to move around it. Is this deliberate?
AC: Yes, it was deliberate.The concept for Transformation was that it would be a large-scale, visually scintillating and rippling surface that responded to the wind, rain and sunlight. It would be endlessly moving day and night and the sequences would be infinitely different .
It was made of over 18,000 brushed aluminium small tiles that appear from far away as a solid surface or pixelated screen. However, at closer inspection it is possible to see each tile has the ability to move independently in response to the wind, creating an ever changing pattern of flux across the two surfaces of the Science Centre.
Initially I was asked to respond to the Science Centre and the brief to: ‘see science in action’. Designed by architect Richard Murphy, the footprint of the new building needed to fit into the centre of the existing Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge campus. The area where Transformation could be situated was on a right angle corner with the planes facing south and west. It was also vital that there would be sufficient wind to activate the kinetic aspect of this commission and direct sunlight to maximise the reflective properties of the metal tiles. The right angle and proximity of the nearby buildings meant that it is almost physically impossible to absorb the whole of Transformation from one point. This accentuates the necessity to think and experience holistically.
RB: Your research question in your application for the Helen Chadwick Fellowship (2000-01) asked ‘Is it possible to make consciousness visible?’ Could you elaborate on this?
AC: In 1990-01 I undertook a year long residency at one of Scotland’s largest psychiatric mental health units the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. There, I met and worked with many long term residents and became aware of the treatment methods and the medications used. Also, at that time in the press, I read about how new scanning techniques such as non invasive FMRI and MRI could identify physiological qualities and psychological damage inside the living brain. It perplexed me to think of seeing inside the living brain in such detail and I wondered if it might be possible to read, see thoughts or even more ambitiously identify consciousness using these new technologies. So when the opportunity to work with neuroscientists, such as Morten L Kringelbach, who has become a long standing collaborator, came about while I was ACE Helen Chadwick Fellow I found myself asking those questions and being able to discuss with the experts and access brain scanners to experiment with.
RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?
AC: For me, the lines or bridges that connect art and science lie in the commonalities of approach in terms of creativity and experimentation. Discursive, imaginative and lateral thinking seems to be vital to both specialisms.
However, I do think the intentions and resolutions are very different indeed. Scientists are trying to prove or discount their theory or hypothesis. Where as artists, generally do not want to be bounded by convention and the rational.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
AC: I am currently planning for and working towards a Royal Scottish Academy residency at An Lanntair in Stornoway in the Outer Hebredies this spring.
It is my aim to ‘map’ the interconnected geological and cultural qualities of where land and water meet on Lewis. In particular finding ways of gathering onsite data (through walking, filming, direct casting etc.) and first hand information (through archive research and discussions with local people and academic specialists). It is where land and water meet and how this has evolved through deep time that interests me most. The current visible geology and landscape allows for certain readings of time that have not been so over exposed to human intervention ie the Anthropocence. Geology can be read as a physical manifestation of how to read time and significant cosmological events, and water through its behaviour and gravitational flow, epitomises and acts as a metaphor for the course of time. I will also be making direct contact with UHI staff at Lews Castle’s and aim to talk with specialists in the Archaeology Department and spend time in the archives of the Ness Historical Society.
I will be having an associated solo exhibition at An Lanntair called SOURCE which will include existing and new work made on Lewis during this residency. The Private View is on Saturday the 25th of April and the exhibition runs until the 7th of June 2020.
Later in 2020 I will be showing new and existing work as part of a travelling international group exhibition in Australia called Upending Expectations. Conceived of before the recent bush fires, the work traces the fresh water systems from source to sea in each of the cities where the exhibition will be held. It brings yet more focus to the environmental concerns and the necessity for fresh water to maintain life. Alongside this I will show a life size edition of Capacity (glass sculpture of the human respiratory system) which is intended to make further connections of the interdependency between the land, rivers and sentient beings.
All images copyright and courtesy of Annie Cattrell