Earlier this year I attended a residency at Lizard Point in Cornwall, organised by Lumen Studios and Mayas Creative. The residency was for artists interested in astronomy and involved photography workshops and an introduction to the astronomy heritage of the local area. For me the site was of interest because of its remoteness and resulting dark skies. I wanted to experience natural darkness, to be able to see the stars, and explore the connection we have with this experience. This was partly inspired by reading the book The End of Night by Paul Bogard, which is about our relationship with the night sky and the effects of light pollution. The idea of darkness also relates to other research I have looked at, such as the symbolism of black in traditional Alchemy and the role darkness plays in mythos and religion.
"Learn to reverence the night and to put away the vulgar fear of it... For with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes aswell a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depths to the adventures of humanity." - Henry Beston, 1926 (from The End of Night by Paul Bogard)
Coming from London the nights at Lizard Point were dramatically darker, although the experience of being in the dark here wasn't initially what I expected as we were situated next to lighthouse. The white beam of light sweeping over the landscape had an atmospheric rhythmic effect, but it wasn't ideal for immersing in darkness. Walking a little further around the coastline out of the beam helped a lot though and my eyes soon adjusted.
Being in a very dark outside space, far from a feeling of sensory deprivation which is how we often envision darkness, I felt acutely aware of my surroundings through the sounds around me and what was visible by the natural light of the moon and stars. Being in the dark forces you to look and listen harder, to tune into your surroundings, and to try to pick out patterns.
I was strongly struck by the sight of the stars. I found that rather than looking at a static background image, the starry night sky appeared 3-dimensional and in motion. The longer I looked the more stars appear and the deeper into the cosmos I felt I was able to see. I become aware of the motion of the stars as they move across the sky, and consequently the relative motion of the planet rotating on its axis.
I had been reading about the night sky and its symbolic importance. The starry sky is our fundamental frame of perception, we can see beyond through telescopes and can infer what these specks of light are through science, but its the furthest we can really sense with our vision. In most peoples lives this view and experience is lacking, the absence of which is significant in terms of our world view and growing detachment from nature. It further pushes the idea of nature outside of our experience and affirms it as a concept, an abstract idea, of something outside our everyday lives.
During the day on the residency we took part in photography experiments and walked the coastline, learning about the heritage of Lizard Point in relation to communications and the Goonhilly observatory. Creating photograms and chemigrams was an interesting exercise as it involved directly exposing and developing photo paper, using the natural light of the day and night to create patterns and textures. I haven't done this type of photography before so this was inspiring for me.
As I wondered along the coastline I found pockets of darkness in a series of beautiful caves and in the distinctive serpentine igneous rock local to the area.
The caves articulated something about the experience of darkness that I find so compelling. They had a primal ominous quality, as a place that contains threat but also a place of refuge and ultimately seclusion and safety. This dichotomy of being both alluring and intimidating, of threat and safety exemplifies the experience of darkness I am keen to explore.
As someone who has previously studied geology I was also drawn to the dramatic dark igneous rock of the coastline. Lizard Point is famous for Serpentine rock, an igneous rock with rich dark grey, green and red veins.
I collected samples with the intention of exploring the rock in glazes back in the studio, knowing that they have a high iron content and also contained silica, which is the main component of a glaze. I had the idea of exploring this as a material in glaze testing and trying to create an interesting dark surfaces. I have started these experiments and I will be presenting my finished work at Lumen Studios in November.
This research trip gave me the opportunity to consider the experience of darkness in a way I haven't experienced before, and provided a great deal of inspiration for current projects. It was inspiring to be with a group of artists working in different mediums to me, and to consider my ideas away from the influence of my studio space.
I was very grateful to be awarded an a-n Bursary to attend this residency and to develop work in response to it. I will look forward to displaying work in November alongside the other artists who took part in the residency.