Elephants in the British Library
A group of second year students on the M.A. Art & Science course at Central Saint Martins, including myself, plus course director Nathan Cohen and our tutor Eleanor Crook, have mounted a group exhibition at the British Library, entitled Encounters between Art and Science . Our work is dotted around the whole building – discrete serendipitous displays as interesting and varied as the artists who have created them – the link above to the British Library site will provide an overview of my colleagues and tutors and their work.
Encounters between Art and Science is an exhibition in the public spaces in the British Library inspired by the library and its Science collections, part of the library’s Inspiring Science season of events and activities. The brainchild of Environmental Sciences Research and Engagement manager Dr. Johanna Kieniewicz, the exhibition is the result of her collaboration with our group.
The inspiration for my contribution is the collection of Medieval manuscripts that feature in the British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, Books of Beasts in the British Library: The Medieval Bestiary and its context. It is a wonderful online resource with lots of pictures and stories. I love the old histories and traveller’s tales about the world when it was an uncharted and mysterious place, and this project provided me with an excuse to delve into some of my favorites: the Histories of Herodotus, Pliny’s Natural Histories, and The travels of Sir John Mandeville. As time was short for the preparation of the artwork, I had to limit myself in my choices, but really I could happily spend months and years researching and playing with the ideas in these books, which have been so very influential in shaping the Medieval world-view, and which even to this day inspire fantasy adventure in literature and cinema.
I am particularly interested in stories about the sources of pigments, so for my large mural I decided to focus on two fascinating theories, about the origin of the pigment dragonsblood and of gold dust.
“Dragonsblood” is a real pigment that comes from the resin of Dracaena Cinnabari, an outlandish tree that grows on the island of Socotra. But medieval philosophers perpetuated the story that the rich red substance came from the mingled blood of the dragon and the elephant that soaked the earth as they battled to the death: “And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth” according to Medieval writer Bartholomew Anglicus.
I created the elephant and dragon shapes on fractal software – the shapes for the elephant’s heads are also reminiscent of the actual tree Dracaena Cinnabari. Interestingly the pigment was sometimes called Indian Cinnabar, perhaps to differentiate it from mineral cinnabar.
Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., credits the deserts of Northern India as the source of fine gold dust, where: “…lived the most warlike of Indian tribes” who risked their lives to collect the gold. “There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size – bigger than a fox, though not as big as a dog….These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps…The sand has a rich content of gold,” The warriors, who sound like Rajputs, ride out on camels to collect the golden sand during the hottest part of the day, when the heat has driven the ants underground, but then they must flee, “…for the ants…smell them and at once give chase; nothing in the world can touch these ants for speed, so not one of the Indians would get home alive, if they did not make sure of a good start while the ants were mustering their forces.”
The exhibition will be up until the 24th March, and my mural is in the basement near the cloakroom, so please do pop in and take a look if you happen to be in the area.