“Between the comet and the chalk”

Residency film Matt Dunkinson.pctThis short film has just been released about my time in the Observatory. It was an interesting challenge to try and condense all that has gone on there into just five minutes. I spent a morning with Matt Dunkinson and his camera, trying to imagine what the final film might look like whilst filming it: so that I could do my best to fit everything that I thought important into the morning. Well, the result looks pretty good thanks to the Matt’s skill at piecing it all together and finding those camera angles. Great fun working with you Matt, hope we have another chance some time. Now, about those birds at the beginning…

My harmonograph wall

Observatory harmonograph smMy time in the actual Observatory is now over, so the work continues back in the studio, where I have put up all the harmonograph drawings that I made at the Science Centre. Each morning in the Centre I really valued the time between 9–10am, setting this simple instrument going in the quiet before the influx of schools at ten. Back here in the studio, I now have a chance to look at them all together to see which ones I might use. In my mind there is a link between how the pendula that control the drawing interact and how the planets circling our sun influence one another: a link between the harmongraph and the Kepler Orrery. Lots to explore.

Out of the box

Observatory interior final day smToday is my last day in the Observatory. It has come to feel a little like home. My time there has initiated masses of ideas for new work, which I will now be developing over the next few months for a show in the autumn. Well, if anyone wants to know how to best light a charcoal heater on a cold morning with the wind blowing down the chimney, I’m your man! Bye Winchester!

Kepler Orrery

Observatory Kepler Orrery smA recent Horizon programme took a look at our latest understanding of how the planets circle our Sun. Away with the old idea of fixed orbits, and all those mechanical orreries that showed them nicely circling the Sun on clockwork extensions. It turns out that the planets in our solar system have been flying all over the place, with the gas giant Jupiter playing havoc with the order of things. A real paradigm shift this, not dissimilar to when the Earth stopped being flat and became a sphere. The image that left me breathless, both with its beauty but also with what it represents, is this one from the Kepler Orrery. This modern video orrery (check it out on YouTube, but do switch off the cheesy music!) shows the orbits of planets in other solar systems. Just look at the variety, and how exceptional our planetary layout really is (seen top lefthand corner). It really does make you realise, once again, that we are here by the smallest of margins. The universe has the chance to see itself through our eyes, through our consciousness, through modern wonders such as this orrery.

The colour white

Observatory blackboard smI have been wanting to experiment with chalk drawing for some time, so sitting here in the Observatory on the South Downs seems like a good time to start. Drawing with white on black can, at first, appear as if you are not drawing with colour; instead two polar opposites: positive vs. negative, light vs. dark. But just as there are two types of black in printing (single colour black, and then ‘rich black’ which is made up of all four printing colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, black), so working with white has its inflections too. CK Chesterton, creator of the priest-detective Father Brown, wrote a short essay on this, entitled ‘A Piece of Chalk’ (not to be confused (I did!) with Thomas Huxley’s ‘On a Piece of Chalk that I blogged about earlier), on how  “white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black… Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.” Morality aside, I question whether this would be the case in a colour blind world. Looking at great b&w photographs, the richness of the blacks and subtlety of the tones gives the feeling of colour; but is this like the afterimage left on the retina once you close your eyes? Could we see colour in black and white if we didn’t see colour elsewhere? What is certain is that in a colourful world chalk on blackboard offers a clarity and concentration that I really love. Thanks to Robert Krulwich for leading me to Chesterton. As it turns out, I have already been listening to his Radiolab podcasts, in particular the one on space. Worth checking out!