2A Earth Core:
The Hominin Project
The theme of these seminars: Material Thinking, made me reflect on a recent project I produced: 2A Earth Core the Hominin Project, which brought me up close to engagement with the stuff of the world, the mud or earth itself, and our enquiry into what knowledge it might contain for us, both scientifically and artistically.
An issue that I’m interested in is ‘How can artists use, translate, re-imagine science imagery and material? Science provides access to remarkable images of our world; contemporary technology is bringing us astounding perception beyond our faculties, also into distant past, into micro as well as macro-worlds: but how can artists use the findings from science in art?
I wanted to make art from scientific material, but somehow transform it into that sphere of culture that we call art.
I became involved in an Art and Science collaboration with The Hominin Sites and Paeleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP), researching the dried salt lake of Chew Bahir in Southern Ethiopia, close to the Omo valley, one of the earliest Homo sapiens fossil sites.
HSPDP is an international science team whose research is focused on understanding the environmental context of early hominin evolution. These mud loggers, as they’re sometimes called, extract cores from deep beneath the dried lake surface, revealing environments of the past through sediments…rather like ice cores reveal past atmospheres.
The sediments of Chew Bahir, a playa lake in the south Ethiopian Rift, might be dismissed as merely mud, but even mud has worthwhile qualities, both scientific and aesthetic. It has colours, texture, and structure; its surface takes on intricate, fractal forms as it dries in the sun; sinuous channels and bars retain a memory of its deposition. Over many millennia, forming deep accumulations, the changing composition of the sediments tells us of past environments, of droughts and floods in a varying landscape inhabited by our human ancestors.
From the dried lake the team extracted two earth cores: 2A and 2B. Each represented 600,000 years of the earth history, during which early humans evolved both biologically and culturally, in part driven by the vicissitudes of an ever-changing climate.
Given a moment’s reflection, core samples are really quite remarkable. Long cores of sediment taken from the former lake bed can be read like a book, to provide insight into the history of the Earth.
A colleague I worked with closely was Dr Verena E. Foerster, a environmental scientist / palaeoecologist at Cologne University and we had fantastic conversations about the cores as she knew each one in remarkable detail.
It’s interesting how scientists and artists view the same material: both need to observe the particular characteristics, of say the colour range or the texture, but to different ends. One recording it in data, the other seeing its aesthetics without knowledge of the chemical or mineral properties. Both absorbed in the scrutiny, both looking for meaning, but intent on outcomes that would find expression in different contexts.
The depth of the core 2A represents some half a million years of earth history: the entire record of modern Homo sapiens on the planet.
I sequenced and animated hundreds of high-resolution images of cores from the entire length of 2A, linking the individual core images into one continuous film.
The resultant film became 24 hours long: a fact that seemed appropriate: a full day to articulate the history of hominin species on earth.
In a sense, it’s a confrontation with time as material.
Material from core 2B
This came about through the offer from HSPDP of ‘unwanted’ sediment from the bottom of the core 2B. This material was designated as unsuitable for analysis as its precise location in the core column could not be absolutely verified, but estimated to be some half a million years old.
Collaboratively, myself, Professor Henry Lamb and Professor Helen Roberts from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, developed the idea of recreating a small section of lakebed surface in the gallery.
Mixing the cores of material in the gallery involved the scientists and their children, the curator and staff of the Arts Centre, all getting involved in mixing the mud.
Once made into slurry in which all the particles were in suspension, the material was left to dry. Photographic studio lamps were placed over the tank to increase the evaporation rate. After seven days the sediment began to crack and the drying process continued during the course of the exhibition.
The work makes me think about the creative process and its relationship with material in a few ways.
Remaking a lakebed surface with material laid down half a million years ago provided a physical manifestation of a place from the past in the here and now.
It suggests notions of time and its relativity; it asks us to consider questions of where we come from.
Equally, it mimicked the original environmental conditions and brings to mind parts of the world where climate change is impacting today; of the desertification caused by excessive evaporation and land mismanagement.
It was great to co-create with scientists and see our different expectations, knowledge and understanding focus on this most basic of materials, the mud.
The mud effectively changed in value and meaning depending on context: either in a lab or in a gallery.
The process of the mud drying was interesting to observe. We set up the conditions and then saw what happened….it was always going to crack as it dried, but in what pattern? Seeing it take place was fascinating. Despite the mud’s apparently inert character, the conditions drew attention to the material transformation, to the process of change.