In April 2023 our two pet chickens, Arabella and Bravery, were sadly killed by a fox. To mourn their loss, I did a small action with my artwork Encyclopaedia Ball, rolling it out to the site of their run.
Encyclopaedia Ball is a long-running project to convert a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page, starting at ‘A’ and working through to ‘Z’. Occasionally, I do actions with the Ball, such as rolling it places to mark milestones in the project. This time, the Ball had reached the article on ‘head hunting’, which was grimly appropriate to contemporaneous events in the chicken coop (which left one chicken headless and the other still in possession of its head, but nevertheless dead). I glued two chicken feathers – evidence of the carnage that had taken place – onto the Ball, either side of the illustration of the famous Assyrian relief of Asshurbanipal’s victory over Elam and beheading of its king. After that I rolled the Ball out to the site of the former chicken run. (I’d already dismantled the fence of the run by this point – we’re not getting any more chickens!)
I left the Ball in the run for the rest of the day, until it would have been time to lock up the chickens for the night. It was poignant to catch sight of it during the rest of that day – I was pottering about and it kept catching my eye. Its whiteness made it stand out incongruously amidst the spring greenery of the garden, like a giant snowball. In the early evening it drizzled heavily. Later, when I rolled it back into the house, the Ball was damp and filthy with feathers, mud and chicken mess. RIP Arabella and Bravery.
This is about a collaboration I did with my friend, the illustrator Harriet Russell. It’s part of my ongoing art project Encyclopaedia Ball, which involves making a solid papier mache ball out of a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas, starting with the ‘A’ section and working through all the volumes to ‘Z’. Along the way, milestones are celebrated by parties and collaborations with other artists. When the ball reached ‘H’ for ‘Harriet’ I sent Harriet a page from the encyclopaedia with pictures of headdresses from around the world. She made a series of quirky, surreal drawings/collages using the illustrations, which I animated.
Harriet’s drawings/collages using the encyclopaedia page on head dresses.
Part of the project is to collaborate with other artists and somehow feed their work into the fabric of the Ball as it progresses. For other collaborations, I’ve stuck drawings and collages made by other artists directly onto the Ball and then covered them up with subsequent layers of papier mache. I’ve had mixed feelings about doing this. On the one hand, this was part of the deal and those artists were happy for me to do that. Their work is part of my work, even though no longer visible. On the other hand, obviously, it’s destructive. I found it very hard covering up Fumio’s drawing and Uli’s collages.
For my collaboration with Harriet I thought that I needed to do something better than just stick her artworks onto the Ball. They were too lively somehow, so I decided to animate some of them and then project the resulting film onto the ball. It would be a way of feeding them back into the project without compromising their liveliness. I’ve never made an animation before, so it was an interesting experiment for me, and a lot of fun. I used Photoshop to create the frames and Krita to compile them into a film. It would probably have been easier to use Krita for the whole process, but I wasn’t familiar enough with it. The animation is a bit jerky (12 frames per second) and the pacing isn’t perfect, but it captures the quirkiness of Harriet’s drawings, I think. I’ll definitely make more animations in future.
Animation with Harriet’s drawings/collages
I then projected the animation onto Encyclopaedia Ball and filmed it. I thought I’d have to do it in the dark, or at least in dim light, but actually it was better in full daylight. It was impossible to get an exposure that was perfect for the projection and the background (it looks like I filmed it in the dark, but it was actually quite bright). It looked a lot nicer in reality than on film, but it shows what I did.
This blog post is about my Encyclopaedia Ball collaboration with artist Uli Jaeger. Encyclopaedia Ball is my project to convert a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier-mache ball, page by page, starting with ‘A’ and working through to ‘Z’ (see my blog post about the Ball). Various milestones along the way have been the occasion for meals with friends or collaborations with other artists. Usually, these milestones are predetermined (i.e. each new letter of the alphabet), but sometimes the Ball suggests on its own what it wants celebrated. Such was the case when the Ball reached the article on Germany, and was covered with pictures of German cathedrals, mountains and factories etc. Local German friends were summoned to an impromptu celebration of Germanness, sausages, Schnitzel, Strudel and woodruff jelly. The ball was ritually painted (kind of) in the colours of the German flag*.
On the back of this, I sent Uli, a German artist living in the UK, two pages from the article on Germany for her to respond creatively to. The encyclopaedia was published roughly a decade after the Second World War, and reflects a Germany in the midst of the ‘economic miracle’. The pages I sent contain sets of plates entitled, “German handicrafts”; “Some features of interest in Germany”; “The German countryside”; and “Large industrial plants and equipment in Germany”.
Uli responded with some beautiful collages using the encyclopaedia pages and contemporary German printed materials. The most striking collage juxtaposed an image of a painting of a woman in a blue dress leaning forwards with a pensive expression on her face and with her hands crossed prominently on her knees. A little digging revealed that the painting is by Rudolf Schlichter and is in the collection of the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich – in fact Uli has collaged the cover of a magazine or brochure from the museum**. The cover has been torn, and two pieces containing the head and hands collaged onto the encyclopaedia page about handicrafts, so that a glass blower and a musical instrument maker intrude into the woman’s space. An image of the Deposition of Christ from a mystery play performance occupies the bottom right of the page.
The theme of hands emerges strongly from the collages. The hands of the woman in the Schlichter painting have a strong presence against the blue dress and brown background. They are crossed in a way that suggests tension or anxiety, the lower hand upturned and with the fingers curled inwards and the upper hand palm-down and covering the lower hand as if protectively. Other hands are also evident: the hands of the glass blower and instrument maker. On other pages Uli has collaged an image of a hand making jewellery from an advert for some kind of school and a young hand holding an elderly hand from an advert (I think) for a care home. The jewellery school advert has the words: “Deine Hände schaffen Ewigkeit” (“your hands create eternity”) and the care home advert has the name Diakoneo, the New Testament Greek verb meaning ‘to minister to’, ‘to serve’.
Another thing that interested me about Uli’s collages was their juxtaposition of things relating to two different periods of emergence from times of trauma. The only overt references to the war in the pages I sent were (I don’t know if deliberately) covered up by Uli: the Nuremberg stadium and an Autobahn (noted as built under the Nazis). Images of industry and making speak of how Germany dragged itself to prosperity by hard work. One image which struck me when I sent the pages to Uli is of a young couple placing two young children in a motorcycle sidecar. The caption says, “The motorcycle is popular with German families of moderate income, serving them in lieu of automobiles”. The motorcycle wasn’t to remain in lieu of the automobile for long. Uli has added to these images part of a leaflet from a covid test kit, speaking to a more recent time of trauma.
Hands making. Hands expressing anxiety or caring. Experience of, or emergence from, times of trauma. Times of optimism (Uli covered the Nuremberg stadium with an image of smiling young people showing off some kind of computer equipment; “Your hands create eternity”, says the jewellery ad). Uli also sent me two art postcards, both with paintings of the crucifixion of Christ, one by Gaugin and the other by Sieger Köder***. The painting by Sieger Köder depicts Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross and has four prominent hands framing the two figures, two on the bar of the cross and two round the waists of the figures. Two hands about to be pierced. Caring, supporting, making.
As agreed with Uli, I collaged her collages onto the Ball. I first added the pages of an art magazine which Uli sent (which had several more hands, mostly holding brushes) and then the collages. It felt like an odd act of healing, because Encyclopaedia Ball had recently been rolled across an area of common land in York called Hob Moor as part of the celebrations for it reaching the letter ‘H’. The Ball came back filthy and scarred, with pieces of paper hanging off. Uli’s magazine was one of the first things to be layered onto the Ball after this event and I could still feel the scars and bumps as I used my hands to smooth down the pasted pages. The magazine was colourful (unlike most of the encyclopaedia) and it felt like the Ball had been given a new life, or new clothes. My family and I traced our own hands onto the Ball around Uli’s collages and I painted them in blues similar to that of the Schlichter painting.
* I say kind of, because I accidentally put out a pot of pink paint instead of red for the ritual. No matter: before I could rectify the error, the Ball was duly painted black, yellow and pink. When I asked about it, I learned that it reflects a very German attitude of getting on with the task in hand regardless. I like the fact that some people are comfortable enough in their national skins that they can happily paint their flag the wrong colour without a murmur.
** The painting is of Helene Weigel, actress and second wife of Bertold Brecht. There is a great article (in German) about this painting and a companion portrait by Schlichter of Brecht on the Lenbachhaus website. It mentions how Schlichter’s realism originated out of the trauma of the First World War. It also talks about Brecht and Weigel’s love of cars, which were status symbols in interwar Germany. The Brecht portrait has a car in the background.
*** The postcards have now been acquisitioned into my other project Map Jacket.
On a grey day in July 2022, my family and I loaded a solid paper ball, weighing 16.5kg and with a girth of 115cm, onto an old pushchair and boarded an LNER train heading north from York. It fitted surprisingly well underneath the train table and behaved itself there, not getting many strange looks. Encyclopaedia Ball is my project to convert an entire set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page, A to Z (see my earlier post). A tradition has grown up of celebrating each new letter of the alphabet reached, involving things (usually food) and people beginning with that letter. When the ball reached ‘G’, my wife suggested the idea of taking it on a trip to Glasgow, and so I reached out to Glasgow artist duo Gardner and Gardner to see if they would like to be involved. I thought maybe we could roll the ball in Glasgow with the Gardners. It was the first time the ball had been on a jaunt like this and the first time I’d rolled it, except round the garden to see the flowers when it was covered with colour plates of flowers from the article on flowers. On that occasion, it had got covered in sap.
The following day, also grey and threatening drizzle, we pushed the ball in the pushchair up the steep hill to Glasgow School of Art, where I studied in the late 1990s. I noted with sadness that the carved stone head of Beethoven was missing from the old piano store building on Renfrew Street and that the building looked more derelict than it did when I lived in Glasgow. I’d envisaged photographing the ball beneath the massive august ball of Beethoven’s head and now wished I could think of a way of placing my ball instead on Beethoven’s still extant shoulders. The art school was also a ruin, of course, the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building having been gutted twice by fire during the past decade. It was sad to see nothing more than a scaffolding sarcophagus holding up a fragile shell which you could barely see. It reminded me of the sarcophagus they built round the burnt out reactor at Chernobyl. The site of the art school was utterly cheerless (we were outside of term time, so the other school buildings were deserted as well).
Nevertheless, we met the Gardners and our other friends beside the Vic bar and the whole group of us started the roll. It was somewhat terrifying to pose for photos with the ball in the middle of Scott Street – a street so steep that releasing the ball down it would have caused catastrophe down on Sauchiehall Street below. Peter Gardner and I did most of the rolling, with help from others. I had planned a route for us to roll the ball, but hadn’t given any thought at all to how to actually roll it. Did it need to be rolled by hand, which meant bending over all the way? That quickly got tiring and we defaulted to kicking it. Neither of us were football players. Once up the slope of Scott Street and onto the level or gentle downward slope of Hill Street it was more of a matter of shepherding it with our feet. The ball got bits of gravel embedded in it and became pock-marked, but didn’t start to disintegrate, as I’d feared. We avoided urine as best we could.
The ball admired the view at the end of Hill Street over Charing Cross, Park Circus and the M8 motorway. The slope and steps down from Garnethill to Charing Cross were negotiated (by us) backwards. Here the ball needed restraint and guidance, rather than encouragement. It cracked fallen cherry stones audibly as it rolled over them. I wondered if the drop from one step to the next would be enough to crack the paving slabs, but sadly it wasn’t. The ball made a solid thud, thud, thud. Peter and I were cautious in not allowing the ball to gain momentum – reviewing the footage it looks like we are treating it as something delicate, like teaching a child to walk. I was just scared of it rolling loose and taking somebody off their feet or bouncing onto the motorway slip road and caving in the bonnet of someone’s car. In the footage we seem overly cautious, like anxious parents.
Over the Charing Cross footbridge. Here the children with us had to be kept sustained by gingerbread men that I bought for our picnic and we nearly picked some American tourists up in our wake; if only they’d had more time. We got some good photos of the ball with traffic on the M8. The level pavement of Woodside Place was home stretch and even my son had a go. The ball was still in good nick and I was disappointed that it wasn’t dirtier. I think that rolling the ball with Peter gave focus to our walk and conversation. Each of us had a job to do keeping it from rolling off on our side and it required concentration and team work. Someone else made sure that we didn’t get run over by a silver van when we crossed Elderslie Street. The gentle slope and wide open spaces of the park allowed us to relax and I let the ball roll on ahead down the path between weedy herbaceous borders, greatly upsetting a leashed Rottweiler dog.
We picnicked near the elaborate fountain, no longer functional, which commemorates the Lord Provost who established Glasgow’s first permanent supply of fresh water. Enid Blyton style, I’m obliged to list what we partook of: gammon (aka ham); guacamole, gorgonzola, gouda, gruyere, goat’s cheese, grapes, grapefruit juice, guava juice, goji berry juice, fruit gums, gherkin (cucumber), gingerbread men, garlic crackers, gooseberry jam (which we forgot to eat), Gujarati mix, giraffe bread (aka tiger bread), Greek yoghurt. Mariuca, one of our friends, made a paper collage on the ball which included fragments of what later turned out to be a valuable edition of The Hobbit. Thus ended the Rolling of the Ball. Later in the day we posed the ball between the paws of one of the great carved lions in George Square and accidentally left our suitcase nearby, only retrieving it, miraculously and with much stress, from Glasgow City Centre Police Station, unexploded, with minutes to go before our train home. The ball was tired but (I think) happy after its day out, and slept like a dog under the train table.
The Ball between the paws of the lion in George Square.
Encyclopaedia Ball – my project to convert a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page – reached the milestone of ‘F’. Whenever I reach a new letter I have a small party, with food beginning with that letter and a guest of honour whose name begins with that letter. For ‘F’ I wanted to involve my friend from art school, the illustrator Fumio Obata. Fumio doesn’t live close to me, so I asked him to collaborate at a distance. I sent him the title page of the volume I was up (along with a hamper of ‘F’ food) to and asked him to draw on it, or just sign it. The idea was that I’d incorporate the page into the ball and ultimately cover it up with more layers of pages.
Fumio called my bluff and covered the page with a beautiful and elaborate drawing. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness doodle, with surreal monsters, feet, tentacles, eyes, mineral forms and alien shapes swirling round the title ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’. At the bottom left hand corner, with a touch of genius, Fumio has added a lone female onlooker. Fumio’s drawing gave me a dilemma – should I add it to the ball and cover it up as I told him I would? In the end I felt like it was cheating on the project and on Fumio to just keep it. The pain I felt adding the drawing to the ball would be similar to that I often feel in destroying the encyclopaedias (Encyclopaedia Ball has always been an edgy and ambivalent project for me).
The next question was how to mount the flat drawing onto the curved surface of the ball (which has a circumference of 111cm.) Usually, when I add pages to the ball, they crease and fold as they are forced round the shape, but doing that to the drawing was out of the question. Instead I decided to disassemble the drawing and reassemble it on the surface of the ball, so that the elements sprawl across it and interact with the images and text already there. The ball already had several cross sections of eyes, from the article on eyes, and a drawing of an animal called an eyra. The themes of looking and eyes seemed to connect the images on the ball with Fumio’s drawing. Fumio’s drawing has several eyed creatures, as well as the onlooking person.
I made a couple of scans of the drawings and tried different ways of cutting it up. It wasn’t easy, because of the way that the imagery and lines merged into one another. Once I found a way that I felt best honoured the individuality of the various elements in the drawing, I tried out various ways of arranging them on the ball. This was slightly easier, because connections suggested themselves, and I repeated the arrangement I was happiest with with the actual drawing. Elements of Fumio’s drawing came out of, went into, circled round, occupied, threatened and regarded the eyes and eyra on the ball. It felt sacrilegious to cut up Fumio’s drawing (I was sorely tempted to substitute a scan for the original), but I at least tried to honour it and to liberate its denizens to swirl around and interact in 3D.
Map Jacket is a jacket made from paper maps, with objects relating to walks and journeys stowed in its pockets. It is an ongoing artwork, with no final finished state in mind; it will continue to accrete and change for as long as I’m able to go out for walks. Conceptually, it will continue to change as well. I began the piece in Spring 2016. My initial idea was to make a wearable jacket out of Ordnance Survey maps, patterned on a corduroy jacket of mine, and perhaps use it in some kind of performance. It quickly became apparent that the jacket was much too fragile and inflexible to wear. I wore it once before I added the sleeves, but once the sleeves were on it became impossible to wear it without destroying it. The jacket took about three years to complete, because I abandoned it as hopeless for long periods of time. Gluing the sleeves on was particularly vexing, because paper does not stretch and form compound curves like fabric will.
Some time in 2019 I revived the piece and conceived of the idea of using it as a repository for objects found on walks. The jacket would stay at home, but conceptually travel with me. Since then, I have secreted objects in the jacket, adding a new pocket for each object, or group of objects. Some objects and natural materials are attached directly to the jacket. The objects function as mementos of particular walks or places, but most of them are artworks in their own rights, being altered from the form in which they were when found. Sometimes, things found at one place and time are combined with those found at other places and times (nothing is wasted), but each object has one principal association.
Finding things for Map Jacket is a gentle art, which I’m not sure I have come close to perfecting. It requires walking with the right sort of attentiveness. I usually bring back more things than I can use. Sometimes I make the object shortly after the walk; sometimes it takes weeks or months for an idea to form itself of what to do with the assortment of things I’ve collected. Many of the objects I make involve words – they often have words written or inscribed on them – and collecting words is also a part of my walking practice. I carry a notebook and more often write than draw (though I do both). Both practices (collecting objects and words) are about treasuring and memory.
Most of the walks commemorated in Map Jacket took place on the North York Moors, Yorkshire coast, Cheviot Hills and a small number of other places. These are the places that have been accessible to me, particularly in the years of the pandemic. They are places that I go to find solitude and often have associations with landmarks of one sort or another (churches, stone crosses, standing stones, tumuli, crossroads etc.) They are also often places where death is close to the surface, where bones lie to be picked up. The walks themselves are a kind of melancholy ritual, because they are fragments pointing to an elusive wholeness snatched from a life embedded in routines which, while not devoid of their own meaning or rewards, are nevertheless characterised by frenetic striving. I have the feeling that Map Jacket is a work that is only in its infancy and that its strength will lie in engendering inner dialogues.
This page documents the progress of Map Jacket and all of the objects in it. I’ll keep it up to date with new objects. Scroll down for images and descriptions of all the objects in Map Jacket.
Objects in Map Jacket
Main buttons, top to bottom:
Made from a plastic buoy found at the coast
Lead button from a baptismal gown
Made from a broken vehicle number plate found on Rudland Rigg 17 June 2021
Bearing roller and glass bead
Bearing roller from my car, which I picked up beside the A66 near Appleby-in-Westmorland when the back bearing collapsed on the way back from Scotland, September 2018. The RAC man took the wheel off and several slightly flattened rollers dropped out. I picked up three but lost the other two. Afterwards, I was often paranoid that it would happen again and to this day listen out for the odd sound of a collapsed bearing whenever I drive. The roller is sealed into a small map paper pouch with a small glass replica Anglo Saxon bead near the left collar of Map Jacket. The bead symbolises hope. The pouch has the word ‘ruin’ on it in two places.
Fat Betty Cross
Cross-shaped candle, modelled after the medieval moorland cross known as Fat Betty Cross, North York Moors, made from two wax tea lights found at the nearby Young Ralph Cross. Wax has earth from Howl Moor and white pigment incorporated. Contained in a small drawstring bag made from a baseball hat found beside the Lyke Wake Walk path on Wheeldale Moor.
Candles and hat found on a walk from Goathland to Rosedale Head and back, 2nd July 2019. Earth collected on Howl Moor, near Goathland on 5th July 2019.
Young Ralph Cross
Cross cut from a piece of thick rusty steel found on the road near Goathland during a circular walk which took in Lilla Howe and Goathland, 1st July 2019. Modelled after Young Ralph Cross. The shiny metal edges have dulled since it was made.
Ana Cross Jaw
Lower mandible from a sheep with the shape of Ana Cross, North York Moors, cut out of it. Mandible was found close to Ana Cross during a walk on Spaunton Moor, 5th July 2019.
Book of Spurn
Book made from materials gathered on a trip to Spurn Point, 17th August 2019. Materials are: aluminium (from a wrecked aeroplane?); painted plywood from a hoarding which was painted with waves and sea creatures; rubber from a seaman’s glove; plastic; seaweed attached to a stone. Bound with copper wire found elsewhere.
55°31’56.0″N 2°12’26.0″W and 55°35’09.7″N 1°39’44.3″W
Boat made from fragment of a blue plastic sheep feed bucket found on top of the Cheviot Hills during a figure-of-eight shaped walk starting at Town Yetholm and following sections of the Pennine Way and St Cuthbert’s Way, early September 2019. (It was found on the St. Cuthbert path close to where those two paths cross). The boat is attached to a sea-worn piece of plastic found on the beach at Seahouses, early September 2019. I was reading the Kalavala during the holiday during which both objects were found and also visited Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden, so boats were on my mind. You can see the sea from a point close to where I found the blue plastic and it is also very close to the England/Scotland border. The St. Cuthbert Way ends at the sea and also unites the two countries. Both objects were found in England.
Piece of scuffed plastic vehicle trim picked up on a linear walk along Westside Road, Rudland Rigg, 16th November 2019. I inscribed a short section of the trim with a map of the route, including contour lines and tumuli. The long piece of trim reminded me of the linear nature of the walk. I did the walk on a misty day and walking through the group of large round barrows was eerie and stayed in my mind. The tumuli are represented by small drill holes. I made the piece on the 8th April 2020.
Tees Mouth Cage
Plastic cage (possibly intended for suspending solid disinfectant inside the rim of a toilet bowl) containing a short length of barbed wire. Both objects picked up during a walk on the north bank of the Tees estuary, 16th January 2020.
Barbed wire barb found next to a freshly cut thorn hedge on Station Road, Ravenscar, during a walk along the Cinder Track from Scarborough to Robin Hood’s Bay, 7th March 2020. Contained in a series of nested pouches. The inner pouch is made from cigarette papers found left as an offering on top of Fat Betty Cross, 5th July 2019. The middle pouch is made from a recycled cashmere wrist warmer found on the Cinder Track on the same day as the barbed wire and the outer pouch is made from a cover for an equestrian helmet, also found on the same day.
Pack of RAW brand cigarette papers with topographic and farm names from Kirkdale inked onto the individual papers. The cigarette papers were picked up at Fat Betty Cross, 2nd July 2019. The names relate to a walk in Kirkdale, 14th August 2020. The pack also has some tear-off gummed paper strips, which have words gathered on my walk written on in pencil. The coordinates are those of the spot on the dry section of the Hodge Beck where I sat writing in my notebook (I may actually have written the words on the gummed paper at that point, I can’t remember. I did definitely make a couple of small drawings on cigarette papers on the spot). I inked the names on the papers in September 2020.
Sheep bone picked up on Pockley Moor during my walk in Kirkdale 14th August 2020, with words inked on it from my notebook of the day’s walk. The bone has an inked line round it half way along its length, because I intended to cut it in half and take half back to the moors. I never did this.
Third object relating to my walk in Kirkdale 14th August 2020. It is a flat stone picked up from the dry river bed near St. Gregory’s Minster. It has the name Orm engraved on it. Orm is the Anglo-Scandinavian landowner who restored St. Gregory’s Minster in the 11th century and who is commemorated in the rare Anglo-Saxon inscription above the door of the church. Orm son of Gamel is known from other historical sources and is connected to the feud discussed in Richard Fletcher’s book Bloodfeud. (Richard Fletcher lived in Kirkdale at some point in his life).
Bone for Azazel
Rabbit bone and a piece of dried melancholy thistle found on a walk on 22nd September 2020 around the top of Farndale (from Blakey Ridge carpark to the junction of the track up Rudland Rigg, along the top). They are tied together with red embroidery thread and live in a small metal tin. Piece was made in May 2021. Azazel is a demon associated with desert places in Jewish mythology. The ‘scapegoat’ mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus 16) is actually the ‘goat for Azazel’ – not an offering to appease Azazel, but a symbolic taking of the sin of the people to Azazel in the wilderness/underworld, where it belongs. The piece probably belongs back out in the wilderness, but, for now, it is in Map Jacket. It perhaps represents the melancholy holding onto of the memory of sin, rather than sin itself.
Two ends of sheep rib cut off and joined together. The ribs were found on a walk along College Valley in the Cheviots some time between 5th and 8th September 2020. The piece was made May 2021. Piece lives in the same tin as Bone for Azazel.
Cinder Track Tool and Cinder Track Object
Cinder Track Tool is three hawthorn thorns mounted in the end of a cut-off sheep’s rib, with three dried harebell flowers inserted in a hollowed out cavity in the rib. The thorns and harebells were found on a circular walk from Robin Hood’s Bay to Whitby along the Cleveland Way and then back along the Cinder Track, 8th October, 2020. The rib came from the College Valley (it’s the same rib as used in Joined Ribs). The Cinder Track is not all that far from the famous Mesolithic site of Starr Carr and Cinder Track Tool reminds me of an archaeological find of unknown purpose.
Cinder Track Object is made from four dried hawthorn berries collected on the same walk as Cinder Track Tool, set into holes in a piece of sheep’s rib found in College Valley. Both pieces were made May 2021.
Piece of ironstone with the word ‘hallelujah’ painted on it in white oil paint. I picked the stone near the Cammon Stone on Rudland Rigg. The Cammon Stone is a prehistoric standing stone and it has the word ‘hallelujah’ carved into it in Hebrew characters, reputedly by the nineteenth century clergyman Rev. W. Strickland, vicar of Ingleby. The walk was from Blakey Ridge along the top of Farndale, across to Urra Moor and then back down Rudland Rigg and finally across Farndale back to Blakey Ridge, 17th June 2021. I made the piece a few days afterwards. The stone is heavy for its size.
This is about a project I’m working on, called Encyclopaedia Ball. The project is to turn a set of 1950’s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid ball of papier mache. I thought I’d write this blog in the form of an interview with myself.
Q. How did you start on this project?
A. The ball form came first. My wife was experimenting with pulped egg cartons as a sculpting material and ended up making a series of small paper pulp balls, about the size of golf balls. I liked them. They reminded me of David Nash’s Nine Cracked Balls. I have a large stash of academic journals I originally got for making papier mache with, so I tried pulping the paper from one of them. I found it didn’t pulp well, but I started layering the pages over a core of pulp, with wall paper paste. I got the idea of continuing until I’d used the entire journal. It was a rather thick conference proceedings volume published by the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and this became the first of my ball pieces, ACM Ball. After that I made a ball out of a copy of the Bible. I kind of had a vision of a really huge paper ball, like a boulder, so using the encyclopaedias suggested itself.
Q. I understand that the encyclopaedias are a family heirloom.
A. They were bought in the 1950s by my grandfather for my father. My grandfather was worried that my father wasn’t doing well academically, and hoped the encyclopaedias would help. Naturally, my father never read them, and nor did my grandfather, who had them in his house until his death. Then my parents had them in their house for a few years and never read them. Then I got them and put them in my attic. And didn’t read them. In the 1950s, a set of encyclopaedias was the equivalent of the internet, it was where you went to answer random questions. A set of encyclopaedias can also take you on rabbit trails and open up new things to you. But it’s easy to leave them unopened on the shelf. There’s something closed, or a bit forbidding about them. The irony is that, if I’d had them as a child, I would have read them. I loved the Encyclopaedia Britannicas at school.
Q. What does your father think of you turning them into a ball?
A. He doesn’t know. He would probably think it was stupid.
Q. How do you conceptualise the project? I mean, you’re taking all of this knowledge and sort of locking it shut. Is it a comment on information overload, the burden of knowledge…?
A. I haven’t tended to conceptualise it much, but I guess there are a number of strands. My understanding of the piece has developed through the act of making it. It’s true that I’m locking information up and it could be seen as disrespectful of knowledge – like screwing it up into a big ball. There’s something precious or even sacred about the form of the book and a corresponding sense of sacrilege about destroying them. On the other hand, those encyclopaedias were locked shut for decades and I will be the only person who will ever see every single page. In a sense, I’m also opening them up. It has been heartbreaking at times, to see some of the beautiful images in there – hand drawn images and photographs – just to hide them again under layers. I started taking photos of the ball as it progressed, particularly of images and things I found interesting. That set of images is part of the work, a companion to it.
Q. There’s something performative about it, then?
A. Yes, I think so. I’m finding that more so. It’s quite a physical process. At one point, I thought it would make a nice evening project for when I’m too tired to do other work, but it’s actually hard work. It’s reached the point where I have to stand up to do it and there’s a certain choreography of how I need to move it around as I work on it. And of course, I’m seeing all of these images and reading snatches of text. I’m living through all that knowledge. It’s bringing different things into my mind as I work, changing me.
Another touchstone for this project has been Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone. This was a ball of plasticine, weighing the same as the artist, which took on the form of the environment as it was rolled and moved about. He rolled it to the gallery and it picked up imprints of grates on the street etc. My ball has a similar set of constraints – if I ever finish it, the size will be determined by the encyclopaedias – and it’s something that will continue to evolve over time. Orozco’s ball changes every time it gets handled and mine will take years, probably, to complete. I could see it being exhibited and then continued to be worked on.
I also think a lot about another of David Nash’s pieces, Wooden Boulder. Again a large ball, much bigger than mine, made of wood. It got trapped in a stream when the artist was trying to move it, and spent years being moved by the force of water down the stream, to the river and out into the sea. There’s something about the form of a rough sphere that appeals to me.
Q. How far into the project are you? You say you might not even finish it?
A. I’m up to volume 6 and I think the set has 24 volumes. So I’m about a fifth the way through. But I’ve been working on it for two years. Not constantly of course. It’s pretty boring work and I don’t know if I’ll complete it. I might just stop. It might get too big to fit through the door. I might drop it on my foot and decide enough’s enough!
Q. How big do you think it will get? Bigger than a doorway?
A. I don’t know. Probably not that big. The bigger it gets, the slower it grows, because the surface area to cover gets bigger all the time.
Q. Describe the process of making it.
A. It’s not complicated. I use wallpaper paste, like you do when you do papier mache at school. I just layer on page after page. For some reason, it tends towards being a rounded cube, rather than a sphere. I don’t know why that is – something to do with how the paper overlaps. I’ve tried various strategies to avoid it, but it doesn’t work. A mathematician could probably tell me the optimum way of doing it. I end up tearing the paper into smaller pieces in order to ‘correct’ the shape – I’m not sure if that is cheating or not, but I make the rules! I have a theory that it’ll become less of a problem the bigger it gets, because each page will cover a smaller proportion of the surface. When it was small, each page completely covered the ball. If it is a problem. I don’t know!
Q. There’s something quite aggressive about it, as an object. It’s like a wrecking ball!
A. It is! It’s fallen off the table with a crash before and it’s a wonder it didn’t break the floor. I suppose you could say it’s quite masculine, if you want. It’s quite a perverse thing to do to a book. I like heavy, solid compact things. It’s like a bomb. A knowledge bomb! It’s got all this trapped knowledge buzzing away like nuclear energy. I was also responding to the work of Jukhee Kwon, who’s work I saw in the 2018 Aesthetica Prize in York. Her work with books is very light and the books are quite literally opened up as she cuts into the pages and creates these cascades. I wanted to take the opposite path. Jukhee Kwon’s work seems to turn knowledge into spirit, whereas my balls turn it into matter.
Q. Is there also something about knowledge being a burden, or obsolete knowledge?
A. Certainly, there’s something around obsolescence. Printed encyclopaedias are obsolete things. Knowledge becomes dated – these encyclopaedias are from the 1950s and a lot of the knowledge in them will have been superseded. And so with our knowledge today. And with the internet or whatever. I worked in a bookshop for a while, and one of the things I learned was that old sets of encyclopaedias don’t have financial value. Having lots of books can be oppressive. In the Bible it says about there being no end to the making of books and with much knowledge comes much misery. Knowledge ends up forming archaeological strata and it’s only the surface you see.
Q. I believe you have a party each time you reach a new letter?
A. Yes! I started doing that. Each party involves food and drink beginning with the new letter. I’ve only done it twice, as I’m still in ‘C’ and I didn’t do ‘A’. They haven’t involved many people – just my family – but maybe I should make them into more of a thing. I like the idea of art having a social aspect. Although I’m not particularly social…!
Here are some experiments I did with a bastardised version of Japanese woodblock printing. Instead of using oil based ink, this technique uses water-based drawing ink and starch paste. The starch paste slows the drying of the ink and allows it to be printed. This was just a dipping of the toe in the water, but I might do some more. There are some great videos on YouTube of Japanese masters doing this properly; I’m just seeing if I can use it in my own way.
In the two pictures above, you can see the tools I used. In the cup is a mixture of acrylic drawing ink and starch paste (I used Japanese Jin Shofu paste, which I normally use as a paper glue). I tried various brushes, including a watercolour wash brush and a house painting brush, but I found that a large makeup brush worked best. You brush the ink on. You don’t need very much, but it’s best if it’s even. In the other picture, you can see the results. Top left: I didn’t wet the paper. Top right: paper too wet and too much ink/starch. Bottom left: still too much ink/starch and paper possibly still too wet – the block took a lot of the paper surface with it. Bottom right: better, but it still took some of the paper surface off. Might be bad paper (it was cheap paper). I printed them with a Floplast 110mm press (= a piece of 110mm soil pipe filled with concrete).
I’ve been sifting through some photos I took back in 1996 when I was at Glasgow School of Art. They came out of a project I was doing related to the Antonine Wall, the Roman construction which spanned the Forth-Clyde isthmus. I made a series of cycle trips to locations along the wall. The sequence of photos I’m presenting here are of the Erskine Bridge, which crosses the Clyde near the western end of the Antonine Wall, within sight of the fort at Old Kilpatrick. Suspension bridges have been another of my obsessions. There is somehow a connection between the miraculously thin concrete span of the bridge and the Antonine Wall, which was also a structure extruded beyond what one would think possible.
I’m using this mahl stick I made when I was a teenager out of my mum’s spare broom handle. I saw pictures of Salvador Dali using one and thought they were cool, so I whittled the broom handle so that it tapered and added the cloth end. I’ve used it lots!