Dust and Shadows in New York

The High Line, once a suspended railway link running through the industrial Meat Packing District of new York and now a beautiful promenade park.


April 2012

My piece “Dust and Shadows” made in association with Oxford University Museum to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, was selected for “Swept Away – Dust, Dirt and Ashes in Contemporary Art” at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. It consists of a rusted steel document cabinet containing rusted tins painted with the images of moth species which are now extinct in the British Isles. They are painted in different coloured ashes with drop shadows made with candle smoke. It took two years to make.


Dust and Shadows 1


The idea came initially from a 2006 report from Butterfly Conservation which highlighted the frightening decline in the British moth population and the extinction of over 60 species during the past century. The problems are complex and interlocking but habitat loss due to the indusrtialisation of agriculture is the major cause. Another source was the Poulton Collection of moths and butterflies in Oxford. Poulton was a Victorian entomologist and early supporter of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As Hope Professor at Oxford he accumulated a large collection of specimens sent to him by contacts throughout the British Empire. As the husband of the heir to the Huntley and Palmer Biscuit Company he had a ready supply of biscuit tins in which to keep his collection and that is where they stayed until the 1990’s when it was decided to clean up the department’s offices and the tins were emptied into plastic containers to await identification and cataloguing.


Poulton Tins


Sadly most of the tins were thrown away and only a few a remain intact. They contained ‘papered’ specimens, moths and butterflies pressed and wrapped in newspaper. Over the years some had crumbled to dust leaving behind a stained impression on the paper, a death mask print, a shadow of their former selves.





The museum on Columbus Circus is impressive with galleries on five floors and a fantastic rooftop restaurant with spectacular views over Central Park. It was strange to see the cabinet lost in the greatest city on earth but reassuring to know that it was safe and well cared for at the museum. Curator David McFadden asked me speak to a party of VIP’s about the work and critic Ken Johnson writing in the New York Times described it as “the show’s most conceptually intriguing piece”, which I think is meant to be a compliment.



I saw a huge quantity and variety of art while in the city – from modern and contemporary at MOMA and in Chelsea to ancient and traditional at the Met. My highlights were mostly new discoveries and one revisit, all linked by a spirit of quiet contemplation which I suppose was partly a reaction against hype and crushing crowds. It is perhaps no real surprise that all of my new favourites are of Asian origin.



“Chaos” by Yoon Kuang Cho seen at the Met, a contemporary Korean potter whose piece was shown alongside prime examples of ancient Korean ceramics emphasising the artist’s deep respect and profound knowledge of his tradition. He lives in a mountainous region of South Korea which heavily influences the shapes of his pieces and his free and spontaneous methods of decoration. (www.ceramicart.com.au/yoonkwangch.shtml)



The Rubin Museum of Art on 7th Avenue West 17th Street which specialises in the arts of the Himalayan region and a haven of peace in the busy Chelsea district. Casting the Divine, a floor dedicated to sculptural artefacts from the region which opened in March, is perfectly presented and contains some beautiful objects all in cast metal.



“Wood” by Hu Xiaoyan seen at the New Museum at 235 Bowery as part of “The Ungovernables” triennial show. Hu Xiaoyan is one of the new generation of Chinese artists making a name for themselves in the West,  basing her work on her life in Beijing. She, like Korean Yoon Yuang-Cho, also refers to her creative roots whilst acknowledging western contemporary approaches. In this work, 34 pieces of timber found on the streets of Beijing are first covered in silk and the complex patterns of woodgrain drawn in pine ash ink through the semi-transparent material. The timbers are then painted in a layer of white lacquer and the silk re-stretched over the top. The effect is of of ghost trees, indeed Hu Xiaoyan speaks of a tree which once stood on the site of her newly built house, now felled, never to be replaced. a poetic metaphor for the raging redevelopment of her city.

I re-encountered another ghost, an under-rated Vermeer which had stopped me in my tracks on my last visit to New York.



The Metropolitan Museum holds four Vermeers but this early work is believed to have been over-cleaned, exposing some of the under-painting and attendant adjustments. Vermeer’s use of  lenses to trace composition and fix the fall of light is now readily accepted but is still startling when you come across it unexpectedly. This is a 17th century photograph where the the camera lens has captured the weak northern light, diffusing edges, creating pearly highlights and grim-grey shadows. The colour gives only a hint of Vermeer’s favoured blue/yellow combination set right back into monotone, a muted tint found in the deteriorated snap-shots of 1970’s photo albums. There is something vaguely unsettling about the girl, actually ‘vague’ is an apt word. She is vague, vacant even, an uneasy presence in the room, perhaps an early study of psychological disturbance. I re-photographed her face to try to get closer, to see the mystery up close, and a miss-calculation of the auto-focus produced an eery insight, a dusty shadow.









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