Sunday, 1 November 2009

A Change in the Season

On the day that we left Kaunas, the clocks changed, and we felt that the city was slipping from autumn into winter - from the glorious golden the wonderfully melancholic dusky early winter hues...

Friday, 30 October 2009


Here is a link to the movie of the piece on youtube:

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

For me, this image summarizes the project - the feel of the birch trees, caught and preserved behind glass, with a view glimpsed beyond. Of course, to really experience the work, you have to stand in the space, and watch the shadows flit and flicker...

Monday, 26 October 2009

Blinking in the daylight

Peter has uploaded lots of dramatic images from the opening night of 'Chasing Shadows', with all the dark mystery and drama of the piece. Now I am adding a couple of much more prosaic bright lit ones, just to add a sense of views through the birch trees to the herd beyond.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The show went up

First photos of the show on opening night.

nothing but blue skies

Arrived in Kaunas on monday to blue skies but five degrees less heat. hats and scarves please. Lovely autumn colours on show.

But that was my only taste of daylight for the last few days as we got round to hanging the work in the trophy room at the museum. All the crates had arrived safely from Dublin. The first job was to get the ceiling lights colour wrapped and then to start laying out the trees across the ceiling grid. Here you can see Lukas on tree no 12....
...And here they are, all up and quick test fire of the power to make sure they are all working.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Diorama Dramas

I have always been fascinated by museum dioramas - those wonderful minature worlds of skewed perspective... dramatic moments caught for perpetuity behind glass. The Ivanauskas museum has some fine examples:

In a way, this is what we are doing with our piece - putting the animals into context.

I have been looking at birch trees a lot recently, working on the burning and markmaking. In his Flora Britannica, Richard maybe dscribes them as a pioneering species - I like the term.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Fun with a soldering iron

So down to the nitty gritty and for the past few weeks Eleanor has been burning patterns into paper and experimenting with burning effects
And then getting down to the solid work of churning out 66 of these trees. This took almost two weeks and about 100 burns from the soldering iron

One of the trees held up under a tungsten light source in the studio to give an idea of the effect:
It was then my job to take these papers out to Emcon in Dublin and load them up into the perspex rods that would protect them and give them form. A photo here before the fiddly job of getting them in the tubes:

Here is one I prepared earlier:
Here are some more I prepared in their little protective sleeves. It was at about tube no 30 I begin to realise the scale of the task ahead.
A view down inside one of the trees:

Once this job was done we fired up the LEDs in the tubes to test for any failures and to burn them in for a few days to catch any early board failures. Whilst I had been filling the tubes, the lads at Emcon had been building the control system and wiring and soldering all the LEDs and really pulling out all the stops to make this piece as easy to assemble at the other end as possible.

The guys at Emcon were able to hang them from the their cable supports and we could start putting some of the moving light programming through the system and getting a sense of what it was going to look like:
I then came to London last week and Peter Barry had rigged up a remote webcam and web link to the programming computer to allow me remote access to program the lighting effects at my leisure:

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

66 trees in the forest

Eleanor went out to Kaunas in 2007 for the last Biennal and had worked up some delicate line drawings of the animals at the museum at the time.

She had also been looking at the traditional paper cut winter decorations that you can see all over Lithuania on the run up to Christmas. They are called Karpiniai and are put up in the windows to cast beautiful shadows and silhouettes. Here is one from the windows of the primary school that is opposite the museum:

When we started working up ideas earlier this year, we had wanted to pick up on some of the translucent qualities of the karpiniai. Eleanor started playing with some of the drawings and putting pinpricks and stitch holes through the pattern to let light through:

We decided to look at putting artificial light in behind these pieces. We built some very simple paper lanterns with the animal images burnt and pinpricked into the surface and a white LED source in the base:

Up until our visit to Kaunas in the summer we thought these 'snow lanterns' would be the basis for the design with drawings of the animals on the faces of the paper. We had put together a visual of these lanterns across the floor of the space with the idea of using these like a broken up screen spread across the floor:

What we quickly realised, however, once we went back to the museum, was that these lanterns, that might be at most 300mm high. would just get lost in the trophy room space. The museum had kindly allowed us to use the whole space and it just felt the piece at this scale might feel a little lost. The animal drawings, whilst very beatiful and delicate, would just not stand out enough with the LED lights on behind and with the light moving around behind them. We were also wondering if this would be a case of 'oh wow but so what' - why did this have to go in the museum or the trophy room, what if anything were we trying to say with these nice drawings or with the moving LED light?

We spent most of the week in Kaunas, working through possibilities in our heads and fretting about what we were trying to create. Luckily we are both expert fretters. The piece wanted to be about the ideas of confinement and longing for escape - emotions that you cannot help but ponder on as you walk around the museum, even though you know this is just an anthropomorhic reflex to the animals in their glass cases. There was also a strong theme about the idefinability of things, of things not always being what they seem - the exhibits are actually hollow fibre glass for one thing, but also how we are seeing Kaunas and Lithuania as visitors and tourists ourselves; We had come with our own assumptions and generalisations, interpreting everything we saw the way we wanted to see it, but aware that this was just another construct that could be way off the mark.

We pared our ideas back and what we ended up with was the very simple symbol of the forest. It is a place of solitude and sanctuary and also of the mystical. In Jungian symbology it is a representation of the conscious and unconscious mind. Like the mind it can also be full of monsters and demons and the unknown. Being English it also represented the dark, enchanting and forbidding forests of Central Europe, the land from whence the the barbarians descended upon Rome, but of which we have so little experience in our decidedly deciduous arable country. The Forest was also the site of some of the terrible murders and atrocities of the second world war and the soviet years - the history of which events particularly resonated for us on our visit to Kaunas.

What we decided to do was bring the forest back in to the museum for the animals. It would be a forest of glowing paper trees, hung from the ceiling and on a large enough scale to create a proper glade. Eleanor started playing with burning effects on tracing paper to create the look of birch bark and we put LED lighting up through these cylinders to see how it looked:

The lighting would transmit up a tube like this for over a metre. These 'trees' could then be hung in the trophy room from the ceiling, each sealed into a perspex tube like the taxidermy exhibits themselves behind their glass cases. We put a visual together to give an ideas of what this would look like:

Thursday, 24 September 2009

There's something in the cellar

On our visit in the summer we were lucky enough to go down into the bowels of the museum building, down in to the basement, where the taxidermy division is based. A little bit of back ground information here - the modern museum was built in the 1970's on the site of what had been the main jewish bank in Kaunas. This building sat oppostite the main synagagogue on one side and the main pedestrianised boulevard of the city, Laisves Aleja, on the other. Before the second world war, over a third of Kaunas's population was Jewish, and by the end of the conflict, they had all but been liquidated. Most of the survivors owe their lives to the work of two diplomats , Jan Zwartendijk who was the dutch consul (and Phillips Lighting rep in Lithuania) and Chiune Sugihahra who was the Japanese Consul. In the summer of 1940 they signed over 6,000 transit visas to get jews out of then soviet territory and out to safety through Japan. It was a remarkable act, especially for a japanese official of the time. When asked many years later why he had acted in defiance of his official orders and risked his career to save other people, he quoted an old samurai saying: "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge."

The old synagogue in Kaunas - the only synagogue still remaining in the town, I think.

Anyway, slightly digressing, but the musem sits on the site of the old bank which also housed a shopping arcade and from what I can understand was quite a focus of jewish life in the city. Here is a photo of the building as it used to look:

All that is left of this now are the old bank vaults which are the stores and taxidermy section for the museum. Lukas took us down to meet the staff down there and given the local history of the space it all felt very...atmospheric:

The taxidermists are an amazing powerhouse down underneath the museum proper. They are incredibly skilled at what they do; they can work for years on some of the bigger pieces, reconstructing the muscle and sinews on a skeleton in clay and then making a cast of this and re-stretching the skin over the top. These are skills passed down from master to apprentice - a macabre apostolic succession.

What struck me was the physical lack of 'animal' after the process was finished. You can just see one of the castings, the head of an antelope, to the left of the sprinbok on the wall (no corrections please). It really is just the skin, artfully pulled over the fibre glass. From this strange, translucent core, the ghost of the original animal, long since dead, you can create something that looks so lifelike in its glass cases. In most instances looking so real that you can feel a decided sadness to see them in the main halls of the museum, and yet the life is long gone from them.