Annie Cattrell: Transformation - Two Planes Meeting

Cultural historian and curator, Dr Marius Kwint, and sculptor Annie Cattrell discuss her major kinetic public artwork, Transformation, which was unveiled recently at the new Science Centre at Anglia Ruskin University Cambridge Campus (main image, figs.1&4). Cattrell’s significant ability to grasp the essence of complex fields of knowledge and to turn them into lyrically resonant sculptural forms has earned her important public art commissions in locations ranging from higher education institutions to ancient forests.

Marius Kwint: What are your feelings and thoughts about having accomplished this remarkable, large-scale and ambitious work?

Annie Cattrell: It is good to reach this stage after working on this project for Anglia Ruskin University since the summer of 2014, when I was first appointed. The installation was completed in November 2017, and since then I have been visiting and documenting it. This has allowed me to reflect upon the piece – not just on the changing light and wind intensities activating it, but on the contributions of all the people involved from staff and students at ARU, who inhabit the building, to working with you on the public engagement aspect of this project. All those involved were highly influential in developing Transformationas a concept. Working with Richard Murphy Architects, who designed the new Science Centre, was also very stimulating, and recently it has been interesting for me to watch visitors and people from Anglia Ruskin walk by and to hear their comments.

Could you identify what you regard as most significant and what you have learned from the process?

The realisation is actually both a conceptual and physical process and the management is complex, because it depends on different contributing factors in the making, and engineering problem-solving. The physical manifestation of Transformation started when I made an outdoor kinetic sculpture in 1990s for the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews. A work in which for the first time I used kinetic parts, which moved in the wind and were visually activated by natural light. This concept and mechanism had been brewing for a very long time and when the opportunity for the new Science Centre at ARU came about, with the production budget, it was possible to develop them and to finesse the engineering with specific input from the London-based firm, Other Fabrications. 

Over the years I have worked in a number of scientific institutions. For example, in 2000-1, I was the first Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI). This generated all sorts of projects and sculptural ideas including Sense(fig.2), which is now a permanent part of the Wellcome Collection. This was made using FMRI brain scans of a person experiencing the five senses – touching, smelling, tasting, hearing and seeing. The brain scan data was virtually modelled with the help of Professor Morten L Kringelbach and Drs. Mark Lythgoe and Steve Smith, then rapidly prototyped into SLA resin at the Royal College of Art, where I work. The aim was to see how the brain physiologically experiences the world from all angles and in three dimensions, in other words, via the five senses.

At the RI, I was able to see and discuss, the research methods of the scientists. I feel that these connections have come together in Transformation and the combined processes of experimentation, intuition and method were at the heart of the public engagement programme, with the exhibition and symposium, which you curated. I enjoyed further exploring these many perspectives with you and appreciated the way you invited people from different academic disciplines to talk about ideas of transformation. The symposium felt as though it were another beginning and extended the concept much further than I originally anticipated. I think there needs to be a next step, perhaps symposium number two! For a large-scale commission such as this, I needed to remain focused over time and this programme helped contribute to the momentum of the overall project. During another project while researching in the Department of Anatomy at Guy’s Hospital, I looked at corrosion casts of lungs and drew from these as a three dimensional reference. As a result of this I made Capacity which used human breath to form the molten glass, therefore the organ of air was made using air (fig.3).

This is about creative process, it is often a question of having and developing ideas over a period of time, and taking advantage of opportunities.

Yes, I find ideas take time to process and filter, many happen at different developmental stages, and sometimes concurrently. At present I have two other large commissions in progress, and also gallery and museum projects underway. It is vital to nurture the beginning, middle and end of each process in the making of artworks. This can take minutes, days or years and may be partly determined by timing, funding and relevant opportunities. The opportunities in my practice for the combination of ideas to resurface can sometimes propel a small idea into a larger project such as Transformation

You regard it as a sculpture, and you identify with the discipline of sculpture, so what is sculptural about it?

One of the challenges of this commission was to find a place for it. The 45 degree right angle of the projecting corner in the building felt to me like two planes meeting. Although the work is quite thin physically, it reinforces the sense of three-dimensionality – making the volume of the building more pronounced. One of the faces of the building has a northerly aspect and the other a westerly. The wind and natural ambient light activate the work and give it a ceaselessly changing quality. I like to imagine that even in the middle of the night Transformation will be moving and responding to moonlight, security lights and the wind. This reminds me of my previous work using the traces of sunlight as in Aperture and Conditionsreferencing cloud and water formations, the only difference being that Transformation is now using the elements to activate it.

The two ‘moving’ planes also now make the building appear to be in a state of flux, in transition from one state to another – effectively questioning what is solid and what is not. The grid-like digital appearance also appears to hover somewhere between Cartesian, diagrammatic ‘space’ and a physical reality. I think it has an implicit conceptual underpinning to do with the way we measure, understand and experience the world. Some viewers have said that it looks digitised, which I find interesting. I often work from analogue to digital and back to analogue when making sculptural work. More recently I have done this with films and drawings.

The idea of the mosaic is quite current, because it is used as an analogy for methods of display, in digital technology and also for how we perceive things, because our brains, retinal neurons and so on, are made up of individual cells. How relevant are these ideas?

Like the brain, Transformation is made up of a finite number of individual components, and yet has infinite permutations. At first glance, it looks like two massive digital screens. The colour gradation and movement of the thousands of anodised aluminium squares means that the work will never behave or appear the same at any two moments – the patterns you see will always be unique. It should change in every season because of the trajectory of the sun and the seasonal wind conditions. One of the aims in the design of the new Science Centre was for visitors and users to ‘see science in action’. Therefore, to create a commission where its essence is at all times in a state of change seemed entirely relevant. The labs are designed to be highly visible and the building appears to be partly transparent. Process and method are visible at all times.

How does it relate to your other commissions, for example at the Biochemistry Building at the University of Oxford, at Oxford Brookes University, and at the Forest of Dean Sculpture Park?

Flux, mutability and transformation in combination with the empirical or rational have been conceptual points of reference in other large-scale sculptural commissions that I have completed. I made Resounding for the atrium of the new John Henry Brookes Building at Oxford Brookes University’s Headington Campus (fig.7), and 0 to 10,000,000 for the new Biochemistry Laboratory in Oxford University (fig.5). 

The Biochemistry Building was designed by architects Hawkins Brown and the lead artist was Nicky Hirst for that development. Artists Tim Head and Peter Fraser were also commissioned. I worked with Professor Jonathan Hodgkin, in biochemistry, his main research was on the life cycles of nematodes, a kind of worm. My idea was digitally to scan two stuffed birds, one a seagull and the other a troupial. With this data I digitally manipulated the scans so that the birds appeared to be fighting together or copulating. The digital models were then rapidly prototyped and cast into a spectrum of colours, which referenced heat intensities, i.e. from blue as cold to fluorescent red as hot. The 156 suspended bird cast variations acted as a metaphor for particles in their most fluid active state, transforming from one state to another such as in a plasma.

At the same time, I was commissioned to make Echo for the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail (fig.6). This was the first time I had made a permanent sculpture to be sited outside and in a forest. It was a challenge to consider how to make something that would withstand comparison with the natural surroundings. After considerable time researching the mining and cultural history of the Forest of Dean, I decided to Lydar scan an area known as Kensley Quarry. My aim was to gather 3D data of the whole area including the sky above, and then use these to CNC (Computer Numerical Control machine) a sculpture for that site. But what actually happened was that being able to rotate the 3D data of the 360 degree scanned space on my computer in London gave me the further idea to cast the Quarry directly, and then take a negative cast from that cast.

6. Annie Cattrell, Echo, resin and aluminium cast of surface of 310,000,000 year old quarry face 183×396×61cm., Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, Gloucestershire (photo: Annie Cattrell)

Echois now situated within visual proximity of where the original cast was taken. It appears as an extrusion from the quarry face and also references the quality of a silver gelatine print.Echois a visual, three-dimensional echo of the 310 million-year old Pennant Sandstone, which once would have been situated on the Mediterranean when it was part of the supercontinent of Pangaea.

Does that geological, deep time theme emerge in any works that you are currently making or planning?

Yes. Another work that I’m currently making is called Seer, this will be installed on the banks of the River Ness in Inverness in the summer of 2018. In 2017, I cast the two geological rock formations on either side of Loch Ness, namely the North West Highlands and Grampian Mountains. These are two very different and distinct geological formations that are on the opposite edges of the Great Fault, which runs from Fort William to Inverness. The two casts will be positioned, so that the viewer can touch either side and stand between the fault, making a human bridge or connection between two tectonic plates. Historically, the Adder stone or Druids’ glass (a circular natural stone with a hole in the middle of it) has been believed to have magical powers. It was thought that the person looking into the hole or aperture of the stone might see a vision of the future. This tradition has also formed part of the configuration and siting of Seer.

It seems that your ongoing challenge is to find eloquent and poetically economical ways of representing your fascination with change, movement and flux and you often discover beautifully inchoate forms in doing so.

Yes, Resounding at Oxford Brookes University (fig.7), was made for the viewer to stand beneath and therefore make a conceptual and physical connection between the sculpture and its acoustic and material surrounds. The viewer is effectively inside it or looking onto it. Resounding is made of over 300 digitally modelled solid resin meniscus droplets and ripples that are suspended in space.

They ‘map’ the air space and create hypothetical edges to something that by its nature is in flow and transformation, i.e. water and sound. I worked with Steve Haines, who helps me fabricate large-scale public art commissions, to realise this project. When we installed the work, there were lots of interesting tweets about space ships landing and so on. More seriously, though, when the building was officially opened, Baroness Helena Kennedy, former Vice-Chancellor of Brookes University, referencedResoundingin her speech, highlighting the significance of its conceptual and physical metaphor in the context of a university learning environment and its potential to have an impact on the wider world.

That is gratifying, and deservedly so. What are your future plans?

At the moment I am lead artist for the redevelopment of the New Museum Site in Cambridge University and will be installing a new permanent artwork there in the autumn of 2018. My work is located in part of the Old Cavendish Buildings near the Examination Halls. Historically, this place has facilitated researchers who won many Nobel Prizes. I’m particularly referencing the Wilson Cloud Chamber, which is an apparatus that made visible and evidenced atomic particle trails and was a precursor to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I have a number of other projects including making a time-based work for ‘Spellbound’, an exhibition about magic for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which opens in September 2018.

Main image: Annie Cattrell, Transformation, Anglia Ruskin University Science Centre at Cambridge (photo: Annie Cattrell)

Aurora Corio