The artist is represented by The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1S 2JT, www.faslondon.com, and by Waterhouse and Dodd, 26 Cork Street, London W1S 3ND until August, 2013, www.waterhousedodd.com
Forthcoming exhibition: Group show, ‘Carving in Britain: From 1910 to Now,’ Nov 30 to Jan 12, at The Fine Art Society
I have always loved maps. The process of investigating and visualising topographies, natural forms and landscapes, and then producing them in a form which captures their essence is endlessly fascinating and satisfying. This desire to ‘map’ is at the core of my work, whether it be the internal architecture of the human head or the physical geography of the planet. Peeling back the layers to expose the hidden natural world is a recurring theme, in this context I have appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to work with scientists in every conceivable discipline, from radiologists and botanists, to engineers specialising in bio-fluidics, to dust-mite and spider experts, veterinary scientists, paediatric dentists and specialists in ancient Egyptian dyes.
These collaborations have been essential to the two key themes I have explored so far – the human form beneath its outer surface, and the changing face of the planet. With reference to the latter, my most challenging work to date has been the realization of Ghost Forest, an installation of ten mighty rainforest trees which I brought to Europe from Africa. The trees have been shown in Trafalgar Square in London; outside the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen; on the lawn of the Pitt Rivers and Museum of Natural History in Oxford; and it is now in the National Botanic Garden of Wales (www.gardenofwales.org.uk). The Ghost Forest can be seen on the dedicated website www.ghostforest.org.
The inspiration for the former came from an exhibit in Oxford’s History of Science Museum, constructed by the Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hodgkin in the mid 1940s. She drew the electron density contour images of the penicillin molecule on horizontal sheets of Perspex.
I developed this concept by drawing or engraving details from MRI and CT scans onto multiple sheets of glass, thereby layer by layer recreating human and animal forms, in particular the brain. The finished pieces, presented in three dimensions in a vertical plane, reveal the extraordinary inner anatomical architecture concealed beneath the surface, thus creating the most objective form of portraiture. The image floats ethereally in its glass chamber, but can only be viewed from certain angles – from above and from the side the image vanishes and the viewer sees only a void.
I have used this technique to produce portraits of myself as well as of others, most recently the novelist Robert Harris, who asked if he could bestow my work on a character in his latest novel The Fear Index (September 29th 2011). Of course, I readily agreed. I have also created images of animals, such as horses’ heads, in the same way.
Another recent project involved a 2000-year-old Egyptian child mummy in the collection of the AshmoleanMuseum in Oxford. Little was known of the child, who was presented to the museum in 1888 after being removed from its burial site in the Faiyum in Egypt by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie. In order to recreate the child without disturbing its bandages, I organized for the child to undergo over 2,500 CT scans at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. These were performed by one of the world’s leading radiologists, Dr Stephen Golding and his team. The doctors revealed the child to be a boy and declared pneumonia as the probable cause of death due to a thickening of his lung. He was also found to have dysplasia of the hip, suggesting he almost certainly had a pronounced limp. Scans of his teeth were also analysed by Oxford orthodontist Lars Christensen, who established the child was around two years old. This was confirmed by Dr Mary Lewis, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Reading. Dr Christensen also discovered the child was ‘rather special’ as he was missing his two front side teeth – an occurrence in only 0.4per cent of children born today.
The recreation of the child on 111 sheets of glass was unveiled as part of the Ashmolean’s permanent collection when it reopened its new Egyptian Galleries. The glass sculpture lies in a special case next to the actual boy himself.
An exhibition of my work associated with this project was also shown in the Ashmolean’s Cast Gallery in 2011. It can now be seen by appointment at Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Department on South Parks Road. The exhibition includes a film made during my visit to the child’s burial site in the Faiyum in Egypt; casts I commissioned of the child’s skull and his toes; linen bales dyed using ancient methods particular to the Faiyum; and sand I brought in my water bottle to ‘reunite’ the child with his homeland.
This link between natural inner forms and a focus on place and physical geography has inspired the second key theme of my work – the changing face of the planet. Based on a journey to the most and least polluted places in the world, respectively the coal mining province of China and the northern tip of Tasmania, I created an installation entitled Breathing In. This formed my final show at The Royal College of Art and was later exhibited at the Wellcome Collection. My other major work in this area is Ghost Forest (see above and www.ghostforest.org)