Tuesday, 17 May 2011

There's definitely something fishy going on...

As the title to this post suggests, over the past couple of months something very fishy has been going on in my life.   It began when I was given a new assignment (AD205) with the following brief:

To fulfil the brief, I needed to find a location to make a ‘site-specific’ art work. 
I’ve always been utterly fascinated by aquariums.  Harv and I have spent many happy hours watching the fish and other marine life at The Deep (http://www.thedeep.co.uk/) and Blue Reef (http://www.bluereefaquarium.co.uk/tynemouth.htm) and often hunt out the local aquariums when we’re travelling abroad.  We visited this one on a visit to Lisbon: http://www.golisbon.com/sight-seeing/oceanarium.html .  So it came to me in a sudden flash of inspiration, that my ‘site’ should be an aquarium of some sort!  The obvious choice was Blue Reef because it is relatively close to where I live. 

Blue Reef is located on the beautiful Northumberland coast at Tynemouth:

The aquarium’s close proximity to the sea means that it is easy to ensure a regular natural flow of seawater through the vast marine tanks that provide a home to the seals and other marine life and, as I learnt later, there are various pumps and pipework that take the water directly from the sea into the facility.
Once I’d made my decision about the ‘site’ I started doing some drawings. I have done many many sketches during this project… they are all over the house on scraps of paper - everywhere! These are my first ones though:

These pictures demonstrate a real problem that I have with my ceramics degree work.  I can’t draw!  When I do draw, I tend to end up with rather grotesque impressions of the refined and elegant ideas that are actually in my head.  I did discover that I had a friend in Microsoft Powerpoint though. Powerpoint in Office 2010 allows you to add ‘artistic effects’ to Powerpoint images, and I found that I could use these to make my drawings appear a little better.  For example, to give them the appearance of having been drawn with charcoal, which takes away some of the sharp pencil lines…

Armed with a handful of drawings and a lot of ideas, I headed off to Tyneside on Tuesday, 29th March to speak with the Zoological Manager at Blue Reef, Chris Horn.  Chris  had agreed to meet with me at 10 o’clock and, as I was a bit early, I strolled along the beach and promenade soaking up the atmosphere of the location.  It was a really beautiful day and I felt so grateful to be able to  be outside enjoying it rather than sitting behind a desk talking to my computer. 

Whilst waiting outside I got chatting to other folk who were waiting for Blue Reef to open, one of whom was a ‘bouncy castle repair man’ - of all things.  He was also meeting with Chris Horn at 10 o’clock and had come to safety-test the bouncy castle which was being erected outside the site for visitors during the school half-term holidays.  I mention this because it’s not something you really think of as being part of a zoological manager’s job – liaising with a bouncing castle repair man!  However, as I came to realise, Chris Horn is not your typical zoological manager: he really does seem to do a million things in his working day and appears to be one of the (if not the) lynch pins of the site.
As instructed by the Reception staff, I and ‘Mr Bouncy’ sat down in Blue Reef’s café to wait for Chris.  Chris arrived like a whirlwind with various people shouting his name from different corners, and he making hurried replies giving advice and instructions.  He quickly dispatched Mr Bouncy in the direction of his castle, and then sat down to chat to me.  I was really delighted with his enthusiasm for my project, and although he was clearly extremely busy, he gave me a considerable amount of his undivided attention, taking me on a tour of the whole facility and pointing out a stack of things I’d never noticed on numerous previous visits.  He liked my drawings, saying only that, whatever I made, he would prefer to have art works that fitted into the ‘natural environments' that Blue Reef strives so hard to maintain. 
Chris is very used to dealing with the folk from the education sector – it is part of the Blue Reef remit to form strong bonds with the community and part of this is in working with schools and higher education.  He was telling me, also,  that a large number of marine sciences graduates take their first jobs at Blue Reef.  What a great start for them!

Chris is extremely knowledgeable on all aspects of aquarium management – he really does have a hand in it all:  selection and care of the hundreds of species of fish and animals and other aquarium life forms, designing and building the environments, scientific analysis of environments and water quality, maintenance, repairs, staff management, engaging with the public (such as me!), events management, press releases…  it goes on.  He’s a Jack of all trades and Master of a good many of them to boot.  A man with a lot of energy!
Chris and friends in the Amazonian monkey enclosure
During the tour of Blue Reef, I was surprised to see that there are already many, many ‘art works’ in the tanks! It is very odd: I’ve visited Blue Reef lots of times but I’ve never noticed them before.  I suppose, like many visitors, I have concentrated exclusively on looking at the fish and corals and plants; and have taken the backgrounds and environments for granted.  Going around the site with Chris though, I realised that I’d missed a lot. The amazing thing about many of the environments at Blue Reef is that Chris and his staff have created them themselves - from scratch – using chicken-wire, wooden frames, plaster, etc!  None of these folk are officially ‘artists’ or ‘sculptors’ but they’ve cast endless - very realistic - reefs and rocks from plaster, and expertly painted on algae and  the signs of weathered ‘decay’. 

painted on green 'algae' around the seal tank

rocks made of plaster
Okay, they do get help from ‘real artists’ in painting the amazing background scenery, such as that found in the cold water tank room at the start of the tour, and in the new Amazon rain forest enclosures, but there is an awful lot of DIY going on at Blue Reef behind the scenes!

Chris eventually got called off to deal with another issue and left me to wander around the aquarium.  I took lots of photos of the different tanks and other environments. Before leaving I sat back down in the café and made some notes about my visit and drank one of the most luxurious hot chocolates in the world (if you visit, check out their café before you leave!).

I’ve kept saying that, for this college module, I’ve needed to ‘think like a fish’. To be honest, for me, that isn’t difficult :-) Seriously though, there are so many different types of fish, each with their own character, behaviour and environmental preferences and although I had already decided that I wanted to make objects that looked like ‘art’ I also wanted them to have some value to the tank occupants and to include some of the elements of the natural marine and river environments from which the fish came. For example, many fish like to hide in natural holes and crevices in rocks or camouflage themselves in the tangle of leaves from weeds and water plants; some fish like to rest on ledges or to simply lurk in rock tunnels all day.

A further consideration of course is the materials from which to make the art works.  These cannot have metallic glazes for example.  Chris said he would be able to carry out metallurgy testing on the work I make.  Metallurgy testing is done each week in any case as part of the ongoing analysis of the Blue Reef tank water quality.
Since my visit, I’ve made a number of clay maquettes from my various sketches but I think it's fair to say I've yet to make what could be called an 'art work'.  I’ve also, quite coincidentally, acquired a home fish tank – or two!  During a recent restructuring and subsequent office moves at my work place at Newcastle University, it was deemed that our new office was not large enough to accommodate the fish tank from our old office :-(.  The tank belonged to a colleague, James who is also a bit of an aquarium enthusiast.  He didn’t have room for it at his flat and asked if I wanted it. To say this has changed my life would be no understatement!  Harv and I have become somewhat obsessed with all things related to the home aquarium – hence the one tank becoming two... and now three!  (But perhaps more about that in another post, eh?)  What it does mean though is that I’ve been able to make some small sculptures for my own home tank and observe how our fish react to them, as a bit of tester for bigger things at Blue Reef. 
I started by making some 'caves':

And then got carried away with a few more forms...

I looked at lots of pictures of corals in various books and on the web.  There are some truly amazing ones, I can't possibly equal or better them in ceramic form. I did try to make something that looked like egg corals though (bottom left in image above).

Those caves fired to stoneware.

Rusty anchor?

Substrate or driftwood...

Wavy forms between which fish can swim and hide.

All in all, I've had lots of fun so far with these little models.  I have a lot more ideas still.  I'd like to try out some forms influenced by Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. 
Henry Moore's 'Reclining Woman' at The Tate
 I could just see a shoal of bright coloured tetras swimming in and out of that.

Anish Kapoor's "Tall Tree and the Eye"

Not a million miles away from my 'caves' sculpture.

I'd like to make more and bigger 'caves' and tunnels.  My favourite 'art work' that was already in the Blue Reef and created by Chris Horn himself was this 'eel tunnel':

I don't think they really need my art work at Blue Reef because they already have plenty of their own! All the same, I'm very grateful to Chris for letting me explore my ideas and make some pieces for the site.  If all goes well, at some point soon, my art works should be arriving in the fish tanks there :-) 

As usual - watch this space!

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