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  • Look, draw, scan, invert, colour in. REPEAT.

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 December 2015

    This is a guest post from our artist in residence Eleanor Morgan. It is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    Sketch 3 (C) Eleanor Morgan

    Sketch 3 (C) Eleanor Morgan

    I have a pile of drawings and sketches of sponge specimens made during my residency at the Grant Museum, which aren’t exhibited in the Glass Delusions exhibition. Looking closely and following the lines of these animals with my eyes and hand was a way of getting to know them, particularly as I couldn’t touch them directly. They were also a way of thinking, of letting forms and ideas develop between the specimens and me. (more…)

    Letting things draw themselves

    By Jack Ashby, on 4 December 2015

    This is a guest post from our artist in residence Eleanor Morgan. It is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    Emerging #5, Photogram, 2015 (C) Eleanor Morgan

    Emerging #5, Photogram, 2015
    (C) Eleanor Morgan

    During my artist’s residency at the Grant Museum I wanted to record the way light travels through the glass jars and specimens that fill the space. My first thought was to try cyanotypes. This is a type of contact print in which an object is place on paper and exposed to light. Where the light hits, the resulting image is a deep blue colour. The astronomer John Herschel developed cyanotypes in the nineteenth century for creating blueprints of diagrams and notes, but it is the cyanotypes of his contemporary Anna Atkins that are particularly celebrated. By placing seaweeds and ferns on prepared paper, Atkins’ cyanotypes are beautifully detailed and create a sculptural effect on the paper.

    (more…)

    When your head is made of glass

    By Jack Ashby, on 2 December 2015

    This is a guest post from our artist in residence Eleanor Morgan. It is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    The sponge man, 2015. Print on Ilford Galerie FB digital, mounted on MDF. (C) Eleanor Morgan

    The sponge man, 2015. Print on Ilford Galerie FB digital, mounted on MDF.
    (C) Eleanor Morgan

    My current exhibition ‘Glass Delusions’ is about things transformed from living to non-living materials and back again. One of the ideas that particularly interested me was the history of humans believing that they were made of glass, a disorder known as the ‘glass delusion’ that I describe in a previous blog post. Those suffering from glass delusion believed that their heads were made of glass and could shatter at the slightest touch.

    In the exhibition are various heads, glassy or shattered. On one wall is an antique fragment of leaded glass of a figure bending down. His hand is outstretched and he seems to stroke at the ground beneath his feet. The stained glass panel where his head should be is missing, only the lead outline remains. (more…)

    How to make a diamond

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 October 2015

    This is a guest post from our artist in residence Eleanor Morgan. It is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    Diamonds made from the dead creatures of the River Thames (c) David Dobson

    Diamonds made from the dead creatures of the River Thames (c) David Dobson

    This year, on Thursday the 30th of July, I made a diamond. Only a few weeks before, this diamond had been floating around the River Thames in the form of dead plants and animals. It had taken a few hours, high pressure and temperature and most importantly a lot of help from UCL chemists and geologists to transform the dead creatures of the River Thames into tiny diamonds. These can now be seen at the Grant Museum as part of my exhibition Glass Delusions, along with a booklet ‘How to make a diamond’ which describes the process. (more…)

    Fish printing and reanimating the dead

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 14 May 2015

    IMG_1779

    Inking the fish

    How do you reanimate things that are dead? Since beginning my role as Artist in Residence at the Grant Museum I’ve been worrying at this question. My focus is on the Museum’s collection of glass sponges, but over the past six months these extraordinary animals have pushed me down other paths to explore. Some of these have led to very productive failures.

    I’m thinking in particular of my attempts at waterless lithography, which is printing technique that uses silicone (in the form of bathroom sealant) to repel ink. You draw an image on a piece of metal, cover it in bathroom sealant and then once it is dried you wash the metal and the sealant will come off the areas on which you drew your picture. You now have a negative of your picture, which you can ink up and put through a printing press. I thought this was an ideal technique and material with which to explore glass sponges, which are themselves formed of silica. However, the problem came when I looked closer at the bottle of silicone remover that I was using – printed on the back of the label was a drawing of a dead fish. These chemicals are deadly to sea creatures if they enter their ecosystem. It seemed particularly grim for me to pursue a method of making images that could potentially kill its subject.

     

    I’ve recently been exploring another fishy route. I had been told about an old Japanese technique called Gyotaku, which translates as ‘fish rubbing’. (more…)

    Mermaid’s purses and the importance of looking sideways

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 4 February 2015

    Among the Grant Museum’s collection of glass sponges, there are a few specimens that really demand attention. One is the Venus’ flower basket, Euplectella aspergillum, an intricate weave of spicules in the shape of a sealed cone. Its romantic name comes from the behaviour of a species of Spongicolidae shrimp who make their home inside the sponge’s glass cage, where they feed off creatures filtered through the sponge’s walls. Having entered the sponge at the larvae stage, the shrimps grow too big to ever leave and remained trapped inside for life. In parts of Japan, dried specimens of the Venus’ flower basket are given as a wedding present, with the two shrimp preserved inside.

    The other show-stopping specimen is harder to see, as it sits in the dark in an out-of-reach cupboard: the glorious glass rope sponge, Hyalonema sieboldi. Formed of a bulbous top of interlocking spicules, this animal roots itself into the sea floor using a long twisting rope of glass, which resembles a bundle of optical glass fibres. The Museum’s specimen has been mounted within an unsteadily tall and thin glass jar, and visitors can only spot it up in the rafters using the binoculars provided. However, it is not alone. While it was alive, a cluster of zoanthids, colonizing creatures resembling brightly coloured miniature anemones, made their home on its ropey root. And it has one other attachment: a shark’s egg case, commonly known as a ‘mermaid’s purse’. Clearly, the glass rope sponge is an attractive settlement.

    glassropesponge

    Glass rope sponge, Hyalonema sieboldi. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

    (more…)

    The Glass Delusion

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 17 December 2014

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher's Physica Subterranea, 1669.

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea.

    ‘Man, like all animals, is glass and can return to glass’ writes the German alchemist Johann Becher in his work Physica Subterranea published in 1669. Becher claimed that he had found the secret of turning dead bodies into transparent glass, so that we could surround ourselves with beautiful vases formed of our ancestors (preferable, he writes, to ‘hideous and disgusting cadavers’).

    The glass of each animal and plant has its own particular colour – that of plants is green, while glass made from humans, he writes, is a milky white colour with ‘a slight tinge of narcissus’.

    Becher, unfortunately, was wrong. Trace amounts of silicon, the element that is used in forming glass,* do exist in the human body through our diet (beer is one particularly good source) and may improve the health of bones – but it’s unclear exactly how it does this, or whether it’s biologically essential.** However, this hasn’t stopped a proliferation of claims for the benefits of silica supplements to make our teeth, hair, nails and skin stronger and more glassily beautiful.

    Silicon is essential to some plants and animals, though, in particular those erose earlier in the evolution of life such as glass sponges, which use silica to grow their interlocking needle-like spicules.

    As artist in residence here at the Grant Museum I’ve been focusing on the sponge collection and the ways in which a material can be both organic and inorganic – combining to form both a living animal and a glass jar. One aspect that particularly interests me is the history of humans believing that they are made of glass, a belief which spread amongst European scholars during the 15th to 17th century.

    For Johann Becher, this fueled his desire to create glass vases from dead bodies. For others, however, it was a debilitating disorder known as ‘The Glass Delusion’. Sufferers believed that they were made from glass and would shatter at just one touch. It mainly afflicted wealthy men, and the most famous sufferer was perhaps King Charles VI of France who believed himself made entirely from glass and wore protective clothing to prevent being smashed to pieces.

    For other sufferers it was mainly their head or buttocks that concerned them, so they avoided sitting down, or always carried a soft cushion. Why this belief spread during this period is unclear, but it had disappeared by the end of the 17th century, coinciding with the gradual replacement of alchemy with the emergence of modern chemistry.

    However, as the current interest in silica supplements suggests, it seems there’s still a belief that glass may combine with and enhance the human body – not to shatter us, but to make us glow with a glassy transparency.

     

    Image source: ‘The Magic and Myth of Alchemy’, Lloyd Library and Museum, 2011. www.lloydlibrary.org/exhibits/alchemy/alchemists.html. Accessed 12.12.2014.

    * Silicon is an element that likes to share – in particular with oxygen. Rather than existing in its pure state, it tends to gives away or share its electrons with other elements, and this creates compounds. One of these compounds is silica, also known as silicon dioxide, which exists in sand – this is the stuff that is used to create glass.

    ** See R. Jugdaohsingh, ‘Silicon and bone health’, Journal of Nutritional Health and Aging. 11(2), Mar-Apr, 2007. 99-110.

    Eleanor Morgan is Artist in Residence at the Grant Museum of Zoology

    Through the Looking Glass Sponge

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 18 November 2014

    Since joining the Museum as artist in residence last month, I’ve spent a lot of time looking through glass. I’ve looked through the plate glass cabinets protecting the specimens, the thickly blown glass of the specimen jars, and finally the specimens themselves: glass sponges. These creatures are 90% silica, formed of threads of glass spicules. They are usually found in the dark depths of the ocean, but up in the spotlights of the Museum they glow – a bright shelf of organic glass. Their structure is so intricate that I have to use even more layers of glass to be able to see them: reading glasses, magnifying glasses, and my recently acquired endoscope (excellent for getting round those awkward sponge corners). With all these layers of glass, reflection becomes an issue – in photographs, my face or the camera lens can appear, and viewed at certain angles even the specimen seems to be looking at its own reflection within the glass jar.

    Last week I put together a pinhole camera for one of the specimens. Pinhole cameras are made of a light-sealed box with photosensitive paper inside, and a small pinhole on the opposite side. The pinhole acts like the shutter of a camera – you aim the pinhole at whatever you want to capture and the light travels through the pinhole to the photosensitive paper inside the box, which is then developed in the darkroom and the image appears. I wanted to try putting the specimen inside the pinhole camera, with photosensitive paper surrounding it. I hoped that by doing this I would get a 360 degrees photogram of the glass sponge. However, the glass sponge and its jar had other ideas.

    Here are some photograms I took of the Museum’s Walteria leuckarti. (more…)

    Mystery Blob Sponge: It crawls! It creeps! It eats you alive!

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 14 October 2014

    Day four of my sponge exploration (I’m here for ten months as the Museum’s Artist in Residence). There’s one specimen on the shelf that I’ve been saving as a particularly special treat… it looks like an onion, it’s not sealed in a jar, and it doesn’t have a label. It’s in the glass sponge cabinet, but it doesn’t look like the other specimens. Instead, it has a grey doughy appearance, covered in small holes, and it tapers at the top into a dark red spiral. I take it back to my desk for a closer look.

    The Mystery Sponge

    The Mystery Sponge

     

    One of the (many) great things about spending time in the Grant Museum is that I share a room with people who not only know a lot about zoology, but also want to keep finding out more. I like to distract them from their work with questions like, ‘How do things, erm, grow?’. They are very patient. But today, I had a new question: ‘What is this oniony pointy sponge that has no label?’ Was it, perhaps, the broken base of a glass rope sponge? No – a glass sponge is too thready. Was it a fossil?  No – a fossil would be heavier. Then we had a closer look at its pointy top: (more…)

    First day with the sponges

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 1 October 2014

    Close up of Venus' flower basket glass sponge. LDUCZ-B39

    Close up of Venus’ flower basket glass sponge. LDUCZ-B39

    Today I begin an artist-in-residency position at the Grant Museum of Zoology, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. I’ll be working with the Museum’s collection of deep-sea sponges, focusing in particular on their calcareous and glass sponges. These extraordinary animals (not plants, as the Museum’s founder Robert Grant discovered back in the nineteenth century) are composed of calcium carbonate and silica – limestone and glass.

    I will be spending the next ten months here studying the sponge collection with the aim of creating art from the same materials that the sponges use to build themselves. (more…)