Entropy, ecology, modernity: the rise of modernism

In this session Morag looked at what is entropy and the fact it is increasing disorder.

We looked at a quote by Rudolf Arnheim, where he said
‘Order is a prerequisite of survival; therefore the impulse to produce orderly arrangements is inbred by evolution’.

This really interested me as we looked at how much structure and uniformity there is in the natural world. I had heard of the golden ratio before but Morag showed us a photograph of a Yellow Chamomile head which showed the arrangement of consecutive Fibonacci numbers, which I also found fascinating.

I am very drawn to patterns and textures particularly in the natural world and I would like to look at the golden ratio and Fibonacci sequence further, with a view to bringing some of the principles into my own work.

Another interesting point mentioned and something I would like to pursue was, ‘Biophilia’ and human evolution, this according to E.O. Wilson is an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world. I intend to read some of his books, particularly ‘The Diversity of Life’.

Morag went on to discuss Europe’s entropy problem. There had been a population growth in the late medieval times, which brought about land pressures, deforestation and wood shortages. With the age of coal came massive changes with the industrial revolution. She discussed other major upheavals such as the American Revolution, Chartism, Karl Marx and the Russian Revolutions etc.

We also looked at ecology and cycles (with energy around a system), food chains (movement of energy; grass-horse-manure-dung beetles-worms-bacteria-grass) and ecological succession regarding ecosystems (they may change in time, stable steady state, often high in diversity).

Looking at modernity and ecology we discussed fuel-powered systems in contrast to sun-powered systems. Modern systems are unreliable as they depend on fossil fuels and they are more wasteful than natural systems.

Advancements in science also brought about changes in art, as artists responded to these changes. The Dutch Vanitas paintings highlighted death and mortality, Jan Steen painted scenes of disorder and Turner, who was anti industrialisation, explored energy, light and entropy.

What was apparent was that through time artists have responded to major changes and documented or challenged them through their art.
It made me realise that you need to have a knowledge of historical events to be able to truly understand the meaning behind art work.

When I was in college I struggled to recognize expressionist paintings, as my tutor had told me they were painted in a way that would have been quite radical at the time. However to me they did not appear shocking or extreme, as we see so many different images these days. So now I try to look at the time the artwork was painted/created and try and imagine what was happening at the time and what may have been perceived as challenging the norm.

Introduction to the module – making work in relation to entropy/energy/ecology

Today was the first day of my chosen option with Morag Colquhoun. I was looking forward to the session, it had been my first choice and I was
interested to hear what we would be studying in the coming weeks.

Morag went through her introductory presentation and advised that it would be helpful if we had a basic understanding of the first and second laws of thermodynamics:

• Energy cannot be made or destroyed, the energy in the Universe is constant
• Some energy is constantly lost in the transfer of heat from one state to another, this is called Entropy. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system.

In her presentation she showed us a photograph of Allora & Calzadilla, Track & Field (US Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011)

This art work questions power and makes you analyse the energy, wealth and power in the piece.

We will be looking at the following questions over the coming weeks:

1. What is entropy?
2. What is ecology?
3. What is modernity?

Morag then went on to give us a background history of her practice and what she has done.

Morag studied archaeology and actually became an artist by accident. She went into Forestry and Woodland Management, learning about sustainability and using very tradition methods (such as using a horse rather than vehicles, to minimize the impact in the forest).

While working in this area she developed an interest in making things out of wood (particularly the waste products) and produced sculptural stacks. This led to an artist in residence position, working with children using the wood from the forest.

She posed the question “handmade or machine made, what is important to us in our practice”?

Personally I am not sure, as I enjoy both and it would depend on what material I was using. I have definitely enjoyed using the lathe and there is no doubt that the finished product has a quality hard to achieve if only using hand skills. Only this week I had an induction on the laser cutter and the possibilities are exciting. However, I would like to use it as a tool to produce ‘parts’ that I could assemble into a finished product, such as my lamp designs.

Morag had personally enjoyed making things by hand, for example a little wooden spoon. There is evidence that once machines were brought in to make items such as spoons, men were under pressure to compete and they would make a rough spoon in 10 minutes; a task she set herself.

Morag then showed us a photograph of forest garden, which was set out in a circular design, representing a living bowl of plants. (Insert photo).
This excited me as it is very similar to one of my ideas for a maze that I have for my individual Field project.

She went on to show us Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, who again is an artist I had looked at in my artist’s research. What I hadn’t realised was that Robert Smithson had been very interested in entropy and explored this in his work. This is something I am going to look into, to enhance my own research.

I am very interested in the ephemeral style work of land artists and the fact they use traditional skills and natural materials. Morag was also interested in the same and you see this in her projects that reverted to using skills such as coracle making.

I would like to experiment with natural materials, particularly using willow and weaving. I have not tried either but I intend to explore these areas soon.

Although I found Morag’s work appealing what I found more interesting was the knowledge and experience she had that underpinned her work. Such as how sheep’s wool these days has no economic value and the fact that as the sheep is sheared, the wool would burn easily, because of the natural oil in it , but in time when it dries out wool is naturally flame retardant.

She also learned a lot from the projects she completed, especially about the river when she made small coracle boats with a group. The boats were made from brambles, paper and linseed oil. They launched these small boats, which contained a message, from the origin of the River Severn and watched how the boats were swept along with the current; unfortunately none of the boats were returned, so she did not know where they ended up. However she did learn about the ecology of the river and the effects it has on the people living nearby and the forests etc.

Morag was keen to do a ‘Home Range Project’ and was given a Creative Wales Award, to study the ecology of her garden and close area. She explained that she wanted to study the umwelt, which is the world as it is experienced by a particular organism. A bug, for example, would have a very small umwelt, such as the acorn it lives on, but our umwelt is now massive, as we have technology that has broken down physical boundaries and all these umwelts overlap.

Morag lives in the Brecon Beacons and became interested in the fact a pipeline was being laid from Milford Haven to Gloucestershire. She erected a shed in the wood in the Brecon Beacon National Park near to where protesters had set up camp. In the shed she made tape recordings of conversations with the protestors, which gave an interesting insight into who they were and why they were protesting about the pipeline. Dealing with the protestors she realised how the state could be very powerful to ensure that they achieved what they wanted.

Also discussed was Morag’s time as an archaeologist in South America and how she became aware of our throwaway society. One day she bought a bottled drink and the shop keeper, asked her to ensure she brought the bottle back so that he could claim his deposit back. Unfortunately she didn’t get chance to take the bottle back but she realised what an impact this small action would have had on the shop keeper; little things make a difference.

I am interested in social issues and have empathy for people affected by different problems, however I realise that I do not actively try to help or effect change. It has made me aware that maybe this is an opportunity for me to make a difference through my work, even if it is only on a small scale. I intend to look at the impact my work may have and try to either raise awareness of social issues (such as mental health in my Field project) or by making responsible ecological choices.