Turner’s View, 2010
9 February–2 March
Turner’s View / Star Drawings
Barbara and Zafer Baran’s first major London show since 2003 includes a selection from two current photographic projects: Turner’s View and Star Drawings. Although different in approach, each series deals with an aspect of the skies and heavens: Turner’s View is an extension of the artists’ earlier, land-based documentary work, and Star Drawings is a product of their lifelong interest in experimental photography, astronomy and drawing.
In recent years the Barans’ immediate environs – their studio and its surroundings – have acted as both laboratory and observatory. Turner’s View and Star Drawings are products of this local observation, with an eye towards the wider view. Turner’s View addresses environmental issues, as well as the themes of beauty and landscape. Star Drawings deals with light itself, exploring the stars and night sky.
Turner’s View touches on a number of themes: the nature of beauty and the romantic ideal; the work of the English artist J.M.W. Turner, ‘painter of light’; the relationship between humans and the environment, and between science and art; and the depiction of landscape in photography.
The main body of the Turner’s View work consists of large-scale cloud and contrail panoramas assembled from several separate photographs, in the manner of satellite mosaics. All these photographs were taken from Richmond Hill, a famous viewpoint whose environs Turner painted over a period of many years. The view faces towards Heathrow Airport, and although it otherwise appears very much as it did in Turner’s day, it is greatly affected by the contrails, or vapour trails, left by the large numbers of aircraft as they pass overhead. Initially in the form of long, straight tracks, these trails gradually mix with the atmosphere, often diffusing into large sheets of cirrus clouds that spread across the whole sky and, at close of day, reflect the light of the fading sun.
The impact of these artificial clouds has both aesthetic and environmental dimensions. The massive volcanic eruptions of the 1800s – Tambora in 1815, Babuyan in 1831 and Cosiguina in 1835 – made a profound impression on the global atmosphere, simultaneously leaving their mark on the sunsets of the day (an effect recorded in the work of Turner and other painters, and the subject of a volcanic study published by a team of global warming experts in 2007). Similarly, contrails are able to enhance our own sunsets, at the same time acting as visual indicators of human activity: traces of population movements, technological advances, air pollution and climate change.
An intrinsic background to the Turner’s View series comes from the rise in global travel and energy consumption that follows the unremitting growth of populations worldwide. The project owes much to the pioneering environmental journalist Marek Mayer (Barbara’s brother), editor of ENDS magazine, who before his untimely death in 2005 wrote movingly of the deceptive beauty of contrail-covered skies. These photographic records of the skies from Richmond Hill combine aesthetics with information gathering: offering not just apparent visions of beauty, in the spirit of the romantic age, but also providing meteorological, environmental and social data – a collection of sunsets for the modern era.
The night sky and stars are at the heart of human history, myth, science, religion, literature and art. The Star Drawings are a highly subjective voyage through the heavens, as well as a personal exploration of the act of drawing itself.
These works are a hybrid between drawing and photography. They are created using stars or the moon as ‘pencils’, but with the drawing done in camera rather than on paper. Long camera exposures are used to record the process. Unusually in this case, the camera acts as pencil as well as paper, working in concert with the light source as an extension of the artist’s hand. There is no digital manipulation involved.
The drawings vary widely, including geometrical shapes, lines reminiscent of calligraphy, complex abstract forms, quasi-star charts, and explosions of light. Traces of landscape are sometimes visible, against which the drawings seem to float in space. Trees, clouds and other elements also play a part, interfering with and modifying the lines of the drawings. Multiple colours sometimes appear as a star scintillates.
Artists and photographers have ‘drawn’ with light for many years (Picasso’s light graffiti, Man Ray’s Space Writings), usually using penlights or torches, and with the camera or photographic material kept passive and static. The Star Drawings are a step further, exploring the boundaries of drawing and photography. The works in the exhibition are a small fraction of the many hundreds of star drawings produced by the Barans over numerous sessions since early 2009.
Nine of Barbara and Zafer Baran’s camera-less photographs are held in the national collection of the art of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One of these works is currently on show in A History of Camera-less Photography at the V&A (Photography Gallery), where the artists recently also gave a talk on their photographic practice, in conjunction with the exhibition Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography.