Saturday, 6 December 2008

Book Autopsies

Old encyclopedias sit on the shelf and gather dust with no one much to bother them. If they had minds and souls perhaps they would quietly despair at the disregard the vast bulk of humanity pays them as they quietly molder away. They might even become introspective and look up the second law of thermodynamics within their own pages to ascertain how much time they have left before they go the way of all things. An American artist has, however, been saving these books (at least for a while) from the vicissitudes of entropy by giving them a new form and shape – a new lease of life, if you like.

He has done this by creating what are known as “book autopsies”! The words do not form an oxymoron but raise the eyebrows with enough curiosity for the mind to demand greater clarity. Since 2000 a young artist called Brian Dettmer has been producing extraordinary pieces of fine art by performing literal autopsies on the books themselves. This is the culmination of previous works which feature language – and its communication – in a central role, an almost trackable fluidity of thought which to the onlooker only becomes so in hindsight. Only the artist could imagine how one might lead to the other!

His early work involved paintings based on coded languages, such as Braille and Morse. Moving on to pasting newspaper, magazine and book pages to canvas, he would detach parts of the layers of the written media exposing what lay within.

Finally his experiments with language and the written word reached its pinnacle. Using skills which could surely have led him to a career in surgery, had fate had different ideas, Dettmer skillfully makes incisions in to old books and exposes their long hidden content to the air. Although to many it is an act of vandalism to deface a book in such a way, Dettmer has brought new life to tomes that may never have been opened again, but for his intervention. The only difference now is that the ‘reader’ does not have to flick through the pages to discover their content.

When the role of certain media decreases – or even deceases – Dettmer revitalizes their form to reveal their content to a new generation of ‘readers’. The idea behind the art is to take the ‘dead’ content and convey it again – albeit it in a radically changed format. A new approach to substance and form arises from the redundancy of the original article. So the phoenix rises from the ashes as, perhaps, another beast altogether.

Altered states, indeed. Dettmer begins by sealing the old book and then he cuts in to it. The choice of book often seems similar in content – they contain plate illustrations which we would consider old fashioned as they are generally in black and white. This gives the finished piece a slightly macabre air of the Victorian gothic.

However, the imagined brutality and butchery of eighteenth century autopsies are not imitated – these books are taken apart with the skill of a modern day surgeon and lovingly sliced to reveal their innards. These are, one might conceive, the kind of books that the monsters from the “Hellraiser” films might settle down to read on an evening when they had no living souls to torture.

The overall impression leaves people open mouthed. The art takes on an even greater ‘gasp’ effect when it is realized that there are no deliberate inserts in the new content. Neither does Dettmer move any of the original content – they are exactly where they were when the book was first published. The intricacy of these three dimensional works is astonishing.

Can these pieces of work be labeled derivative? Certainly, they display and express ideas that were first put on the printed page by others. However, those others are long dead and, in no way shape or form would ever have envisaged their ‘copyright’ being breached in this manner. One wonders whether they would have approved or not!

Dettmer's work has been exhibited all over the world. If you would like to see his work in the flesh, as it were, it can be found in art galleries. North Americans are by far the luckiest – perhaps reflecting Dettmer’s nationality. His work is currently on display in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Toronto. If you are in Europe you would have to venture to Barcelona in order to see his work. Not that most people ever need an excuse to visit Barcelona!

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Art of Arborsculpture

Do you have a green thumb? Then perhaps arborsculpture is for you. It may not be a word that is familiar to you – it does not yet appear in any dictionaries, but it is a combination of art and gardening which is quickly growing in popularity.

Arborsculpture is the art of growing and shaping the branches of tress (and other woody plants) in to shapes never intended in the wild or even in the garden. A combination of pruning, grafting and bending, it is used to make living plants in to something either useful or ornamental. The results can be quite stunning.

You could even end up with living furniture, if you gave the time! Arborsculpture is for the tenacious and patient. It takes a significant amount of time to see the fruits of one’s labor and there can never be a one hundred percent guarantee that the finished work will be as you intended – nature will sometimes have her way despite us!

Plants have the ability to be joined together through grafting and arborsculpture relies heavily on this. Woody plants are also able (with some persuasion) to retain a shape they have been forced to assume when they grown new layers of wood over the original soft bark.

A part of the tree is deliberately wounded by the removal of bark. It is then joined on to a similarly wounded tree and the two parts bound together. Where the contact between the two plants is maintained securely they will grow together. This may mean that they are ‘braced’ for a year or more. As with teeth, this is done to overcome the natural resistance of the wood to grow where it will.

However, when the new layers of wood grow it acts as a kind of natural cast and keeps the plant in the shape in to which it has been bent. Once the new wood has grown the brace can then be removed.

Pruning may also be required. This helps to redirect the growth of the stem. If a plant is pruned above a leaf pointing to the right then new growth will be produced that points to the right. In exactly the same way a cut above a leaf growing left will encourage growth in that direction.

To grown an arborsculpture will depend on a variety of things. Firstly the size of the tree that is destined to be sculpted must be taken in to account as does its growth rate. Something relatively simple can be done in around an hour and the ‘cast’ can be removed in a year. Other larger projects can take anywhere up to a decade from start to finish. It could be argued that the art project is never finished as while the tree is alive it will continue to grow! You might even end up with a new, living, home if you do things correctly!

With a great deal of patience and hard work, not only ornate patterns can be produced. Even ‘everyday’ items can be formed from trees by the manipulation, bending and merging of their tissue. While many may prefer to leave nature to its own devices, arborsculpture allows those with the time, inclination and energy to express themselves through something living in a way which at the very least demands to be described as eye-catching!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Robocop on a Unicorn: An Unlikely Combination?

Some Internet memes are fairly simple to figure out, even though they may give you the occasional strange dream. The dancing hamsters, rickrolling, the Numa numa dance. These files may have been propagated on the internet without the proper health warnings but at least they were fairly straightforward to figure out. Then, occasionally, one comes along that really gets heads scratching – precipitating a global cascade of dandruff that will keep L’Oreal in business for years. So it is with one of the latest – Robocop on a Unicorn.

Yes, that’s right. A unicorn. And Robocop. An unlikely combination, all said and the reasons for the combination should realistically be kept close to the chest but no doubt a certain Doctor Freud would have a lot to say about it – as have, indeed, the denizens of he internet.

Is there greater meaning in the marriage of the two symbols, one ancient the other modern, or is this simply an irresistible combination that induces a chuckle (or an indignant splurt of the morning coffee) before the viewer moves on to the next banal but entertaining web page? What could Mr Rokne and his cohorts be getting at? Is this new net phenomenon visual spam or a profound statement about the times in which we live?

Well, first there is the sublime combination of the names. A unicorn gets is name from the Latin – ‘uni’ meaning one and ‘cornu’ meaning horn. Ah! So, one might imagine that Robocop derives his name from a similar classical root. Well, not quite. The word comes from as recently as 1921. Karl Capek, a Czech playwright of the early twentieth century was writing a play featuring manufactured humans, created to be servants in the future (eastern European satire never got so fine).

He looked at Latin origins for the name of his machines and discovered that labori (from labor – to work) just didn’t have the same ring. His brother suggested the Czech word ‘robota’ meaning, literally, horribly hard work or drudgery. Had he stuck with the Latin etymology we may well have ended up with Laborocop or something akin to that.

So far, so good. The origins of the word cop are a little older – but not much! Around the year 1700 the word ‘cop’ entered everyday English usage and it meant to catch, capture or get a hold of. It showed up in print about a hundred and forty years later and came to define one who combats and contains felons a little while later. It is not, as many people believe, an acronym for “Office On Patrol”.

So, even the origins of the two words have a delicious dichotomy! The fantasy version of the Actress and the Bishop, perhaps! We have the coming together of the RoaU which is dichotomous enough you may think. Then take the fact that their names are themselves a bipartition of elements which are mutually exclusive from each other and your head may begin to hurt a little.

So why bring the two together in forms of this kind of imagery? Does Robocop have a purity that is unattainable, that being the purity of the law? Or has he been lying about his son all this time and is in fact still virgo intactus?

Perhaps they share some personality traits that bring them together to fight crime. They are both essentially good but misunderstood, selfless but solitary. Both have a mysterious beauty about them and generally speaking can only be captured by foul means. And of course, both are the stuff of legend, one ancient and pastoral, the other contemporary and urban.

Some people have spoken about the imagery of RoaU representing a resurgent United States, which is quite a hoot considering the origins of this meme are Canadian. Others have started serious discussions about the theology behind the imagery. Yet more are using the various pictures for their X-Box avatars. Whatever the real meaning behind the pictures, people will make their own minds up and create their own legends.

Perhaps the real reason is dichotomy, after all! Two such unlikely friends are bound to cause a stir! Or maybe, just maybe, this is just a bit of fun, which like anything has the potential to do – just got a little out of hand?

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Queen Bee - Not As Royal as you may Think!

The Queen Bee is a remarkable insect. Here, follow the life cycle of the queen, from the egg to the end. You may be surprised at some of the things you find out!

This is an example of a Queen cell. The conditions in the hive have become right for a swarm and when this happens the old queen lays eggs in to queen cups. These are larger than the normal cells in to which eggs are laid and have a vertical orientation, while the normal eggs are vertical. Swarm cells will hang at the bottom of a frame within the hive. When an “emergency queen” is needed (otherwise known as a supersedure), then the cells are built out from the face of a frame. These queen cells may look like a super-sized peanut but they hold something in side much more precious than a nut!

Workers will “decide” that they want to swarm for a number of reasons. As the population of a hive increases it gets rather cramped and a new hive is often needed. For the hive to function a new queen will be needed to populate it. In order to maximize the survival of a new hive, often a number of queen cells will be constructed. When the newly hatched queens emerge they will fight to the death. The winner will then destroy any unhatched queen cells and the swarm will begin. The workers above are beginning the construction of a new queen cell.

A cutaway of a queen cell shows the alien being developing within! It is not difficult to see where some Hollywood movie makers get their inspiration from! There is not a huge amount of time between the laying of the queen egg and that queen itself starting her own enormous family. The egg will hatch three days after it is laid and the larva grows and molts after that. On the eighth day the queen cell will be capped and the pupa stage will begin. The virgin queen will emerge on around the sixteenth day and take flight three to four days later. She will start to lay eggs herself from around the twenty third day. Amazing!

One of the reasons that the queen cell is so much bigger than a normal egg cell is that the queen has an enormous abdomen. This is a biological necessity – she is destined to become an egg laying machine. Spot the blob of blue paint on her thorax – something that beekeepers do to quickly locate the queen among her minions. If one of her daughters leaves the tank in a swarm, then they can take tens of thousands of bees with them. This will involve about five kilos of honey taken along for the ride. The beekeeper will usually remove queen cells – as they obviously don’t want to lose all that honey – often to an empty hive of their own.

The virgin queen that survives will fly to what is known as a “drone congregation area”. She will mate with around a dozen drones and store the sperm in her spematheca. This is an organ designed to receive and store sperm until it is needed. It is more often than not the place where fertilization occurs as well.

She has a small window of opportunity here, though! If she does not mate within a few days then she will become a “drone layer”. As she will have no fertilized eggs that will spell the end of the colony. In very rare cases, something called thelytoky has been known to happen. This is where worker bees will lay the eggs of a new queen themselves, thus saving the colony. This is restricted to a few species, such as the Cape bee.

Do bees make a noise other than buzzing? Yes – and it is known as piping. This is produced by virgin and mated queens at certain times. The virgin pipes as she comes out of her cell. Once she has mated she may do it for some time afterwards as well. If you imagine a child’s trumpet, then you have a fair approximation of piping and it is audible to the human ear outside a hive! People argue as to its reason but most see it as a kind of battle cry. It is created by the flight motor (the wings, however, do not move when piping occurs). Others believe that it is a rallying call to workers and the best piper will get the most drones to follow them.

Many people believe that when bees swarm they are at their most dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true in reality. A swarm of bees is actually a fairly docile affair because, after all, they have no hive to protect at the moment, so what would the point be in stinging people. That said, it is best to be careful – especially if you are wearing primary colors – and stay clear. Nature is best left alone in these circumstances!

This can also be done artificially. As you can see, however, it is a process that involves great care and a deal of equipment. However, just as in the artificial insemination of mammals, this will ensure that the next generation the queen reproduces it exactly the one that the beekeeper desires. This will help eradicate pests such as mites (see below) and ensure some good honey in the process!

A common mistake amongst non apiarists is the assumed fact that the queen directly controls the hive. Effectively, however, her duty is as an egg making machine. She can lay bout two thousand eggs a day in the spring. This amounts to more than her own weight in eggs each day. Surrounded continuously by workers, she needs for nothing. They give her food and take her waste away. They will also collect a pheromone which they then distribute to stop workers from starting queen cells.

This very close up of a queen bee shows one of its greatest – and smallest – enemies. The bee mite is an external parasite that attacks honey bees. It attaches itself to the bee’s body and sucks out its hemolymph. This is the blood analogue that is used by bees as they have an open circulatory system. Unfortunately the mite is more than just a pain in the neck. It can spread a host of viruses, including “Deformed Wing Virus” (does what it says on the packet) and the arrival of mites in a colony can often spell its demise. Scientists believe that the mite may contribute to the Colony Collapse Disorder (otherwise known as CCD) that is spreading throughout the United States.

Often a new queen will emerge from the hive already badly infected with mites. Here, if you look just behind the eyes, you will see some light orange bumps. These are the mites that have already sentenced this particular queen to an early death. The mites have been kept at bay by antibiotics for twenty years or so. Unfortunately, this can make problems worse by producing a strain of mite that is resistant to the antibiotics.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Absolutely Bonkers for Conkers

The stuff of nightmares, perhaps? This rather spooky take on the conker looks as if it may have come from a horror film. “The Trees Have Eyes”, possibly? The thought of wandering all lonesome through a wood on Halloween would be even spookier if these things were taking a look at you! Run, run!

Some people have slightly dirty minds. Others can’t get the wild thing out of their minds for a second. Let’s think about which category you fall in to. If your mind produced an ever so slightly dirty image when you saw the above harmless horse chestnut, then you probably fall in to the latter.

Autumn school yards in the UK are littered with the pulverized carcasses of conkers that have lost the ultimate fight. A hole is drilled though the conker and a string attached. Then, one small boy (small girls usually being far too sensible to take part) holds his conker at arms length. Another small boy takes a swing with his own, the aim being to smash his opponent’s conker in to smithereens. If it doesn’t happen, the other contestant has a turn. This follows until one of the conkers greets oblivion. If the conker has previously smashed five others, then with this it is known as a six-er. And so on!

Conkers are usually gathered from the ground, even though some collectors will try to throw stones in to the branches of the horse chestnut tree to try and get some juicy looking specimen they have spotted. However, although the casing may look large, big conkers are often not the best to use in competition. If you are an alien with god-like powers, however, getting that particular conker down from the upper canopy is no problem whatsoever.

Ah, but Mr Ambassador, you are spoiling us! Some people believe that conkers are edible, but horse chestnuts and chestnuts are not to be confused with each other as if they are the result will be a nasty stomach ache. It is difficult to resist them, though, when they are presented so temptingly!

If you are of a slightly artistic bent then why not try to create your own conker people? A little ingenuity and imagination go a long way. With the credit crunch tightening wallets at the moment, why not follow the instructions here to give your children those Christmas presents they never dreamed of! Or just pile hundred up at the base of their bed and tell them to get on with it!

If you are of an even more artistic bent, you can try your hand at the construction of a conker web. A tradition in some parts of the USA, these can them be made in to wonderful mobiles that will enhance your living space. Or make you look like an impossibly aging hippy. Take your pick!

Autumn can inspire in many ways. Pity the child who finds this conker – it would be almost as large as they are! It would probably propel their opponent in to the upper atmosphere if it were ever used! Of course, this is a carving of a conker but it would amaze any young children (or adults) who were gullible or innocent enough to believe that this giant fell from a tree!

There is no denying, however, that a conker is a thing of beauty. From when they open from their casing and are shiny and new, to when they are old and more than a little shriveled, the conker is for many people a wonderful thing, one of the signifiers that Fall has arrived.

Ah, we love a little political correctness gone mad! In some parts of the UK, local authorities have banned the playing of conkers in their schools and work places. This has inevitably led to a backlash amongst conker lovers who have formed their own political campaign to legalize conkering! Only in the UK!