Instruments of the Afterlife at the V&A, London.

Posted by on Oct 8, 2015 in Blog | No Comments

Well, I’ve been struggling to write this blog post for a while. Nothing I seem to be able to say about this performance/sculpture series/musical composition seems to make sense or to do it justice.

The seemingly-alien greenhouse in the courtyard of the V&A.
The seemingly-alien greenhouse in the courtyard of the V&A.

However, Professor Jacqui Glass of Loughborough University has beaten me to it and written a very eloquent and readable piece for the EPSRC, who funded the project. You should definitely go and read it if you want to know what it’s all about.
Come back here for more photographs, and some reflections on how to photograph a marching troupe of performance artists and sculptures inside a museum and in bright sunshine…

So, if you’re still with me, you’ll know that Instruments of the Afterlife is a multi-disciplinary piece exploring the future of technology to clean up contaminated land using plants and microbes, and to then extract toxic heavy metals from those organisms to create new and useful nanoparticles.

The performance was bewilderingly surreal; a marching band carrying a plastic ‘trombone’ with a heart, a personal ‘jetpack’ and an overgrown ‘maggot’ came out from the sculpture gallery of the V&A into the courtyard and, mixing in with the tourists relaxing in the sun, drinking coffee and chatting, proceeded to play a piece of music which, we are told, was intended to stimulate the growth of plant roots. A second movement of the piece involved the collection of bacterial samples and finally the transfer of all the collected bacteria, fungi and contamination to a purple greenhouse in the courtyard, before the musicians and instrument bearers and their supervisor marched back inside…

The procession prepares to leave the gallery and enter the quad at the V&A.
The procession prepares to leave the gallery and enter the courtyard at the V&A.
The ceremonial collection of bacteria from the backpack...
The ceremonial collection of bacteria from the backpack, and the feeding of the maggot.
After the playing of the trombone music, the instrument is emptied to help feed the plants.
After the playing of the trombone music, the instrument is emptied to help feed the plants.

Inside the museum, the articles were on display as works of sculpture, and the creators, Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta were on hand to explain how the work had been developed. They were joined by the research scientists from Cranfield, Warwick, Birmingham, Newcastle and Edinburgh universities to explain how the science works.

For me, the hardest thing was to photograph the objects in situ, as I was shooting in a busy museum open to the public, in central London, on a Saturday afternoon… Patience was not optional!
My trusty Elinchrom Ranger Quadra provided the key lighting I needed to bring the objects to life indoors (using the dim gallery lights as fill-in) and added fill against the bright daylight outside. One light, two uses; all the power and portability, adaptability and control I could ask for on location, and no complaints from museum staff about health and safety or trip hazards!

Now, let’s look at some pictures!

The backpack/jetpack, for growing bacteria.
The backpack/jetpack, for growing bacteria.
The Trombone and the maggot. The trombone stimulates plant growth, and the maggot feeds the plants to special fungi.
The Trombone and the maggot. The trombone stimulates plant growth, and the maggot feeds the plants to special fungi.
The maggot, shown here devouring a plant.
The maggot, shown here devouring a plant.
The heart-shaped centre of the trombone.
The heart-shaped centre of the trombone.

 

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