In the gloom I was listening to BBC Radio 4. I had read about a body scanner that scanned the exterior of the human body. It had been developed by the US Military to measure recruits for uniforms and the technology had been adapted in Japan where department stores then offered a service of body scanning and custom-made lingerie. In the Radio 4 programme, Material Worlds, there was an interview with researchers at UCL who were using such a scanner. As they described the process, I just knew this was going to give me the visual information I had been searching for, that it would help me capture all those thoughts and visions floating about on the periphery of my memory.
The next day I phoned the university and actually couldn’t believe my luck when not only did the researcher answer the phone, but she was interested in art and what I wanted to do. She invited me for a visit, and with great generosity gave me time and access to her equipment.
It was so exciting: here was a piece of new technology offering me a completely new way of seeing the human body and depicting it. Over several sessions I took models to the scanner and came away with a three and a half inch crispy disk that totally changed the direction of what I thought and how I painted. A model stood in a pose of my choosing in the scanner, which was a human sized cubicle. A ring of flashing lights moved around and down the model measuring and recording the exterior surface of the body, with each measurement rendered as a pixel.
With 3D software in my computer in my studio, I could manipulate these digital images, looking at the figure from every possible direction, and I could add, delete, draw, select, structure. This layered process was the same as I used for making an image the old way, with pencil and paper. I had found the ghost in the machine, or rather the machine had helped me visualise the ghosts in my head. It was such a liberation, I felt freed of constraint and able to create the images locked in my head that had been haunting me. I’m not a mathematician or computer programmer but I should imagine the process is not dissimilar – you go through a series of logical steps with creative insights along the way and end up with a beautiful solution. I felt had access to a second brain that was synchronous with my own. Two brains are definitely better than one!
For two years I used these scans to produce works I called Mirages. In a way the title is obvious – these images from the ether shimmer and are gone, they are there and they are not, moments that transform and then disappear.
Then in 2002 I went to an exhibition at Tate Modern called Matisse Picasso. I looked at these great masters who painted every possible subject, the human figure, landscape, still life. There was a Matisse still life, it must have been 10 feet by six, huge, imposing, beautiful and about so much more than the apples and oranges and drapery it depicted. I realised that objects can stand in for the human figure in a metaphor of life.
I phoned the university again and a new and different researcher answered the phone. Again I was met with kindness, interest and generosity. This time I wanted to take still life objects and scan them. The researchers were fascinated since they had only ever scanned people and they wanted to see the results too. I had several happy sessions scanning tables and drapery and fruit and flowers. Again I experienced exhilaration with the resulting scans. Ghostly pixilated images of flowers and fruit reminded me of the flowers at births and marriages and funerals that had represented so much but had faded. Like Dutch Old Master Still Life paintings that represent the passing of the seasons, and thus the life cycle, these ephemeral scans seemed to me images of the ghosts of flowers and fruits, or at least of the memory of them.
I spent another couple of happy years manipulating these scans with my 3D computer software, viewing a still life from the top or side or underneath, playing, selecting, adding subtracting, composing and then adding paint or pastel to complete the process. This phase led to further exhibitions.
Over the years computer technology has changed and become more advanced. My scans which have been sitting in their original form in the recesses of my mind and the computers’ brain are currently undergoing a renaissance. I have discovered new 3D software that reads and interprets the original scans in a different way. A new world has opened up again.
It is important that for now I reinterpret the original scans, and that I am not working with new ones, though the time will soon come for exploration with new 3D scanners. My theme is memory and how what I look at now is informed by everything else I have ever looked at. Something I see today echoes something I looked at a long time ago and thought I had forgotten. The clarity of the memory varies. Each new work is the sum of my experience and thought at that moment, as far as I can remember. Sometimes I don’t think, the images emerge and vanish as in a dream, with a life and volition of their own.
The new 3D software I use has also enabled me to examine in minute detail the geometry of the natural objects I scanned all those years ago. It’s like my computer brain has gained wisdom and insight and articulacy with its greater age.
The geometry of nature, its precision and beauty, informs how I look and see. 3D software that enables me to observe objects from so many angles is revelatory. The new software is more user friendly, allowing me to manipulate the images far more easily and add and subtract, introduce new colour and line and so on with greater ease. Ultimately I select a slice of the 3D image and print it, making a transition from 3D to 2D. The image is rescanned at high resolution, colour and tone is adjusted and the image printed with archival ink onto canvas or cotton rag paper. The scale is greatly enlarged from the original (like a giant Matisse Still Life, or a Georgia O’Keefe Flower). Over time I search the printed web I have created and fragments emerge which I capture with paint or pastel. The completed work is a multi-layered and multi-process image. The computer, the scanner, ink, paint, pastel, graphite are the combined tools that help me layer and picture fragments of memory altered by emotion, time, and observation. I’ve had a lot of fun.
My family has a genetic illness from which I have thankfully been spared. Retinitis Pigmentosa affects vision, most usually the sufferer loses peripheral vision and ends up with increasingly narrow tunnel vision, like my late father. More unusually, my aunt lost the centre of her vision and could only see life on the periphery. For them, the interaction with the physical world, how they saw, how they thought was determined in some senses by the limits of what they could see. They adapted in the most extraordinary ways to daily life, having to think consciously at every moment how to see. I often imagine seeing only the edges of things, or only the centres, and making up the rest through what I remember. We all muddle along somehow.
My wonderful aunt learned how to email late in life, with a memory of touch typing and not being able to see the keyboard. Emails would pop into my inbox where she had placed her hands by accident one or two keys along on the key board. The emails had expressed something at the beginning, they were a hidden language when I received them, a mysterious code. I’d decipher a couple of words and make the rest up, then pick up the phone. Her thoughts would have moved on by then. Art is like that, a decoding of layers of visions, thought and time.