The Alkali Inspectorate


forestoriginal1This is how the piece is looking as an installation. I have become increasingly interested in the origins of environmental sciences and the writings of Robert Angus Smith, the 19th century Scottish chemist who pioneered research on air pollution and acid rain. I am particularly interested in the fact that he refused to take on ‘expert witness’ work as a consulting scientist as he felt those who worked in the courts were often corrupt and committed perjury for paid interests. Because of his integrity as an independent analytical chemist he was chosen to head the Alkali Inspectorate, established by the Alkali Act of 1863.

I started to research more about the etymology of the Alkali with some interesting results. The word derives from the Arabic al qaliy which means the calcined ashes or calcination, more commonly known as potash in early centuries. It was the way soap was produced since antiquity: by heating slaked lime with potash and combining the resultant potassium hydorixide with animal fats, soap was obtained.  This lead me to thinking about the basis of most scientific elemental experimentation: acid versus alkalide substances. I went back to my GCSE chemistry for this, to remember that when an acid reacts to an alkali the products are a salt and water.

For the project I am working on for our forthcoming exhibition at New Gallery in Peckham, I have been looking at how acidity and alkalidity are manifested in the natural world, and how these concepts collide with the making of work in printmaking. Traditional printmaking, relies on the reactions of different substances on a matrix. In etching, for example, it is the action of acid on metals such as zinc, copper and steel. We are constantly working on the surface of a plate by swinging between acid substances and alkaline neutralizers. I have been using digital transfer prints, the ink of which often contains ferrous sulfate and a small amount of an acid on acid free hand made Japanese shodo paper- the action of one on the other in layers creates a neutralizing effect and produces an invisible amount of salt and water. I like the idea that there is this small, invisible elemental reaction. The images are of forests, disappearing through logging and acid rain.

I have also been looking at projecting an image of Lake Turkana, a lake in the Kenyan Rift Valley, which has the dual accolade of being the world’s largest permanent desert lake and largest alkaline lake. It is regarded by anthropologists as the cradle of humankind, because of the vast number of fossils found of the earliest humans, not leastly Turkana boy, which is 2 million years old. Yet the lake is hostile to human habitation, with volcanic emissions, venomous reptiles, and unpalatable salty water. It is also the site of a huge Wind Power project with plans to build 360 wind turbines to tap into the particular wind conditions in the area and supply clean electricity to vast areas of Kenya. Science as the new sublime:  producing the tools to sustain life while on the other responsible for their demise.

I am interested in bringing these ideas to their most basic aesthetic form- images of these places transferred onto layers of paper or onto the wall itself, in an installation piece. It is an attempt to understand and rationalize the basic process of surviving, and to grapple with ‘the science of the sublime’.