Particles of Dust
A paradigm shift has recently occurred in Frank Ammerlaan’s work, happening when the artist changed his perspective from the horizontal to the vertical.
Most people focus on the earth: it’s how we’re built. Feet firmly on the ground, glance ahead. Not upward. Those who explore the universe can easily find themselves entangled in the science fiction of UFO conspiracy theories, in the spiritual domain of astrology, or in the abstract ideas of scientific research. But Ammerlaan managed to approach the extraterrestrial in an exceptionally concrete manner.
From a formal perspective there appears to be a break with his previous work. The intensely rich colours of Ammerlaan’s hypnotic oil paintings have made way for different fabrics that are meticulously stitched together and covered with spots and imprints. Seemingly fragile and complex geometric patterns are formed by layers of powdery, transparent material. The colour palette is subdued: sand-coloured linen and jute, different shades of brown and beige. Hues that can, in short, be described as ‘earthy’. But strictly speaking, that would be incorrect: the works are created with extraterrestrial material.
Conceptually these new works do not radically differ from the work for which the artist first became known. Perception has always been important to Ammerlaan. He turned his attention to the periphery of our view, and found – in oil spills on a wet road, the multi-coloured galvanized metal or glass disc insulators normally used in high voltage transmission towers – a motive for his works. As he now casts his gaze upwards, a new kind of periphery is explored. The awareness process, from which the appropriation of this new dimension is derived, has added both depth and continuity to Ammerlaan’s oeuvre.
It makes sense to look upwards. What happens beyond our atmosphere directly influences our sublunary existence: from the radiation of the sun to the satellites that orbit the earth, constantly connected to the phones held in our hands. The popularity of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and his forthcoming Mars missions, potentially transforming man into an interplanetary species, show a revival in the urgency of space exploration.
Ammerlaan follows scientific developments with great interest: he draws inspiration from a breakthrough in life extension research; from literature on artificial intelligence and singularity; or from a visit to an observatory. Likewise influential are Ammerlaan’s travels abroad. In Russia, he became fascinated by obscure philosophies such as Russian Cosmism, as well as by the role of the orthodox church in that society. An important theme in his work is the apparent dichotomy between science and religion: ultimately, both are driven by the rigorous desire for human progress, striving toward the possibility of eternal life. As George M. Young wrote in The Russian Cosmists (2012): “In the future, death will no longer be necessary for evolution. Man will not be formed by biological necessity but by human reason.”
Ammerlaan’s South East London studio, housed in in a former factory, displays the range of his broad interests. There are books on philosophy, art, science and space travel, including books written by futurist Ray Kurzweil. On the workbench a meteorite, next to a small metal bust of the nineteenth century godfather of rocketry avant la lettre Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
It seems as though a modern day alchemist is at work here: the space is strewn with evidence of endless material and process driven experimentations. There are numbered scraps of textiles covered with material testing, next to the sewing machine are containers holding various pulverized metals, bottles of binding agent, an iron. A small vial contains gallium, a metal which melts at a temperature so low, that between your fingers it transforms into wondrous small silver droplets. Collaborating with chemists, Ammerlaan modified this substance to be suitable for painting onto his canvases. Largely absent in the studio are oil paints, although the multicoloured streaks on the walls divulge that Ammerlaan has done plenty of painting here in the past.
But even in his earlier work, Ammerlaan pushed the boundaries of painting. As in his exploration into the construction of a line: substituting a line of paint for a single thread line stretching the painted surface. His most recent work continues to build on that research through stitching together pieces of canvas. Thread remains present, now in the form of complex machine made embroideries.
The iridescent colours of Ammerlaan’s important series, oil spills (2010 – 2013) were the result of an unpredictable chemical process, the outcome of which could scarcely be controlled by the artist. In his recent work, the release of control remains important. Ammerlaan leaves untreated canvas in the outdoors, exposed to the elements. Through this process, they become rudimentary, indexical recordings of the natural cycles of their surroundings. Markings are created by rainfall, sunlight, particles of dust and air pollution settling onto their surfaces. Scattered across the fabric are minuscule specks, a dust formed of eroded plant debris, detritus, and organisms. This dust makes the earth fertile, and allows new life to grow. In the words of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “Since everything that is matter can, under favourable circumstances, convert to an organic state, then we can conditionally say that inorganic matter is in embryo (potentially) living.”
Once the canvas is impregnated with this earthly matter, Ammerlaan introduces the extraterrestrial material, acquired through meteorite chasers. An examination by the Natural History Museum has dated meteorites to be as old as the beginning of our solar system. By far, meteorites are the most ancient material that can be found on Earth: scientists believe them to be the source of organic matter that laid the groundwork for life. Taking the meteorites to a specialised company, Ammerlaan has had them pulverised. Mixed with a binding agent, the resulting powder adheres to the canvas: a new, alien pigment.
Ammerlaan’s recent work demonstrates curiosity, perfectionism, an open and inquisitive mind and an explorative attitude. Like any good artist, he is aware of the zeitgeist without literally following suit. His decision to explore outer space is a brave one that demands finding a precarious balance between the theoretical and the spiritual. By working with meteorite dust, Ammerlaan has found a concrete way to make tangible the extraterrestrial.
Perhaps we resist thinking about outer space because it goes beyond our ability to comprehend. We may become overwhelmed by the realisation that we reside on a sphere spinning through infinite space, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Does Ammerlaan suffer these thoughts? “That is precisely the function of art: to confront the fear of the unknown, of the unfathomable.”
Marian Cousijn is a writer and art critic, currently working as a curatorial fellow at Tate Modern in London.