Bitumen is a form of pitch and it possesses pitch-blackness. It is a naturally occurring, not-quite-solid substance that has been used as a waterproof adhesive over many centuries. Ancient Egyptians got it from the Dead Sea and embalmed their mummies with it; we pave our roads with it. But sometimes it behaves unpredictably. In the 19th century, a number of artists made the mistake of using bitumen in their oil paintings. While it initially brought a lustrous, velvety blackness, the substance gradually led to discoloured pigments and warped surfaces. It was particularly disastrous for Théodore Géricault’s disaster painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819), parts of which are now barely discernible.
In Charles Dennington’s work for NEW14, Peripheral Canopy, things are brought into sticky proximity while continually shifting and drifting. Found twigs and parts of bamboo stems are invited into tentative new configurations, where they seem to be approaching the limits of their physical capabilities. Unremarkable materials like foam and cardboard are repurposed and de-purposed. Sometimes they are made to become things that they aren’t; as with a house brick that has been carved out of a block of foam and coloured to look more like the brick that it isn’t. The vacant interior of a cracked eggshell, painted so black that it almost disappears, is framed by the stark whiteness of the shell’s exterior surface.
At room temperature, bitumen appears solid and can be shattered with a hammer — but it’s actually a highly viscous liquid. In 1927, the Pitch Drop Experiment was set up at the University of Queensland to demonstrate this. A piece of bitumen sits in a glass funnel releasing drops very, very slowly. Only eight drops have fallen from the fluid rock in more than eight decades, and no one has ever seen it happen. Cameras were set up when the last drop fell in 2000, but there was a technical problem and they failed to record it. The ninth drop is due any day now, and a webcam is currently streaming live from Brisbane, while viewers around the world watch in anticipation.
Around the time Géricault was applying the bitumen that would later ruin his paintings, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was discovering the photosensitive qualities of the same sticky black stuff. In 1826, he made the oldest-known photograph, before the word ‘photograph’ existed, by placing a bitumen-coated plate at the back of a camera obscura and capturing the view from an upstairs window of his house in Burgundy. The bitumen hardened in proportion to its exposure to light, and after at least eight hours by the window the plate was washed with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum, dissolving away the parts that hadn’t hardened. Niépce was left with a lasting miniaturised picture of the buildings that were visible from his window.
Every image is formed by light as well as its absence; shadows are as essential to vision as illumination is. Dennington’s Peripheral Canopy features a number of framed black-and-white photographic prints showing different faces amongst weird interplays of light and darkness. Webs of dark shadows were cast across the sun-lit surfaces with a hand-cut cardboard stencil. Nearby, a plinth presents a modular sculpture assembled from the same flat cardboard shapes that formed the voids through which the obscured faces in the photos are partially revealed. One side of these letter-like shapes has been painted bright white; the other side is the same pitch-black that fills the empty egg.
In the world’s earliest photograph, sunlight was used to carve a direct positive picture into bitumen. Niépce called the process heliography, which means ‘writing with the sun’. Because the exposure needed to last eight hours or more in order to leave a lasting impression on the heliographic surface, the buildings shown in the 1826 picture are lit from both left and right. Illuminated from multiple angles at once, the scene shows all times of the day simultaneously. As with the brittle-gooey bitumen in the Pitch Drop Experiment, that which appears to be a solid, delineated form is in fact an unfurling process. We are reminded that even things thought of as static and permanent are always in the midst of durational span; not least because the sun, our main source of light and medium of sight, has no fixed position in our space.
There is also a lack of fixed position in Peripheral Canopy, where seemingly static structures are in fact sites for dynamic relations and roving associations. Things gather and disperse, hovering at the thresholds of legibility. As that sticky black bitumen continues to wreck slow-motion havoc across Géricault’s painting in the Louvre, and drips away from itself with excruciating infrequency in a glass funnel in Queensland, there is a gradual amorphousness at play throughout Dennington’s work.