Stained Moonsby JAMESPLUMB
"It’s about seeing time as a material. This includes a certain aesthetic element ...but that’s not to say everything we work with has to be old. It’s more about our empathy for objects."
In an increasingly attention-deficient world, in which it seems impossible to escape the never-ending flash of imagery and an inexhaustible feed of information, the importance of how we encounter art — the very experience itself — cannot be understated. The essential link between object and atmosphere is something James Russell and Hannah Plumb, the team behind the multidisciplinary studio JAMESPLUMB, have ruminated on for some time. In their practice, art and design come together to closely examine how we might use an object, or inhabit a space. Otherworldly and seemingly outside of time, their unique aesthetic has garnered them public-facing projects for the likes of Aēsop, Hermès, Hostem and PSLab.
The couple, who met in 1999 on a foundation course at Wimbledon College of Arts, combined their artistic practices a decade later, under a portmanteau of their names. “We felt it should be one artistic identity: it’s not just Hannah or me, it’s become something of its own,” Russell says. “It’s one voice,” agrees Plumb. Their process is often grounded in materiality, evolving intuitively from a found object or a substance that, in some way, has a life of its own. “It’s about seeing time as a material,” says Plumb. “This includes a certain aesthetic element — a patina, for example — but that’s not to say everything we work with has to be old. It’s more about our empathy for objects.” Plumb’s earlier processes, rooted in animism, married well with Russell’s talent for finding the beautiful and sublime in the everyday. “One of our most treasured possessions is a black traffic cone that has been run over, which we found in Battersea Park,” she says. We’re sitting in their atelier in south London, not far from the two-up, two-down Stockwell cottage they live in with their Bedlington Terrier, Wilfred. The workspace, with its soaring roof, skylight, and wall of tools, is roomy enough to produce the large-scale, hand-tinkered works they are renowned for. Their latest project, a complex and poetic light-based work consisting of eight images of the moon, titled Stained Moons, is currently sitting next to us in well-packed crates destined for Northern Ireland. The site-specific installation of the work, Silent Light, will take the form of a two-week-long exhibition presented in conjunction with the National Trust.
Layered with poignant instances of temporality, Silent Light has been 18 months in the making and the detail and thought behind its execution are astonishing. The exhibition opens after twilight, so viewings take place in darkness, and lasts for half a moon cycle — from full to new. It all started some five years before with the discovery of several disused Victorian greenhouses, which were being dismantled and sold off. Plumb was captivated by the panes, which were mottled with lichen, and transformed by time. The ensuing exercise that evolved into Stained Moons was obsessive, Plumb says, involving an extensive ‘interviewing’ process — the couple’s term for examining their materials, borrowed from Russell’s mother, who, as a quilter, interviews her fabrics. “Some of the panes had a dirty or mossy patina,” Plumb observes. “On others it was quite faint, but if you held them up to the light, you could see a kind of whisper.” They began to play with the projection of light through stacks of the fractured glass. “It’s difficult to pinpoint how and when, but it became clear to us that we could evoke the moon’s surface with these patinas,” says Russell. Partially cleaning the panes, they left behind precise silhouettes to depict the moon at different phases of its cycle. “Essentially, we were image-making,” Plumb explains. “We were excited,” Russell adds. “The moon’s power and beauty are universal.”
Silent Light was born when Russell and Plumb stumbled across the late 18th century Mussenden Temple, a former library in a crumbling estate that once belonged to the eccentric Earl Bishop. Perched on a clifftop 37 m high, it overlooks the Atlantic Ocean in County Derry / Londonderry. Here, the images created by the overlapping greenhouse panes are cast onto suspended sheets of paper, using eight projectors that JAMESPLUMB hand-crafted in their studio — beautiful objects in their own right. The venue’s octagonal interior offers a perfect setting for this configuration, in addition to a long, dramatic path leading towards the temple at the cliff’s edge. “What we love about the temple is the transition from the exposed walk to the feeling of protection once you’re inside,” says Russell. To accentuate the contrast, there is no soundscape other than the footsteps of visitors, who are asked to refrain from speaking or using phones on the path and in the exhibition. “It’s its own little vacuum in a sense,” says Plumb. Once open for viewings after nightfall, the silent building takes on a sombre, observatory-like quality, lit only by the projectors and the reflected glow of the paper. The ancient transience of the moon is conjured by a circle of delicate, lichen-stained shadows. What a wonderful antidote to modern times.
Silent Light took place at Mussenden Temple between
9 – 23 February 2020.