THE ELEPHANT BED
11 July - 31 August 2009
In his first UK exhibition, John Grade created The Elephant Bed, a monolithic interpretation of the life-cycle of the coccolithophore. Billions of these invisible algae congregate just beneath the surface of the world’s oceans and, when they die, their protective outer casings drift down to add to thick sedimentary layers on the seabed. At the end of the Ice Age, one such strip of shale and sand washed down from the Sussex Downs, eventually compacting into the bedrock, the Elephant Bed, below modern Brighton and Hove.
Landscape is at the heart of Grade’s work, as well as his preoccupation with change and natural disintegration. The Elephant Bed consisted of a multitude of delicate, suspended forms, each constructed largely from water soluble paper.
At one end of the gallery lay a pool of oil into which, over the course of the exhibition, several of the forms were lowered, slowly absorbing the oil and losing structural rigidity. At the end of the exhibition, the remaining objects were carried down to the Brighton sea-front and committed to the sea, quickly dissolving in the prevailing waves. As with many of Grade’s works, The Elephant Bed was finally reclaimed by the environment that inspired it, perhaps contributing in some small way to the bedrock of future civilisations.
During the exhibition, artist in residence Teresa Whitfield allowed visitors to contribute to several of her large and complex lace drawings. Those with patience and steady hand were invited to draw on a tiny scale, responding to the micro-organisms that inspired Grade’s installation.
The Elephant Bed was a new sculpture created specifically for Fabrica by American artist John Grade.
The Elephant Bed stemmed from John Grade’s fascination with landscape and natural processes and specifically from his interest in the geological origin of the Southern English coast. His forms were derived, in part, from coccolithophores, trumpet-shaped marine algae that when dispersed and settled on the ocean floor form calcium deposits that later, through geological action, form chalk.
The Elephant Bed is the name of a chalk and shale layer that underpins much of Brighton, first identified by eminent Sussex geologist Gideon Mantell in 1834 and described as “an obscurely stratified mass, formed chiefly of chalk detritus, with a large intermixture of ochreous clay, and containing remains of the elephant, horse, buffalo, and deer”. Unlike the white cliffs that surround it, the elephant bed is recent in geological terms, its formation occurring towards the end of the last Ice Age, 200 thousand years ago.
Landscape is at the heart of John Grade’s work. Grade walks as a traveller, crossing vast and often extreme environments. Some are full of meaning like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, others defy human life such as the Jordanian desert or the Cascade Mountains on the US/ Canada border. When he returns to the studio he produces meticulously crafted work that combine a wide range of materials remindful of those places: wood pulps, goat fur, resins, home made ice, hot pepper sauce. Once constructed the pieces are then put back outside, into a harsh landscape, buried or left to decay, dissolve or be eaten, as nature intended. Always in transition and open to chance Grades sculptures are rarely finished. Occasionally dragging them back indoors to be exhibited or reworked, then returned again to the landscape as a possible final resting point. What we see in the gallery is just one part of a long journey of transformation.
Grade’s drawings, prints and sculptures have been shown extensively in galleries, museums and at precise outdoor locations across the USA. Most recent solo exhibitions include Bellevue Arts Museum, Boise Art Museum and the Suyama Space and Davidson Galleries in Seattle. In 2004 he was joined by his extended family in a residency in the Western boglands of County Mayo in Ireland. In 2007 he was resident artist at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Elephant Bed was his first exhibition in Britain.