I started to work on this image about four months ago. It’s been a long and extremely slow process. I was sure about the scale I would be working on (7 meters long by 1,5 meters high – 300gr watercolor roll paper) and the species I wanted to represent – o Canavial; the cane field -, but the time spent dealing with the process was what, ultimately, set the pace.
Because working with this scale is a first for me, I had to adjust to different measurements and quantities. Being an ephemeral work – an anthotype – I knew I’d be working with huge amounts of chlorophyll, so four months ago I started the process of extracting it from the wild plants in my backyard (mostly chenopodium album, nettles and tomato leaves). I harvested, dehydrated them (in an allocated room) and then cut the leaves in small pieces and left them in jars with alcohol (isopropyl) for about a week. Finally, I filtered the solution and made some final adjustments.
The scale brought about another set of challenges, namely: how to create such a big contact frame. First, I thought I’d rely only on the weight of the canes and their layering to achieve the desired effect, but then ended up doing multiple layers and using some glasses in the final layer to get more sharpness.
I’m not sure how many kilos I harvested during the period, I just know I extracted about 15 litres of chlorophyll solution (used in tests and in the final print). I then added a bit of blue dye (food dye), to get a deeper level of green and avoid clean highlights (about 40ml of blue dye to 15 liters of chlorophyll solution).
In the weeks prior to making the final image, I also began harvesting the canes (Arundo donax), in order to dry them before layering them in contact with the paper. Had I not done this, the condensation would have left even bigger marks (usually round blots that bleach the solution). On top of the dried canes, I then layered fresh ones, which are more opaque and can guarantee a bigger range of densities throughout the image.
Finally, I set up a tent in the terrace, put some opaque black plastic below and above, in order to prepare the paper and be able to do the composition. Both these phases turned out to be quite long. The photosensitization phase was done late in the afternoon, it then dried overnight in a room and the exposure was made the day after. I started early, setting up the tent, laying the paper and preparing the composition. The cover plastic was then removed at noon, when the conditions were just right for exposure.
To achieve a result that I felt represented my daily experience with the cane fields around my house, I spent some time experimenting with movement, density and texture. I experimented with having the first layer as a negative one (for the chlorophyll layer makes a positive image) using eucalyptus and wild roses, but then ended up dropping that idea and doing something else, namely:
First layer: a solution made of young eucalyptus leaves heated in water for 1 hour. The solution rested for about 48 hours and was then applied onto the paper with painting rolls. No exposure was made on this layer.
Second layer: after the eucalyptus layer dried for some days in a dark room, I applied a chlorophyll solution and exposed it for 2 hours (from 12 to 14 pm) with a mix of dried and fresh canes on top, without glasses.
Intervention: some days after, I manipulated the image with ferrous sulfate, which, in contact with the eucalyptus solution, allows me to make darker shades of brown to black.
Third layer: another chlorophyll layer, exposed for about 1 hour (12 to 13 pm), with dried canes, some glasses and fresh canes on top of the glasses.
Several things went “wrong” and I’m unhappy with the final result: some condensation, difficulties dealing with the wind that is almost always blowing where I live and, finally, not having enough time to make a forth layer, which would have add a bit more movement and depth.
However, the process was very exciting and I learned a lot. Though the artwork has already been exhibited, I still haven’t had the chance to have a clear look at it. Its size makes it hard to contemplate the result. The original idea was always to install it in a corridor, so it would be experienced while passing through, never being able to see the entire image. That was achieved. Some people got emotional while looking at it (which in itself made it all worth it), but most of the people manifested their frustration for not being able to grasp the entire image, so I thought I’d now write a bit about my experience with the cane fields.
For some years I’ve been photographing this species – Arundo donax – cataloged as invasive. Its resistance and the way it dances with the wind, fascinate me. It frames the landscape in several locations where I usually hike. Its capacity to endure the extreme weather conditions where it is located is astonishing. Its versatility as well. Though it is mundane and discrete, I feel drawn to it. People usually ignore it, they tend to look at what stands out amidst the green fields – some pops of color, some rarer plants, etc. I think all of this together was what made me decide to create this landscape and install it in a corridor. As foreseen, most people passed through the artwork without regarding it, as they usually do while confronted with the canes in their natural environment. Now and then, someone stopped and felt somehow summoned to have another look, another experience.
When talking to a friend about the social significance of the cane fields, and while we debated on political metaphors, he suggested the cane fields are the working class: abundant, discrete, strong, resilient and necessary. I think that sums it up.
Does one need to change the conditions of its existence (the cane or the worker) in order to have it valued and dignified? Whose perspective needs changing, if any?