> Elaine Duigenan: the universal seen in the everyday.

Camilla Brown / Elaine Duigenan: the universal seen in the everyday.

December 2018


“…Elaine Duigenan’s images in Micro Mundi show how the random exceedingly slow wanderings of a mollusk feeding can depict our planet’s network of paths, roads, and rivers as we view them exceedingly fast from the portal of space, circling our globe every 90 minutes. The relationship found between the micro and macro worlds can help us better understand the delicate fragility of our planet …”

 – Leland Melvin, Astronaut


It was a chance encounter with the astronaut Leland Melvin which led to images from Elaine Duigenan’s Micro Mundi series being literally sent into space. The astronaut then photographed her images from an orbiting space shuttle with the earth visible below. The circular shape of her prints matched the shape of the space shuttles window onto the world. The artist felt there was an uncanny visual connection between her black and white images of snail trails and the patterns seen from space over the surface of the earth. Taking the photographs into orbit added a new performed element to the work.

This example illustrates well how Duigenan’s practice operates; she focusses on the minutiae and is through that able to start to discuss very much larger issues. In other series, she has looked at hairnets and Nylon stockings – both things that seem mundane. Scanning these objects she starts to make us look almost under a microscope at them. She observes that some hair nets are made from hair and that the genetic make-up of hair has not altered over many generations. She comments:

“Hairnets have been found in archeological digs and gravesites dating from the 13th century onwards. The ones I have focussed on were made from real human hair in the 1920s to 1950s. They are delicate and often hand woven.”

There is often a hand-made connection to Duigenan’s work, she nearly always works in monochrome and prints her own work. Making her own print is a key to her, a practise shared by many photographers who wish to control the tones and nuances of their prints. Some of this texture and depth can get lost in the digital translation of the work – she is an artist whose prints are well worth seeing first hand. She has also used a variety of cameras and techniques for her work – scanning objects to scrutinise and isolate them and also photographing and filming her work.

Her work Blossfeldt’s Apprentice appears on her website in both a film and still image variation. In the moving image version of the work, we see how the pieces were produced. The process is a really key element of Duigenan’s work, which often has quite a sculptural quality to them. Influenced by Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants made in 1928, Duigenan decided to make objects which, when photographed, look surprisingly similar to these botanical photographs. However, Duigenan has made her objects from everyday twist ties. She describes her process stating:

“I had become a maker…. Twisting, tying and bending the material to my will. .. My specimens taunted me with their flaws but [I] slowly realised that this was the point of the work – to show the joins, the loose threads and embrace the imperfections.”

She titles the series Blossfeldt’s Apprentice as she had embraced making sculptures which she then photographed. Blossfeldt built up an archive of detailed magnified photographs of plants and flowers which his students learnt and studied from in order to make their sculptures. It was his belief that perfection was found in nature. Looking closely at plants revealed the perfect patterns and blocks from which they were created.

Conceptually here Duigenan combines a study of a master of photographic history and dissects in some ways the very concept of the botanical study and its use of the camera. She has mentioned that her technique was inspired through the study of outsider art at the Wellcome Collection particularly the work of Shota Katsube. Certainly, her choice of material connects to art that is made from things close by to the artist, rather than art materials. There is a noticeable strand of her practice which is about destabilising any sense of a hierarchy of objects or materials. Often Duigenan is studying things that would go otherwise overlooked. In her work with twist ties, she produces here a piece of contemporary art that sits perfectly between sculpture and photography. The work is very in tune with contemporary artistic debates, particularly in the notion of revealing and highlighting how flaws and failure are in fact a key component of creative production.  

The moving image version of her work which appears on her website is an interesting development in her practice. In the film, we see a close-up of her handling the twist ties and shaping them. Her hands are shown and this conveys a real sense of touch and how she sculpts the work. She has made this version in part to dispel the disbelief of many who had to be convinced about how she had constructed her works for the photographs. The process can be hard to evidence. Using film in this way – shot from overhead in the main – was reminiscent of the use of time-motion studies in early production line processes. Ford used and analysed the overhead film to record how his workers were making objects and it enabled him to analyse how to move things closer to hand to speed up and streamline factory production. For Ford, it was all about efficiency. Duigenan’s use of film aims, in contrast, to reveal the rhythm and pace of her work as an artist, we are getting that rare glimpse to see the moment of artistic creation.

In her series, The Dreadful and the Divine Duigenan moves from botanical specimens to surgical instruments. She made the work during a residency at the Royal College of Surgeons. She was looking at the instruments used which can inspire fear and awe. She was fascinated by how these tools became the extensions of the surgeon’s hands. As Dr Simon Chaplin stated:

“Instruments can be exquisite and seductive, inviting the curious eye. Yet when wielded by the surgeon we dare not look; they are the means to open the body and put it back together – instruments of a power simultaneously dreadful and divine.”

Duigenan has picked knives and forceps and shown the objects held by a hand wearing a rubber glove. The objects are exposed with their rusty edges. The titles reveal their sordid function – Amputation knife; Scraper; Abdomen retractor. Through the words and images, we see the human body laid out and dissected.

There are many more projects in the pipeline for Duigenan which extend and continue her interests. A work in progress Sex Pistils is a close-up look at a pistil which is the female reproductive part of a flower. As with work discussed here, she uses an almost scientific approach to examine the plants but creates work that speaks of female fecundity and sexuality. Again she is able to use the study of something small to speak about much larger concepts of life, seeing the universal in the everyday.

  – essay for Photomonitor by Camilla Brown



All images at right © Elaine Duigenan

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