Visualizing Pollution with Leni Dothan
By Marine Tanguy (Founder of MTArt Agency), guest contributor
Marine Tanguy: Let’s start with one of my favorite stories - tell us where you are from and your first steps in realizing that you were an artist.
Leni Dothan: I was lucky enough to be born into a very creative family. My great grandparents were artists in Vienna before the war and my family is very artistic. We continuously challenge each other and communicate frequently about our artistic works.
My grandparents from both sides also played a role in shaping my practice, points of view, and motivations. I call my grandparents from my father’s side the ‘Diggers’ and from my mother’s side the ‘Builders’. The ‘Builders’ built the Kibbutz with their own bare hands. They had an ideology and they turned it into something real, a way of living. The ‘Diggers’ were well known archeologist who dug in the middle east and were key in the academic world in the understanding of the past and the ancient cultural world of the area. They pulled out of the earth beautiful sculptures and pieces of culture made by people, artists of their time. I am inspired by my grandparents’ passions and missions to reveal the political, material, and cultural relationships of the ancient world. They believed that revealing the past had the power to reconcile the conflicted present in the area. They dug, studied, and wrote every single day of their lives.
MT: Your works interact with the Renaissance ideology, now that you are also collaborating a lot with science - is the dream to be a polymath?
LD: Yes, definitely.
Since I’ve learnt about Renaissance art and the concept of the Renaissance Man, I was dreaming of becoming a Renaissance Woman myself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the female role model so it pushed me to go to a fine art department in high school which specialized in art. I then did my first degree in Architecture. For my thesis project I wrote a history book about the old city of Jerusalem, perhaps one the most explosive areas in the world. My strategy was to offer interventions in the historical timeline of the city. With this act I asked to break the taboo of this city as a monolithic unit and turn it to an urban living organism, for the sake of the people who actually live there.
Then in my art I continued with this strategy of interventions in the historical timeline, in order to break taboos. For example the taboo of the beautiful idealized mother which was depicted by male artists for hundreds of years. I made the the video Sleeping Madonna which shows Mary as a tiered mother falling asleep with her baby while breastfeeding, unable to live up to her own myth. When one see this the classical icon of the madonna and child, they will always see it alongside to the Sleeping Madonna, the real mother, which we are all familiar with - she is the partner, sister and friend, however, she is rarely depicted in the art.
When I arrived to UCL for my masters in Fine Art and later for the PhD program, I thought it will be my chance to finally touch science and work with the best brains in the world. I've always dreamt of inventing a new material, a new medium to work with. It took me time to find the right department. A collaboration with the Civil Engineering and the Extreme Citizen Science department by Muki Haklay led to the Chemistry department and the scientists Raul Quesada Cabrera, a specialist for Photocatalytic materials, and Andrea Sella, a leading chemist specializing in air pollution. I asked them to create for me a pollution reactive material that I could print my artworks with. The two main objectives were to turn the invisible enemy of air pollution into something visible, and to use the already existing chemicals in the air instead of creating more harmful chemicals in the photographic process. I also asked them to create a pollution degrading material, a material that could fight air pollution. I then applied to an open call for b-side multimedia art biannual in Portland, U.K. They loved the idea and commissioned the first ever project that uses these materials.
MT: Tell us more about your science and art collaboration?
LD: Portland Stone Rehabilitation Centre is an artwork composed out of 200 pieces of Portland stone which I individually chose from the stone Firms Quarry in Portland. These stones were sent to London, just like many other Portland stones which make this trip on a daily basis as Portland stone is a primary construction material in London since 1666 and the Great Fire of London. It was because of the fire that they decided to replace timber with bricks and Portland stone. When the stones arrived to London, I painted and printed on them with two primary materials, a pollution degrading material which is activated by sunlight and a pollution reactive material. Inspired by the chemistry department, my studio at the Slade School of Fine Art UCL turned into a lab in which I divided the stones into groups and treated them differently. Each group tested the degradation of pollution differently.
Each of the 200 stones is documented before the exposure to sunlight and after the rehabilitation process. Some tests were conducted at the chemistry lab and also in my studio using a UV lamp, however, other tests were conducted for the first time at the High Angle
Battery in Portland, the site of the installation.
On the selected stones I printed and painted six different images taken from my video work Messenger 1. In these images a young child is nestled in his mother’s hands. 200 pieces of Portland stone are now carrying an image of a young boy soundlessly screaming into darkness. The mother’s hands wrapping his face as a megaphone, increasing a potential sound, resonating the detail of a divine cherub in a classical painting. However, this messenger is a complete opposite to the classical one, he is not a chubby-dreamy-innocent creature, inspiring love on his surroundings. This messenger is uncontrollable, as if it had been captured amidst a nightmare and perhaps polluted by the city, like the beautiful Portland stones.
MT: How can a project like Portland Stone Rehabilitation Centre change things?
LD: I think that people need to be more aware of the problem of air pollution. It is easy to miss this problem as air pollution is mainly invisible, and therefore often ignored. This is in a nutshell the vision of my project. To make the invisible visible and even eradicate the effects of pollution by turning back the clock. The power of such a collaboration between art and science enabled me to do this. The project allows spectators to witness pollution in a visual way and also witness the degradation of pollution in the fresh air of Portland with the help of a chemical material which degrades pollution by using UV light.
Through this project I also wish to bring more awareness to the exploitative relationship between London and Portland. Since the great fire of London in 1666, red bricks and Portland stones took over the new urban landscape of the city. The little isle of Portland is constantly being mined, leaving the island irreversibly wounded. Many streets and even main roads in central London are named after the isle of Portland and even so, not many Londoners know about this problematic relationship.
MT: What’s the future vision for this project?
LD: I would love to be able to create full color prints made out of air pollution. The scientists I'm working with have already discovered the colors magenta, green, yellow, and black but they are not stable yet. When I speak about the future projects with the chemists they laugh at me and say that I think in science fiction, rather than in science! We shall see...
MT: What was challenging about working with scientists?
LD: The only challenge was time - we are all busy working on our research, but also very passionate about the project. Besides that, I was surprised to discover how similar and familiar the work of scientists and artists is. The lab and the studio are equally chaotic, experimentation is the basis for everything. Bad experiments leads to the most beautiful results and curiosity is the motor engine for everything. I think that both scientists and artists are hoping to make a change, to contribute something new and to better the world through our work, in this case the powerful magic of combining art and science.