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Site-Specific Cyanotype: Creation to Installation with Jonathan Kay

Negative Mass, (2019) Cyanotype photogram on cotton, Atrium on Takutai Square, Britomart, Auckland, 10 July – 7 September.
Negative Mass, (2019) Cyanotype photogram on cotton, Atrium on Takutai Square, Britomart, Auckland, 10 July – 7 September.

Your large-scale cyanotype artworks, such as Negative Mass, are site-specific

installations that engage with the environment. Could you elaborate on the

significance of creating these artworks in specific locations and how they interact

with their surroundings?

I was interested in making work that connected to the landscape itself reflecting its

unique qualities and that goes beyond the expected landscape image. I really enjoy

projects when I can’t imagine the end result, and so I started to imagine what it would be

like to touch a glacier - what does it feel like? And what would be like to connect with its

surface? How would I do this photographically? Within this in mind I decided to use

cyanotypes, a 19th century photographic process, however these images would be

made through a cameraless process known as the photogram. So it all began with the

idea of touching a landscape – in this case ice/water.

What is fascinating is how the cyanotype records the environmental conditions over an

extended time period. Not only are they impacted by what they are in connection with

(usually ice or water) but the weather/sun also effects their development. The piece

‘Fieldwork’ has a white spot that turned up immediately and was because of a chemical

residue on the roadside. The work ‘Negative Mass’ changed a lot of the 3 day period

due to it raining and this gave it a velvety texture in places. It also has a foot print where

someone stood on the work while it was exposing. ‘Ice Field’ was a direct reaction to the

shapes and forms of the glacier but also was dependent on the water dripping for its

surface. Some details you get so excited about as you start to see them form but then

they disappear – it is all a part of the process.

on the left: Negative Mass, (2019) on the right: Fieldwork

I would love to talk about the process itself, working with large coated

cyanotype fabrics must present unique challenges. Could you share some

insights into the process of managing and handling such large-scale materials

during the creation of your artworks? As well as the challenges posed by the fact

that cyanotype is photo-sensitive and exposes in a relatively fast timeframe. 

For ‘Negative Mass’ we ended up using my brothers garage and making it somewhat of

a darkroom by tapping up the windows. I purchase the raw chemistry, mix it up by the

litre then layer up the fabric on the floor and paint it on using brushes. You can’t soak the

material as this would take to much cyanotype liquid and it would take too long to dry. I

always try a twist out any excess chemicals onto the next one. I had a team of 5 working

with me to coat the fabric totalling 113 meters – it was an extremely time consuming

process. I then use heaters and dehumidifiers to speed up the drying process.

At the start I was concerned with the fast exposure time of the cyanotype but I found that

when they are exposing in the environment for such extended periods of time it does

really matter. They are going to change over time and it is more about what they are in

connection with.

Installing your fabric-based cyanotype artworks in public spaces creates a

distinct viewing experience for the audience. How do you approach the

installation process to ensure the desired impact and engagement with the


It all depends on the site where it is being exhibited and adapting it to architecture of that

space. I work at quite a large scale as I want these works to echo the environment in

which they are made. I think carefully about how the audience will encounter the work

and how the installation can be effectively employed to enhance the concept.

For example, after being washed and dried, ‘Negative Mass’ was installed in the atrium,

60m from where it was created. The fabric was divided into three smaller low

hanging bows that falls from an interior bridge and raises toward the large atrium wall.

This shape echo’s the downward curve of a glacial equilibrium graph used to analyse

the accumulation and ablation of mass. As the audience walked under the apex of the

installation and looked up they saw the ghostly patterns illuminated from above.

The materiality of the fabric is of interest to me in creating a work that feel alive and has

some sense of movement. ‘Negative Mass’ fabric moved gently in the wind,

inhaling and exhaling as it responded to the conditions of the space.

In your practice, you explore the intersection between art, science & climate

crisis. How do the cyanotype process contribute to the conceptual depth and

visual impact of your artworks? Also, despite both cyanotype chemicals have low

toxicity levels and are not classified as hazardous materials, how do you manage

the disposal (especially when it comes to site specific installations)?

The magic of the photogram, a cameraless process that forges a connection by touch

between object, surface and light. In the series ‘Ice Field’ the images were made by

placing the cyanotype sheets within and against sections of the glacier (crevasses, ice

caves, ice canyons, ice arches and seracs). The resulting images are a consequence of

a reaction between the physical forces; water, ice, and light. However, there was a

secondary processthat impacted the exposure. While the sheets were exposing,

dripping watereffectively developed and destroyed the image concurrently. This process

created a conceptual relationship where the ice/glacier was active in the recording of a

form, whilst simultaneously destroying the recording.

This historical process has been used in a way that connects the viewer to the intimately

to the forms, structures, and details of glacial terrains. The blue colour ties connects with

the blue that you witness on the glacier where the ice has been compressed.

The chemistry of the cyanotype has always been a bit of a concern, but through my

research I have found that it would have very limited impact on the environment. For

‘Negative Mass’ I very worried about putting a cyanotype into such a public place and

actually talked to a chemist who confirmed that it was safe for people and the

environment. I always make sure that the final cyanotypes are washed in environments

that have a lot of water to dilute the chemistry.

Fieldwork (Final work) Park(ing) Day, Wellington (2018). Cyanotype photogram on cotton with 130kg block of ice. 230 x 600cm

I'm curious to know what has been the public response to this artwork, and how

do you perceive its effectiveness in stimulating conversations and thoughts about

climate change? I'm also interested in the public reaction to the cyanotype

prints, do people ask about the process itself? does it raise curiosity? 

It was interesting because we were there for the 3 day in which it was being exposed.

There was different levels of engagement, some people just walked passed, some

people stop ask about the process and others stayed for a long time to discuss climate

change. I spent those 3 days talking to people and it was so interesting to hear peoples

thoughts and fears for the future. It really made me change the way I viewed my artwork

and now consider it a way of activating discussion in relation to climate change. Many

people came back multiple times to see how the cyanotype had changed.

What is important to me is that the work is not literal, it offer no direct answers, but

connects on an emotional level about a landscape (glacier) that has a perilous future.

This is important because we are bombarded with data/information that it is hard to

grasp what is happening with climate change. I believe that art can play a powerful role

in facilitating an intimate connection with a landscape and how this could achieve a

contemplative and lasting effect.

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