Fiona Annis: a portion of that which once was everything

NEW EXHIBIT AT THE CRAG: JULY 11 – SEPTEMBER 4

Fiona Annis, Da Corpo a Spirito. 3 cyanotype photograms, 2017.

This triptych is deceivingly simple- three shapes floating in blue squares. What are these mysterious forms? Underwater creatures, meteorites, dust specks? Could they be “portion(s) of that which once was everything,” chance pieces broken off of a whole? The exhibition title, a portion of that which was once everything, was chosen to move beyond binary thinking, and evoke the notion that at the heart of things we are simply (and extraordinarily) complexified star dust.


The recognizable blue pigment that dominates these photographic prints is produced by the 19th-century cyanotype technique. The famous and perhaps the first female photographer Anna Atkins published the first book illustrated with photographic images with her cyanotypes of biology specimens in 1843. 

These images are actually photograms, made without a camera. By applying objects directly to coated paper, the light directly creates a silhouette. A photosensitive solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide is applied to a surface, usually paper. The chemical reactions results in the insoluble Prussian Blue dye. Exposures can take 10 to 20 minutes. The remaining undeveloped yellow iron solution is then rinsed away, letting the blue dye darken as it dries.


Anna Atkins, “Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit,” Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Cyanotype photogram, 1843. New York Public Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?419608.

What does an image of something we can see and hold satisfy for us? A record like a photograph can preserve and replicate an ephemeral object. However, the record is limited in what qualities of the object it can record. Paradoxically, a photogram (made without a camera) is less mediated than a typical photograph (where the camera stands between the photographer or viewer and the subject), but the object is more obscured, only revealing its outline without depth or colour. Going even further, can the document reveal in this process of transference something that the object’s physical presence does not?

Big questions like these loom in Annis’s work. What underpins the drive to explain our existence? Think back to the title of the triptych, meaning “from body to spirit” in Italian. Just as a photograph distills an object’s physical qualities (the “body”) to intangible knowledge (the “spirit”) through the process of semiotics, so too can astronomy’s depth of knowledge about our universe inform spirituality and philosophy.

Historically, astronomical discoveries have been linked to debates such as Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church. Take, for example, the magnificent achievement of the recent photo of a black hole. These advancements are continually changing our perspective on the universe and our collective imagination, not unlike art. As we look outwards to the sky and beyond, we must also look inward at ourselves – where is our place in the world?


Join us Saturday, July 13th from 2 to 3:30 pm in the main gallery for a one-on-one dialogue between artist Fiona Annis and Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society to explore these rich themes further. Cost is a $5 donation to the CRAG.