Published on Culture 24
John Grade – The Elephant Bed, Fabrica, Brighton, until August 31 2009
Brighton and Hove rests on a layer of powdered elephant, but do not be alarmed. The pachyderms in question lived in prehistoric times, sharing the region with buffalo and deer.
Their remains are collected in a strip of shale that washed out from under the Sussex downs about the time of the last Ice Age, some 200,000 years ago. This is now the bedrock on which the seaside city rests, giving its name to the latest giant installation at Fabrica.
There’s more to this geology lesson because the animal remains are mixed with chalk, and the local chalk is formed by coccolithophores. It was 80 to 110 million years ago that these tiny algae met a similar fate to the elephants. The South coast is now famous for their calcified sediment.
That’s quite a lot to get your head round, and this show doesn’t quite deliver on the full story. The Elephant Bed simply conjures up the lifespan of the stunningly-named algae, which appear as equally spectacular white suspended cones.
Fifteen of them hang from the building’s high rafters, each made from hundreds of small paper trays. Four of the coccolithophores appear part-submerged in an oily pool which occupies a third of the gallery floor, the water creeping up their stems.
The most striking thing about the display is the way these huge cones appear to float, at various heights, above the gallery floor. In the slightest breeze they come alive and sway in an approximation of the plankton they represent.
Visitors can experience the thrill of being microscopically small and wandering among the swaying life forms – there’s even one you can duck under and peer inside. Little or no background knowledge is required to enjoy the installation on this level.
Exhibition notes reveal that John Grade is fascinated by landscapes and has a thing for the geology of this part of England. In conveying this he has been partly successful, although you may be disappointed to find a lack of elephants at this show.