Dark Matter: Pitch Drop Cities

Dark Matter: Cities - London (detail)

Dark Matter: Cities – London (detail)

Bitumen* is a petroleum based product that feels solid at room temperature yet moves over time. It is a preservative, one of the oldest materials used in building and a subject of scientific interest.

Bitumen has been bubbling out of the ground in Southern California, Southern Iraq and other sites around the world for thousands of years. From the Ice Age to the present, bitumen has perfectly preserved things entrapped in it. Extinct plants and animals from 40,000 years ago have been discovered, preserved on site at Rancho La Brea in the heart of what is now Los Angeles.

In southern Iraq, ancient model boats from 2300-2100 BC were found in graves in the cemetery at UR. It is thought the boats may have been intended for use by the dead person or as ‘bait’ to lure away evil spirits. There is a 4000 year old bitumen boat in Room 56 of the BritishMuseum. The small boats made of bitumen and earth are similar to those used in the marshes of south Iraq today.

In 1927 Professor Thomas Parnell began the Pitch Drop Experiment at the University of Queensland. As a classical physicist, Parnell used the observable property of ‘creep’ or permanent deformation exhibited by pitch to set up an experiment to study the material’s fluidity and high viscosity. Since 1927 eight drops of pitch have fallen from a funnel into a beaker below.  The ninth drop is expected to fall in 2013.

Dark Matter: Cities – London replicates Parnell’s scientific experiment with a bitumen London sited in the funnel.  Like Parnell’s experiment this sculpture, comprised of 95/25 bitumen compound, will move to ground over decades.  Already the London Eye has keeled over; St. Paul’s is slipping into blackness.

Dark Matter: Cities - London

Dark Matter: Cities – London
Bitumen 95/25, funnel, beaker, tripod, bell jar, stand


All cities change.  Dark Matter: Cities – Detroit finds the city’s skyline  sinking under the weight of its dark troubles. The current Detroit is a shadow of its former self. In time it will take a new form. What that form will be is uncertain. What is certain is that it will not be like the old city.

Dark Matter Cities Detroit Day 1

Dark Matter: Cities – Detroit
Day 1
Bitumen 95/25, 70/100, hourglass, stand, 30x12x12cm


Dark Matter Cities Detroit Day 5 detail

Dark Matter Cities Detroit Day 5 detail

The ‘Dark Matter’ series refers to the vast majority of matter and energy in the universe that exists but cannot be seen. In the ‘Dark Matter’ sculptures the properties of bitumen are exploited to explore work that, like nature, changes over time and moves from form to formlessness. Their descent into disorder evokes ideas of time, entropy, chaos and loss. The rate at which each sculpture moves is determined by temperature and the grade of bitumen. Sculptures made of more viscous grades will move to ground over hours, days or weeks.  Eventually, all ‘Dark Matter’ sculptures will exist only as pools of pitch containing them and  other things entrapped with them.

*The words bitumen/tar/pitch are used interchangeably.

My thanks to HCDS, AM Designs, and Hamilton Glass.


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