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Cumbrian Alchemy

Cumbrian Alchemy: Certum est quia impossibile est*

Bryan Wilson and Robert Williams

Cumbrian Alchemy, Hosted by the University of Cumbria, and supported by Arts Council England, brings together American artist Bryan Wilson, and British artist and academic Robert Williams in a collaborative project which seeks to explore the coincidental relationships between the nuclear, mining and renewable industries of the Energy Coast, the landscape, archaeology and folklore of North Lancashire and Cumbria; and scientific figures from the region including such luminaries as the originator of modern atomic theory John Dalton, physicist Michael Faraday and Sir Richard Owen, the founder and first keeper of the Natural History Museum in London.

The project is an enquiry into the place, the space, the people and the monuments of the region, and what may be imagined, inferred and deduced from the proximity of places of power, be they within landscape, of natural phenomenon, megalithic monuments, or industrial installation. The two artists have an interest in working with impossible materials such as deeptime, ghosts, narrative and speculation.

Wilson and Williams are supported in their project by respected international artists, scientists and archaeologists, and by the contemporary inhabitants of Cumbria, who will contribute to the work by offering their responses and thoughts as the project progresses over a seven month period.

Bryan McGovern Wilson is multidisciplinary artist whose work addresses themes of time, the body, and ritual.  Wilson looks to craft traditions as methodology, and archaic symbolism, and field research as strategy to inform his works. He currently lives and works in New York City.

Robert Williams is an artist and academic, Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cumbria. William’s interdisciplinary practice encompasses an interest in epistemology and systems of knowledge from the hermetic to the scientific. His recent practice includes a number of collaborative projects with his 13 year old son, Jack Aylward-Williams, the American artist Mark Dion and the British conceptual practitioners informationasmaterial.

Wilson and Williams have worked closely together of the past few years on projects such as Opus Magnum: Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum for the Mildred’s Lane Project in Pennsylvania, and An Ordinall of Alchimy with Mark Dion for Cabinet Magazine. Cumbrian Alchemy is their first UK based project together.

*It is certain, because it is impossible


In 2011 the University of Cumbria funded a project to bring an American artist, Bryan McGovern Wilson to Cumbria. In collaboration with Professor Robert Williams, the pair explored the relationships between the Nuclear Industry of the Energy Coast (eg. Heysham & Sellafield, & Energus), the archaeology & folklore of North Lancashire/Cumbria (eg. St. Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham: The stone graves & the hogback stone, Long Meg & her daughters), scientific figures from the region (eg. John Dalton: Atomic Theory, Michael Faraday, Sir Richard Owen) and an interest in working with impossible materials – for example, Wilson is currently working with Trinitite, a glass created by the atomic explosions of the Manhattan Project, as part of his investigation of Robert Oppenheimer.

This aspect of the project was a first engagement event over several weeks to carry out initial research in order to explore the context, opportunities and sites with a view to developing a project leading towards a major exhibition and publication.

This first phase helped with the development of research which is intended to become the basis of an exhibition and publication. Liaison and linkages with the major Nuclear concerns at Heysham & Sellafied, Energus, and with cultural institutions of the region. The project explored these relationships within an interdisciplinary & intertextual arts project.

This project seeks to build on that work, continuing to explore the art associated with the energy coast and to produce a major exhibition on the west coast and a publication that is highly relevant to the lives of many west coast inhabitants.

Project outcomes

The project will engage with people and organisations on Cumbria’s Energy Coast to develop material associated with the areas most significant employers.

Material will be used to produce a major exhibition in a West Coast gallery that is relevant to the lives of many inhabitants.

A publication, reflecting the relationships between the energy coast and its inhabitants will be published and will reach out to a wide sector of the population, many of whom will be poorly engaged with the arts.

The work will encourage an interest in, and engagement with, the arts on Cumbria’s West Coast, thereby developing relationships and encourage further support of the arts.