Bowels of Steel

Research presentation

Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths College

29th September 2016

Bowels of Steel

Kate Pickering

Figs. 1 & 2: Pyura Chilensis; Fig. 3: Lloyds of London.

Figs. 1 & 2: Pyura Chilensis; Fig. 3: Lloyds of London.

In Tom McCarthy’s recent novel Satin Island (2015), the protanogist U becomes obsessed with parachutists who have had their cords cut. He muses:

‘That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all- the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety- worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved. For this man, though, the victim, that system, its whole fabric, had unravelled. That, and not his death, was the catastrophe that had befallen him. We’re all going to die: there’s nothing so disastrous about that, nothing in its ineluctability that undermines the structure of our being. But for the faith, the blind, absolute faith into whose arms he had entrusted his existence - for that to suddenly be plucked away: that must have been atrocious. He’d have looked around him, seen the sky, and earth, its land mass and horizon, all the vertical and horizontal axes that hold these together…this realm, with all its width and depth and volume, would have, in an instant, become emptied of its properties, its values. The vast font at which he prayed, and into which he sank, as though to re-baptise himself, time and again, would, in the blink of a dilated eye, have been voided of godhead, rendered meaningless…Negative world, negative sky, negative everything: that’s the territory this man had entered. Did that then mean he’d somehow fallen through into another world, another sky? A richer, fuller, more embracing one? I don’t think so.’ (1)

The question of what happens in the moment of disorientation upon the realisation that the cords have been cut underpins my research, conversely functioning as a stable ground from which to try out prototype falls into the void. Is this strategy a fundamentally melancholy proposition, or can it be constructive? Can it elaborate how a subject, in that moment of self realisation and dishabituation, might perceive him/herself as object, and in doing so reconfigure and reorient both subject and object?

In the essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, Hito Steyerl writes: ‘Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people.’ (2) She proposes that the disorientation of falling may blur the perceived distinction between subjects and objects, an apparent porosity opening up between them.

These images show a bisected Pyura Chilensis, also known as ‘blood rock’, a hermaphroditic sea squirt or tunicate which resembles a mass of organs enclosed by a rock like carapace. It is a filter feeder that eats by sucking in seawater and filtering out microorganisms. Fishermen typically cut it into slices with a handsaw, then use their fingers to pull out the edible siphons (which they refer to as tetas, or "udders") from it’s tunic, which is discarded. Pyura chilensis has a high concentration of Vanadium, a metal used as a steel alloy, resulting in a significant increase in the strength of steel.

The third image shows the facade of Lloyds of London, located in the ‘Square Mile’, the City of London’s financial district. Lloyds of London, not to be confused with Lloyds bank, was established in the 17th Century and is considered the world’s leading insurer, formed of a society of specialist insurance syndicates, who price and underwrite risk. It’s efficiency depends on a single market place under one roof known as ‘The Room’, the underwriters relying on the contact gained from working in this one open space. The Grade 1 listed Lloyds building, also known as the ‘Inside Outside Building’, was designed by Richard Rogers, and is a leading example of Bowellism architecture, in which the services for the building, such as water, heating and ventilation ducts, lifts and toilet pods, are located on the steel clad exterior to maximise space for ‘The Room’. Rising the full twelve storey height of the building, the room is described by Kenneth Powell as ‘..a heroic space that creates the same sense of scalelessness as the open sky.’ (3) Peter Cook in Architectural Review wrote that the interior is ‘so designed that it becomes.. the visionary’s dream of symbiosis between animal and machine…’ (4)

The functional bowels of the building are exposed in the form of looping stainless steel stairwells and curling ducts that wrap themselves around the facade, the obverse of the concentrated Vanadium metallic mineral hidden within the bowel like interior of the Pyura Chilensis. Both building and creature begin to elicit an uneasy anthropomorphism within the viewer, where the separation between organic and inorganic breaks down.

My practice, bearing both objects in mind, aims for a form of over-writing where the reader is precipitated into the negative world, negative sky, negative everything of McCarthy’s U. Where a sink hole opens up beneath Lloyds of London, whose motto is Fidentia, Latin for “confidence”, and in the process of collapse a reversal of the facade occurs, where objects are turned inside out, or outside in, the reader propelled into a disorienting space where they merge with falling building, where the safety net of insurance fails and accelerates both a metaphorical and literal cutting of the cords.


1. McCarthy, T (2015) Satin Island Random House p.79-80
2. Steyerl, H (2011) 'In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective' E-Flux [Online] Available from: 
3. Powell, K (2004) Richard Rogers : Architecture of the future Birkhauser Verlag AG p.93
4. Cook, P Architectural Review October 1986 p.49