Scottish artists Dalziel + Scullion have completed their latest health related art work, Corpus, in Cambridge. Here they reflect on this new piece, and its place within a body of work which has repeatedly returned to health and environment questions over the last quarter century.

John Muir at rest (Photo - John Muir Trust)

Prescribing a ‘walk in nature’ has become an increasingly recognised clinical means of remedying poor physical and mental health symptoms, garnering much media attention as an alternative solution to some of our modern day health problems. Though to many people this is not new, John Muir the Scottish ecologist and environmentalist wrote in 1901 that ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

There were of course many writers before and after John Muir, who have offered useful ways of being in contact with nature and tuning into observations worth taking notice of. 1 Artists too have worked in this vein presenting alternative methods of entering into and exploring ways for 21st century citizens to relate to the modest worlds of mussel colonies or of the connected efforts of forests. This is a subject our studio has engaged with over the last twenty-five years.





The Bathers (Photos - Dalziel + Scullion)












Early works from our studio that explored the potential to rekindle elements of nature so they might have a physical effect on our audience can be seen in The Bathers, 1993 and in an installation work called Sargassum, which was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Around this time we had recently moved from the post-industrial towns we grew up in, to a coastal location in the north east of Scotland where the enormous presence of the sea had a startling affect on us. The Bathers was a series of three glass-changing cubicles (similar in style to those seen around the outdoor swimming pools we had each experienced in our youth). In our version however, we projected tiny circular films of a different type of changing taking place. Sargassum continued to explore the transformative effects of water and consisted of a semi-transparent cloth stretched between two parallel walls, 9 meters long and 3.5 meters wide, arranged beneath the cloth were 50 blue light bulbs fitted with rotating discs, casting hypnotic watery shadows on the cloth above. Sargassum is the tangled seaweed that gives the Sargasso Sea its name, a mysterious cyclical sea, hemmed in - in clockwise circulation - by neighbouring sea currents. It has a long history in our cultural thoughts (overlapping as it does, with the watery area known as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’), a baffling, mesmerizing place, that can be calm and listless as well as cooking pot for hurricanes. Today it has the added darkness of hosting one of the world’s five gyres of marine debris, a floating island of plastics that occupies these unsettled waters.  Our artwork Sargassum created a hypnotic, transporting meditative space within the cacophony of the Venice Biennale. The rotating discs used under the stretched cloth came from spares used in old electrical fires that rotate under molded painted ‘burning logs’ where they cast a flickering red light adding to the pretense of being next to something alive and vital, a small theatre of sorts that recognises an ancient attraction within us to the elemental and an ability to dispel disbelief, to see what we want to see and feel soothed by what we feel we need.

Sargassum (Dalziel + Scullion)

In the subsequent years since making The Bathers and Sargassum we went on to make many other works that brought nature or references to it, into a number of different types of space, sometimes these were directly concerned with healing (Hospitals, Prisons and Clinics) 2 as well as places where this happened accidently (Bank Headquarters, Airports, Collieries, City Billboards and Call Centres) 3.

Examples from some of the 300 images installed by Dalziel + Scullion in the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Glasgow: Harris Shoreline by Beka Globe, left, and Findings by Dalziel +Scullion, right. (Photo - Dalziel + Scullion)













Guillemots at Fowlsheugh (Photo Dalziel + Scullion)

As artists we are very conscious of the long affiliation humans have with nature and whilst in recent decades this relationship has become somewhat strained, society is beginning to understand the consequences of distancing ourselves from more direct contact. Most of us will have experienced at some point in our lives, even if it is way back in childhood, the excitement of being immersed in nature, of being lost in both its playful and intrepid embrace, such encounters remind us not to sweat the small stuff, but instead focus on what really matters, prompting us to take stock of what we prioritise and value within a backdrop of where Nature appears to take care of its most basic needs with an apparent inspired efficiency of means.

Louise – I remember a defining moment for me when I was 8 months pregnant and scrabbling about, trying to make a living as an artists - and this was a decade after graduating and not long after our accountant told us to catch ourselves on and look for better paid work - thinking ‘what in hell made me think I was capable of this (parenting)?’  When I watched a guillemot rest her delicate round egg between her feet on a ledge no more than a few inches deep, below which was a 50’ drop to wave lashed rocks and felt for a moment a new found confidence pull my shoulders back and lift my chin up!



There is now a variety of persuasive evidence that clearly articulates the increased wellbeing that can be gained from exposure to nature both physically and mentally4 whether in great bouts of wilderness or just through more intimate revelations in your own back yard. In clinical observations, there is now substantive research demonstrating that being able to see, experience or contemplate nature has a marked improvement in the recovery times of acute patients in hospitals, as well as in the successful treatment of specialist groups such as those with Alzheimer’s disease and people suffering from depression. 5 In more general working environments, spaces that are perceived as hostile and alienating, result in an unhappy work force where absenteeism, high turnover rate and low productivity abound, these situations can be dramatically improved when restorative elements are applied to working environments making them more ‘nature savvy'. 6

Examples of illuminated images by Dalziel + Scullion, Vale Of Leven Gardens (left) and Fascally Woods (right)


We instinctively tuned into this as young artists, and more recently became interested in the quality of light (and in Scotland of the Seasonal Affective Disorder caused by very low levels of light) and made photographic works that incorporated day light balanced LED light sheets within them to illuminate images of dormant winter woods or slow rising post glacial landscapes. In more intimate works like Immersion Clothing 2014, we created a series of garments that invited their wearer to go out into a landscape and search for specific experiences that the clothing facilitated (getting wet, collecting things, lying down and watching).

In another work called Rosnes Bench, we made a series of thirty Benches that were installed over 12 diverse and remote locations throughout the 300 square mile landscape that is Dumfries & Galloway Forest Park. These quite simply invited the user to lie down and tune in. Mark Stephen, host of BBC Scotland’s weekend radio show Out Of Doors described them as follows: 

“I didn’t actually mean to do this, but it seems to be a genuine enough phenomenon therefore it is worthwhile commenting on. I lay on that bench for about 15 or 20 minutes, then got up and started to walk and it slowed down my perception of the wood, I can’t explain it any better than that, I am picking up more in the way of colour, more in the way of textures, smells, sounds, a trickle of water behind me that kind of thing. The effect for me was really quite extraordinary.”

Mark Stephen BBC Scotland | Out Of Doors 7th July 2014

View of pine canopy (left) & Rosnes Bench (right) (Photos Dalziel + Scullion)


It is this type of physical effect or awakening that we are interested in creating through our artworks. Where senses are opened up to more heightened realities, a deeper awareness of our immediate environment flourishes. In the case of the Rosnes Bench its design suggests or invites individuals to lie down. The horizontal view from the bench is a revelation: surrounding sounds are amplified because of the stillness, localised smells seem more distinct, and the wind passing over the skin feel more present - small occurrences are magnified and can be embraced by a willing participant. The artwork changes how we experience and perceive the environment and changes our position from being outside of nature to being inside it.

Aerial view of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, including computer generated images of proposed new buildings (Photo University of Cambridge)

These ideas have been revisited in a different context in our most recent work Corpus, whichhas just been installed in the grounds of a new biomedical research building at the University of Cambridge. Here we have installed a succession of ‘standing stones’ that reflect on the anatomy and psyche of being human. They recall the stone circles erected by our ancestors and appear as a series of scattered bone-like shapes. The sculptures draw on the structure of spinal vertebrae - a sophisticated design solution we have in common with many other species, that epitomises inner strength, persistence and determination. Often conceived of as a single column that stretches, bends and toils, the spine is made up of multiple linked units that allow complex connections to be made. In the context of a work for the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the idea of bone, as both a structural support and the vital source of life-giving blood production is iconic in this setting.



Corpus formwork (left) & Corpus stone cast (right) (Photos Dalziel + Scullion)


Corpus encourages people to interact with the stones, discovering that their form has been determined by the profile of the human figure, echoing a series of positions from recumbent through to standing. Of human scale, the seven individual forms influence different ways to sit, recline, lie or lean on their cool stony surfaces. Whilst each structure acts as a seat or a bench, there is also an evolution through the gradually changing postures of each that allows the user to experience a range of physical and psychological sensations, offering an opportunity to recalibrate and renew.

The scientific work pursued in the new building (The Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre that incorporates: the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases, the Kay Kendall Centre for Haematopoiesis and Haematological Malignancies, and the Milner Therapeutics Institute) will continue to develop research in directions we cannot presently conceive, yet this ever expanding field of knowledge and understanding is still being enacted out on our own ancient anatomy and physiology, bodies that have evolved alongside other species we share space and time with.

Burial grounds discovered beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College. (Photo University of Cambridge/PA)

The building itself does not especially advertise the activity that takes place within it. Here state of the art (for now) laboratories have been designed around specific pieces of machinery, floors are calibrated to work with ultra-sensitive measuring equipment and walls and doors conceived to contain work on pathogens that ought never to come in contact with unprotected human beings. Such work is a continuum of the labour that has been carried out on these grounds for centuries. Not far from here (at St John’s College one of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds in the British Isles was discovered. 400 complete skeletons were found together with parts from another 1,000 bodies dating back to between the 13th and 15th century when the site housed the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. In more recent times the adjacent Addenbrookes Hospital has excelled in neurological intensive care as well as specialisms in bone marrow transplants and facial reconstruction, amongst other medical triumphs. Neighbouring buildings focus on research for cancer treatments and diabetes cure as well as multimillion pound pharmaceutical companies. The concentrated thinking around what makes our bodies both vulnerable and successful is palpable on this site; the surrounding street names are saturated with a sort of Who’s Who of medical pioneers (and their wealthy patrons).




Corpus, newly installed (Photo Dalziel + Scullion)
Minke whale vertebrae (Photo Dalziel + Scullion)


The piece of land that our artwork is located on is a shared oval of cherished grass that office workers, researchers, kids from a nearby secondary school, nursing staff from the hospital and scientists of many types, all either travers across or perch on at lunchtimes. We were therefore acutely aware that a permanent artwork had to function at a human scale and not dominate what was a rare area of outdoor green space in this charged built up environment. From an artistic viewpoint we were very interested in the idea of a location that was highly focused on the inner workings of the body and in trying to step outside of that, to think about the body externally and of the fleeting period we inhabit our physical form in the context of a medieval city on an even older geological plane. The idea of creating a form to explore both internal and external influences emerged and was largely influence by the resonance of a large piece of vertebra that has sat on our studio windowsill for some time. It is from a Minke Whale and even now, in its chalky white state, it is still charged with the life and context it once inhabited.





Corpus, measuring tool (Photo Dalziel + Scullion)


To research and test the forms we were proposing for Corpus, we created a structure that used the innards? of a car seat, allowing subtle angles to be achieved and to try out potential shapes and dimensions for each of the proposed sculptural forms.  A variety of body shapes were then measured on the assemblage, as were statistics accessed via designs for NASA pilot (male & female) cockpits.  Our calculations were informed initially by our original wooden maquettes, then by the structural tolerances of the materials we would ultimately be casting with (minimum wall thicknesses of 100mm and avoiding undulations that may have resulted in rain pooling on horizontal surfaces etc), and finally by the physical experiments and stats previously described. Our final designs (and life-sized timber models) were reviewed by Dr Graham Arnold of the Department of Orthopaedic & Trauma Surgery at the University of Dundee. Graham Arnold has over 35 years’ experience as a professional electronic design engineer developing equipment and instrumentation for a variety of industries including Naval, Automotive, Meteorological, Military, Sports and Medical.

Corpus, original maquette (Photos Dalziel + Scullion)


We worked with Plean, an architectural precaster based in Scotland to make the final pieces, though the story of making the molds was a traumatic one which we eventually surmounted, too long and dreary to go into here, but Corpus was finally cast to perfection using a mixture of Skye marble, Portland stone and silicate. It was commissioned in the spring of 2017 by the University of Cambridge and was installed as a permanent work outside of The Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre (formally known as the Capella Project during its construction phase) in November 2018. There will be a formal launch of the project in summer 2019 when the landscaping around the installation will be completed and the building open for research to begin.

Cast stone forms awaiting transportation to site (left) & Corpus, life sized timber models (right) (Photos Dalziel + Scullion)


Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion are Scottish artists living and working in Dundee, Scotland. Their work spans photography, video, sculpture, sound and installation, and often examining the relationship between humans and the natural world. They have exhibited widely in the UK and internationally, including at the Venice Biennale in 1995.

An in-depth feature, Meltwater Channel on Dalziel + Scullion, can be found in Fourth Door Review 7

1. Some of our favourite examples of writing around nature remain - Nan Shepherd, J.A. Baker, Robert MacFarlane, Tristan Gooley, David Abram, Jay Griffiths, Richard Louve and Barry Lopez

2. Hospitals, Prisons and Clinics – refers to: The Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital (Ontological Garden); The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow (Strata); Carstairs State Hospital & Prison in Lanarkshire (Realm of the Oystercatcher) and Vale Of Level Clinic in Alexandria (VOL Gardens).

3. Bank Headquarters, Airports, Collieries, City Billboards, Forests and Call Centres - refers to: Halifax, Bank of Scotland Headquarters, Edinburgh (Some Distance From The Sun); Heathrow Airport, London (Migrator); Pooley Hall Colliery (Gold Leaf); Sharing Not Hording, Dundee (Dundee Birds); Dumfries & Galloway Forrest (Rosnes Bench) and Dundee Call Centre (Raptor).

4 Evidence of wellbeing from nature exposure, see Therapeutic design for elderly and dementia and The Role of wild spaces in young people’s lives at http://www.openspace.eca.ed.ac.uk/resources/

5 Improved treatment statistics, see The Benefits of Nearby Nature, J.F. Talbot & R. Kaplan; and Nature’s Capital, The National Trust UK, at http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Environment/documents/2008/03/14/natures_capital_NT.pdf

6 Nature Savvy, see The Nature Principal, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age by Richard Louv.