Monastery Circuitry

Choir monks of the Carthusian order of the Roman Catholic religion, also called hermits, each have their own living space in their monastery. Each space, known as a cell, is accessed from a single long corridor and traditionally has two floors: a lower floor for the storage of wood for the stove and containing a workshop, and an upper floor with a bed, table for eating meals, a desk, a choir stall and kneeler for prayer. Each cell also has a high-walled garden, in which the hermit may grow flowers, vegetables for the community and participate in physical exercise. Like the Carthusian cells, biological cells each contain all of the components they need to function. The monks’ food is brought by a lay brother, placed in a special compartment of the cell next to the door, called a turn. Meals and other items are be passed into and out of the cell through the turn and enable the hermit to communicate with other parts of the monastery without having to meet the messenger. Similarly, biological cells receive ‘food’ (amino acids and sugars) and chemical messages through special transporters in their surface membranes.

A monastery would not be a monastery without monks (each monk requires his own living space); an organism would not be an organism without each of its constituent cells. In a circuit board from a personal computer or other piece of electrical equipment, each component is essential for the correct function of the board, and often several boards are required for proper functioning of the whole computer. Perhaps here, each circuit board has the analogy of a body tissue: the tissue itself has a specific function to carry out within the whole organism, and in order to do that it requires one or several specific cell types. Like the circuit board components, communication between each of the cells and tissues is essential for the proper, organised function of the organism: in the circuit board, communication is achieved through lengths of metal wires or lines of copper. Within these, it is the movement of electrons in the metal that conveys the message. Biological cells communicate with one another through the use of small molecules and peptides, which are produced by one cell and travel, in the blood or extracellular medium, to cells carrying appropriate receptors, primed to receive the message.

‘Monastery Circuitry’ exposes similarities between a circuit board and a Carthusian monastery, and through their shared attributes, also gives us some information about the relationship between cells in a body tissue or organism. I began this work with a formula I once used to describe complexity and detail in human skin and hair, with a minimal number of colours, executed in blocks or regions, but it quickly became clear that this was not what was required for this piece.

‘Monastery Circuitry’ (2012). Oil and charcoal on fully-primed canvas, 90 x 90 cm. Unfinished.

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