From Concept to Count’s House – Visual Arts gets to Know ‘Know Thyself’

By Anna Thomas

While the Durham sky was illuminated from all directions, we took the microscope to the Count’s House installation Know Thyself. We asked Durham PhD student Finola Finn, a winner of the ‘Brilliant’ Competition about the creation of her piece and its realisation.

What was the inspiration for your work?

The initial idea for the installation sprung from my PhD thesis, in which one chapter explores the role of the heart in nonconformist religious experience, 1640-1700. For the people I study, their heart was the site of inwardness, and encapsulated their spiritual and physical selves at once.

Sketch by Finola Finn, digitized by Anna Thomas

I found this particularly striking, given that many people today tend to locate their sense of self in their mind or brain, rather than the heart – and I decided to create a piece that would explore this apparent shift in thinking.

What part did your degree play in the inspiration and development of your piece?

My path to the well-known, ancient Greek proverb ‘Know thyself’ is perhaps a little more obscure than you would expect – stemming from a book that I looked at in my thesis: Edmund Gregory’s An Anatomy of Christian Melancholy, from 1653. A few pages into this text is an illustrated epigraph of sorts – which includes, at its centre, ‘Know thyself’ in English, Hebrew and Greek.

The way that Gregory merged this maxim with scriptural verses about the heart’s role in religious conversion was conducive to my chapter’s argument – but also got me thinking more widely, and pushed me to consider what it is to ‘know thyself’, in relation to the concept of the heart, both then and now.

Could you explain some of the 17th Century imagery that lies at the heart of the Count’s House installation?

As you can see, the focus of the installation is a three-dimensional version of the classic heart symbol which is ubiquitous in our contemporary visual landscape. What many people might be surprised to know, however, is that this symbol has a long and rich history – and was just as ubiquitous in the early modern period, and even earlier.

Their heart was the site of inwardness.

I am fascinated by the continuity of this anatomically-inaccurate shape across time and cultures. I wanted to point to this consistency in the piece, by merging the imagery, materials, and beliefs of various time periods together. (For example, a seventeenth-century style heart that pulsates with LEDs and the sound of recently recorded heartbeats, and an ancient maxim in neon!)

Were there any major changes in the development of your work from the original? 

The two key changes were the location of the heart within the site, its material, and its construction method. I originally envisaged the heart inside the interior of the Count’s House, but soon decided that the portico was more logical in terms of its visibility to the audience.

Graphic by Finola Finn

This did not impinge on the concept, however, as the portico (with its rib-like columns), and the site overall, still provided a sense of enclosed inwardness.

I considered a few different materials for the heart, before deciding upon LED Spectrum perspex – as this could be vacuum moulded to achieve the most even diffusion of light.

How do you feel the location compliments your piece (or not!)?

I feel that the location is vital – as it provides an enclosed space that invites a reflective mood, and conveys the timelessness of the issues explored in the piece.

‘Know thyself’ was originally carved on the wall of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in the fourth century AD by the ancient Greeks, for whom the heart was the most important organ of the body. So, by locating the installation at the Count’s House, which bears a remarkable likeness to this temple, heart-centric ways of thinking about the self that have existed for over 2,400 years are represented.

Installation Featured Image credits to Liam Turnball

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