LONDON — Five years ago, photographer Dan Tobin Smith was given a rare copy of “Photo Atlas of Inclusions in Gemstones” by E.J. Gubelin and J.l. Koivula, which sparked an ongoing fascination with the elements that create “micro-constellations” within gemstones. The result of this obsession is “Void,” an immersive installation in London’s Islington neighborhood staged in partnership with creative studio The Experience Machine and supported by Gemfields.
The exhibition is taking place as part of the 2019 London Design Festival.
In order to capture the tiny photographic microcosms, Smith created a custom motion-control rig to use with an adapted gemological microscope. It resulted in the largest collection of filmed footage that documents the inner structures of the gemstones, capturing the variation and complexity of over a hundred tiny “galaxies” formed by the natural inclusions.
“I was surprised — amazed actually — at the huge variation of inclusions out there,” Smith said in an interview. “Looking at stones, I often couldn’t believe that such intricate scenes could be rendered at such small scales.
“It’s such a huge subject. Even after shooting over a hundred stones there are so many more to do and I can’t see myself ever stopping.”
“Void,” which is set within a darkened subterranean space, opens with a series of illuminated plinths containing glass display cases holding gemstones provided by Gemfields, which has been working with Smith for years on its campaigns. Other stones are on loan from the Natural History Museum.
The cabinets are accompanied by blurbs about the provenance and mineral make-up of the gems.
“There are a few key pieces that translated really well into the piece,” said Smith. He said both the film and the display feature pyrite and hematite, two iron-based minerals, inside a table-cut piece of quartz.
A background soundscape with gentle noises recalls the sound of stones clicking together.
Downstairs, the installation was developed by Smith and The Experience Machine, a bespoke creative studio that develops site-specific installations for performances, events and cultural institutions. A raised platform in the center of the space sits beneath a series of suspended screens arranged in shapes reminiscent of gemstones facets. Smith’s moving images of the stones are set to an atmospheric soundtrack performed by NYX, an electronic drone choir.
“It was a big subject to get into, both in researching the gemology aspects and being able to capture them well on film. I have seen lots of great photography of gemstones, but never any film, so figuring out that part was hard,” said Smith, adding that the project was not without its challenges. “We had to build special equipment to move the stones incredibly smoothly, slowly and accurately. And they are also not easy to light as they are so small, so that has taken a lot of experimentation.”
The project came together during the last year, during which time he worked closely with The Experience Machine on the concept for the show and with Gemfields, which offered Smith access to its catalogue of gemstones as well as funding for the show.
“We identified a selection of premium rubies and emeralds that we felt would be of interest to Dan and loaned them to him to capture,” said Sean Gilbertson chief executive officer of Gemfields, a supplier of responsibly sourced colored gemstones sourced from its African mines.
Among the Gemfields stones on show are eight rubies from its Montepuez mine in Mozambique. Those stones showcase the wide range of ruby hues, including the rarest pure fluorescent reds. There are also cut and polished emeralds from Gemfields’ Kagem emerald mine in Zambia. Those rocks are an intense green color due to the presence of chromium, iron and beryllium.
The show will run until Sept. 22 at the Collins Music Hall in Islington, and the show will most likely move to other cities.