YORK Art Gallery is playing host to a “landmark show, the largest and most ambitious media art exhibition” the city has ever mounted.

Brought to York as part of the inaugural York Mediale arts festival with a digital twist, Strata – Rock – Dust – Stars is outstaying the 10-day autumn festival by remaining on show in the ground-floor Madsen galleries until November 25 with its “collision of natural science, philosophy, art and contemporary life”.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, the director of FACT Liverpool (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the show features moving image, new media and interactive artwork by digital artists Isaac Julien, Semiconductor, Phil Coy and Liz Orton, a first British showing of Ryoichi Kurokawa’s work and new commissions from Agnes Meyer Brandis and David Jacques.

“Curating an exhibition is like making a cake,” says Stubbs. “You bring the ingredients together, you have a plan, and then you wait for the result.” His verdict? “Not bad!”

York Press:

Vanessa Myrie with Stones Against Diamonds (2015), by Isaac Julien, at York Art Gallery 

“As a northern curator, I think it’s brilliant that new work gets premiered in York, and not in London, the other ‘capital’!”

Strata - Rock - Dust - Stars is inspired by William Smith’s ground-breaking geological map of England, Wales and Scotland in 1815, a key component in the development of geology as a science that transformed the way in which we understand the world.

The exhibition not only examines geological strata, but also explores “a timely and contemporary poetic layering of human curiosity, exploration and reflection on the universe”.

Stubbs says: “I proposed the idea of a moving image show, so I came over to the gallery and fairly quickly ‘jumped’ at William Smith’s map. He lived in York; he invented the terms ‘stratification’ and ‘geology’ and did a quite lot of his research on the North York Moors.

“It’s poignant that the Yorkshire Museum has the original William Smith geological map: the very first geological map in the world.”

York Press:

Mirror image: Vanessa Myrie with Isaac Julien's Stones Against Diamonds at the launch of the  Strata – Rock – Dust – Stars exhibition

Smith’s work laid the foundation for the making of great fortunes in everything from oil and iron, to diamonds and platinum, and was key to the development of geology: one of the great fields of modern science, says Stubbs.

“This exhibition explores how our understanding of stratum has shaped our relationship with the environment: revealing not only the make-up of mineral formation, compression and change, but also a wider layering of human curiosity, exploration and reflection,” he adds.

Jennifer Alexander, curator of fine art for York Art Gallery, says: “Two centuries after William Smith’s map was published, his legacy remains – directly and indirectly – through the latest digital technology and ideas which are incorporated in the artworks in this exhibition.

“This is a fascinating concept and we are extremely excited to bring these fascinating and thought-provoking works to our audiences in York for the first time.”

East London British installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien attended the launch of the exhibition, which features the UK premiere of his 2015 high-definition video work, Stones Against Diamonds, on ten screens and mirrors, as its centrepiece.

“Isaac was top of the list for the works I wanted in this show relating to ‘strata’,” says Stubbs. “Not only because of the relevance of his art or this particular piece, but because it’s good to get a really important black British artist into York Art Gallery.”

Julien drew inspiration from a letter written by Brazilian Modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992), shooting his video work with a team of 50 in Iceland’s remote ice caves in Vatnajokull, prompted by Bo Bardi’s assertion that she preferred the beauty of semi-precious gems to precious stones such as diamonds.

“In a way this work is about a search for a ‘contaminated sublime’: the effect of climate change, and especially the glaciers that are melting as we speak.

“We explored the ice scapes, with the question of climate change all around us, just as William Smith had explored the Kirkdale caves in the Vale of Pickering for the fossils and bones of ancient animals.

“For me, the question would be: what kind of artefacts would you find in the ice caves today?”