Emily Johns
What the
Oil is Thinking

Six large etchings
The black goo of the printer’s ink spreads the oil thin enough to
see its story.

The Spirit of Oil

OIl is as huge as an albatross and otherworldly. There is something of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner here, of the casual killing of such a spirit. Plastic continents have been discovered in the Pacific and North Atlantic. I imagined them as made up of drinking water bottles (which they are not) and "water, water everywhere, not any drop to drink" sent through my mind. THis albatross is the one in a glass case in the Fisherman's Museum, Hastings. That is why it has that crucified look.

170 x 190cm

Her Embrocation

For thousands of years crude oil has been used for skin complaints. Oil is in the apothecary’s shop, her tar baby is the bottle. This shop is on Rye High Street in East Sussex. Out of the window there is the view of Rye harbour from the castle that Paul Nash drew for his poster “Everywhere you go you can be sure of Shell”. The inspiration for the first ever oil well is said to have come to Edwin Drake as he was looking at bottles of embrocation in the window of a Pennsylvanian drug store.

138cm x 90cm

Eternal Fires

The Eternal Fires have been burning near Kirkuk in Iraq since the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Until recently women suffering from infertility would spend the night there and in the morning they would throw a handful of sand upon the ground. If a flame appeared they would know that the demon that had occupied their womb had gone. The first oil well in Iraq was sunk here in 1927. The oil company put out the Fires as a safety precaution.

230cm x 90cm

First Flower

In the Natural History Museum is the earliest fossil flower, very delicate and botanically modern. It blossomed at the time when allosaurs died and oil was formed. Not so delicate are the threads of life that the Ogoni are hanging by.


The drift of geological time. Oil is made mostly of zooplankton, innumerable tiny animals that lived in the sea and died. Polar bears evolved 200,000 years ago contemporaneous to the evolution of anatomically modern humans.

170cm x 90cm

The Prospect and the Prospector

I met a man who had been an engineer in the army in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He then spent 15 years prospecting for oil from Nigeria to Alaska. He told me which geology journals to look for in the British Library and how with sound imaging they could look inside the earth and

55cm x 90cm