Some techniques for creating a sense of longing with forms. First, one might create a sense of emptiness, the impression that a vital part of an object is missing. This impression might be increased when this void, this lack, is at the heart of an object’s raison d’être. An elegant jug does not necessarily convey a restless longing for water, but an empty swimming pool might. Second: the arrangement of sculptural holes into anthropomorphised gapes – the glance of a pleading eye, a wailing open maw, even a disturbing void where one instinctually senses that a head should be. Third, a sense of reaching and straining may be emphasised – objects may appear to stretch out in a difficult direction – attempting to stand on spindly legs or trying to touch another form across a divide. Fourth, one can call to the table the ghostly presence of the husk – the empty body, the shell, the casing, the empty chrysalis, the remains of a transformation: the butterfly long since flown.

There is a delicate thread of longing that runs through several of the works created by the artist Douglas White over the past decade, and many of the artist’s sculptures include one or more of the devices listed above, many of which exert a kind of instinctual, physical pull on the viewer that is not necessarily tied to a particular set of references or associations (though these can operate within the work also). But this, a central element to White’s work, demands a rather more a bodily reaction that is felt before it is thought.

Take White’s found object works, which have consistently appeared throughout his career, and indeed, his life. The artist has described finding one of these objects in the woods as a young child: “I remember finding a twisted twig when I was about seven years old, it was strange and magical to me. It looked just like a drowning man clinging to a log, his mouth gaping in a cry. I doubt anyone else would see this in it.” Years later, a hollow fern root that the artist came across and appropriated looks as though it might be a small headless animal wearing a ceremonial cloak – a totem, of sorts, to loss.

Counsel (2005) is a sculpture comprising two black plastic bins from a London council estate which have been transfigured by having been set on fire. Their status as innocuous, functional objects has been stripped from them, and? in their mutated new guise, formed by the oozing, bending, melting of plastic they appear like dark, wailing phantoms – the terrifying figures of hoods with no body inside them. The bin on the left almost looks as though it is flinging open a jacket, like a covert salesman, to show hidden wares inside: in this case a wine bottle, the contents long since drained. Given their home on an urban council estate, often the most architecturally visible sites of depravation within London, one is tempted to assume that the bins were set on fire in an act of violent, frustrated vandalism, though this may not be the case – a simple accident of a misplaced cigarette could have caused the fire. However, it’s hard not to sense that, through a transformative act of violence, a hidden pair of wailing spectres has been revealed on the estate that has been lying beneath all along (though the works far predate the London riots, the sense of roaring unrest, of hidden pools of resentment and pain, are tangible in these works.)

While such moments often create such disturbing imagery, White has also employed objects trouvés that are straightforwardly beautiful, enchanting. Owl (2007) was created when a dusty owl flew into a domestic window leaving a perfect imprint of its feathery body and a register of the velocity at which it hit the glass. As the dust is lit up by White who presents the pane as a ‘large glass’, (hence calling to mind, via Duchamp, appropriation’s origin story), one sees an image of the owl in full flight, a bird long-associated with knowledge, philosophy and magic, and registers it as a creature of delicacy and authority. True, one can equally see the irony of this encounter. Yet, still, one can’t help but notice that the dust is at its densest at the point of the most violent impact; the owl’s head is a smudged blur, and so one is left considering the fact that this work could perhaps be seen as a drawing of the owl’s moment of death. This darkly beautiful suggestion is echoed in White’s prints of octopus made with their own ink, as though he has reached inside a creature to find the heart of its nature before using it as an agent in the recording of its own death. In the sense that the creature records its undoing or destruction, these works might be thought of as a kind of faunal counterpoint to Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961).

The recording of a moment that at once encompasses a powerful impact and a delicate aestheticism is reflected in White’s recent works that employ electricity as a form of drawing tool. Running an electric current into wood to create his Lichtenberg Drawings (2012), named after the patterns, resembling rivers and tributaries or delicate branches, which are made when electricity strikes an object. In one such work, two such branches of charge seem to be reaching towards one another through the wood. Electricity is desire without choice or restraint – it simply finds the easiest path to get what it wants, and to reach its end. Thus that Lichtenberg Drawing in particular – the near meet –encompasses a sense of pure longing halted in midmotion – a connection about to be made, yet never reached.

As such creative natural patterns can be tracked across the elements, so too can those of breakdown or decay. White has several times used broken fragments of blown-out tyres in his work, having come across them on the roadsides of Belize, and has used them to create sculptures of palm trees that look as though they have been struck by lightning, or works such as Black Sun (2010) in which the empty centre of the tyre forms a kind of central hole, around which the fraying rubber begins to resemble delicate growing roots. That what looks like creative energy is (at least) a threefold destructive one (the extraction of rubber, the carbon harm of gas guzzling and the subsequent breakdown of these tyres as littered waste) is neatly encompassed in the work’s materiality and its title.

The figure of the counterpoint (the black sun) is also a recurring motif in White’s sculpture. A series of decomposing, punctured basketballs, for example, which resemble crawling shelled creatures might be the deflated cousins of Jeff Koons’s overinflated luxuriant basketball sculptures. It is this dual sense of emptiness and decomposition alongside grace and magic that has informed White’s recent works based around the figure of the elephant. Having stumbled upon an elephant carcass some year’s ago – its majestic lumbering body now broken down (almost, as he describes it, like ‘an empty tent’) the artist was haunted by the image. He has previously fashioned sculptures that reference the elephant’s body in pieces from wood (Elephant Totem (2009)) which took its name from the Ted Hughes’s poem Crow’s Elephant Totem Song, which tells of an elephant, once a beautiful and delicate creature that is torn apart by jealous hyenas and remakes itself – a tough and melancholy monument to pain. More recently, however, using clay to create the texture of the elephant’s skin, White has been able to create the sense of deflation that his first encounter with the elephant’s skin, slung over its old bones. The fragments of elephant skin appear to be trying to reassemble themselves into something graceful once more. Not only a monument to pain, but to vitality too. To the double life of the weighty mammal and its light, delicate spirit.

On one illuminated page of Splendor Solis, the sixteenth-century alchemical treatise from which the title of Douglas White’s exhibition derives, The Red Sun rises over a dark hilltop city. Its human features – lips pursed, eyebrows pressed into a frown – express apprehension that one would not normally associate with Saint Barthélemy: the Caribbean island, host to the artist during his residency, is much sooner connected with luxurious carefree days.

The works exhibited here: Gorilla, Black Palm, Octopus and Lichtenberg Drawings, are not carefree like their setting, however. Their beauty and accomplished craftsmanship belies similar tensions as those found in the miniature in which The Red Sun appears. The eyes of the latter, looking beyond the grey-black buildings in the background, avert themselves from an architectural intrusion it seems they would rather not see. Urban landscape gives way to trees, a single cluster of houses yields to a foreground of truncated trees and fields. It is in settings like these that the artist recuperates his objects - stumps of tree ferns filled with water so black it resembles oil. Or, on the Côte Sauvage of Saint Barth, finding a dead cactus on the path; collecting the pieces and carrying it home.

Dried out husks of cactus tree are the foundations of Gorilla, a new work shown for the first time at Eden Rock. Animal and plant are one in this carefully crafted primate’s head, almost at the material’s insistence: when the first parts of the cactus tree die, they begin to rot in reaction to the moisture still trapped inside the plant. Simultaneously, water closer to the surface of the cactus evaporates, leaving a half-decayed structure. The 'skin' of the cactus dries out under the sun, meanwhile. The remains: an extremely thin and delicate papery layer. Too fragile to use in this form, Gorilla came about when Douglas managed to reinforce the ‘skin’:

‘Earlier this year I wanted to try casting a piece of cactus in bronze. The first stage was to dip it in wax and I guess this is where the new work started: I saw how strong the wax could make the delicate cactus, even the skin layer. It penetrates it, but also transforms it a bit. It becomes leathery, and really just like the hands of an ape. Even if you haven’t seen an ape up close, I think we all know that strange black leathery skin’

The cactus skin had need of strength, as did the artist to make this work: Gorilla is the first sculpture Douglas has made following a difficult hiatus in his practice - a sudden personal loss made it near impossible to work. Previously, the mere thought of Gorilla was an embarrassment: the artist pictured the animal beating its huge fists on the ground and it too closely mimicked his anger. At first a horrific symbol of confused aggression that could not be realised, eventually Gorilla became the means, once a shift in circumstance and emotions allowed, for the artist to dispel some of his pain.

The reversal of mood required to work on Gorilla is to some extent echoed in a reversal of the alchemical tradition by which Douglas is inspired. The art of alchemy normally prizes precious metals most highly but Gorilla emerges from a revision: rather than bronze, the substance preferred is the lowlier one of wax, chosen as a way to preserve rather than convert some of the original qualities of a natural resource. As soon as Douglas saw the skin transformed in the greenish casting material, the cactus had become ape. He had collected and sent back to the UK boxes upon boxes of this dead cactus: ‘hundreds of pieces from big hunks of the stuff to tiny pieces’. Amongst all this, the artist recalls how one small piece looked for all the world like the nose of a gorilla. And this became the literal centre of the work:

‘From this beginning, it became a case of searching through the fragments to construct the rest: an eye here, a brow there, protruding lips and sloping forehead. What is vital, is that the viewer sees the insides, the construction, the cobbling together. Made from approximately ten pieces, it is a strange kind of jigsaw’

Douglas has described the face of Gorilla as an ‘almost wearable’ mask, suggesting a desire to inhabit the animal’s skin. It would not be the first time that the draw of a material trapped somewhere between life and death has been so strongly felt. New Skin for an Old Ceremony was an exhibition that returned to a compulsive reaction felt as a child, holidaying in Africa with his mother, for the remains of an elephant encountered as landscape; all the flesh was scavenged, just the skin spread over the ground.

Artist and animal are entangled in Douglas White’s work. Whether gorilla, elephant or octopus, they appear as ‘companion species’ to their maker, the term coined by Donna Haraway to describe those beings that ‘constitute each other and themselves’ through ‘their reaching into each other, through their “prehensions” or graspings’. If elsewhere Haraway writes that ‘explanations of primate, and especially hominid, evolution might be the most notorious cock-fighting arena in contemporary life sciences’, in Douglas’ work we encounter human and nonhuman animals including the ape, coming into being at the same time. The works assembled in Splendor Solis may be seen as examples of ‘naturecultures’; ‘layers of history, layers of biology’.

‘How far apart are humans from animals?’ is the question posed by Vilém Flusser’s theoretical fable Vampyroteuthus Infernalis. In this eccentric work we find an evolutionary sketch:

‘After a period of climatic cooling, resulting in a scarcity of trees, primates were no longer situated in the treetops but rather in the open spaces of extensive plains. Instead of leaves, their eyes beheld horizons; instead of birds’ nests, their fingers met with the stones that were lying around them. In this strange world, in which they themselves were strange, primates attempted to overcome their alienation. The horizons came to be seen, and the stones to be held, as a means of overcoming. This is how humans originated'

While contradicting notions of coevolution, Flusser’s allusion to stones seems to posit the found object, so important in Douglas’ work, as the thing that knits together human and other animals. In a talk given in 2013, the artist suggested that, as for Flusser’s primate, the found object has been for him a means of overcoming. Quoting Ted Hughes on the poem as confession; ‘a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of (...) smuggled through analogies’, Douglas said that ‘objects are a slightly bizarre form of communication, a conversation I’m having simultaneously with the world at large and with myself’.

This object-conversation can be dark, and it is sombreness that Octopus Drawings communicate, too. Featuring in Splendor Solis as prints of octopus made with its own black ink, one can imagine them sharing the seascape of the squid that Flusser describes elsewhere in his thesis. The cephalopod is ‘not entirely alien to us’, Flusser writes; one principal difference lies in its existence in eternal darkness at the bottom of the sea:

‘What we see is not the world itself but the reflection of sunlight off of things (...) We have to penetrate behind appearances in order to free things from the veil of light (...) The world of the vampyroteuthus, in comparison, does not appear - it is dark (...) Not of wakeful reason, the vampyroteuthic world is rather one of dreams’

It was in a similarly dark context that Douglas laid hands on his first found object: aged five or six, he ventured down into the cellar of a family home recently troubled by parental separation and emerged with a twig resembling a drowning man clinging to a log - a mysterious totem presenting in the same instant threat and saviour by nature. Douglas’ work thrives on such unresolved psychological meanings and contradictions, perhaps nowhere better than in Black Sun, a single tyre bursting into branches.

What if one imagines Black Sun, iconic symbol of melancholia, as the negative of the sun that shines on Saint-Barth? And Black Palm a shadowy counterpart to the vital green trees that populate the island. The latter, made from rubber tyres found on the roadside, frayed, and built into towering trunk and generous canopy, fits so perfectly among the many palms defining our setting that a bird chose it as her nesting place and her young hatched in the interim between the artist’s residency and his show.

New life from burnt out rubber. With his latest palm, Douglas has drawn together nature and industrial detritus in keeping with a practice that has always denied clear-cut distinctions between organic and inorganic matter, nature and culture. Elsewhere, in a series of Lichtenberg Drawings, lightning has been artificially created with a machine that runs electric currents through wood. In Black Palm, the artist engages in a form of backwards manufacturing, finding rubber remarkably well suited to recreating the hessian-like surface of palm trunks. Extraordinarily, the raw milky matter factoring in tyre production is echoed in the nesting bird’s regurgitation to feed her young.