Where science meets art

Sharp and Bead - High and Low, 2013. Photo by Rita Orsini

Insight Radical is an exhibition about science and art. It is the result of an experimental collaboration between nine scientists and six artists around the theme of free radicals. Inspired by curiosity and delving deep into the world of chemistry, these creative individuals put their thinking cap on to design a new visuality for these fantastic microscopic molecules. The outcomes reveal the ingenuity of the mind which goes beyond its comfort zone to process, interpret and shape challenging scientific concepts and methodologies. The project was part of a residency at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry & Biotechnology in Melbourne in 2012.

It might not seem obvious to draw a comparison between an artist’s studio and a science laboratory, a visual diary and a lab book. Project coordinator and scientist Dr Renee Beale believed otherwise. She was convinced that both disciplines could feed and benefit from each other. Australian artists Tony Lloyd, Steve Lopes, Anna Madeleine, Natalie O’Connor, Peter Sharp and Ruth Waller joined the project and spent time speaking with scientists either on-site in their laboratories or via emails and phone calls. Together, they set out to explore how art can be used as a medium to express the complex concept of free radicals and how these molecular atoms impact on our lives and art materials.

Neither the artists nor the scientists knew what to expect from this encounter nor out of this project. But both groups came open-minded and willing to share their knowledge and their passion. “At first I wasn’t really sure if it was even possible to create art about free radicals, so it was a bit of an experiment,” says Dr Renee Beale. “But the artists have reacted well to a topic mainly confined to the science laboratory, and created their own novel research stories surrounding them.”

I met with the artists and scientists at the opening of the exhibition in Sydney and my first reaction was how diverse their responses were. Their works were based either on their understanding of the properties of free radicals, their vital or destructive role in the human existence and environment, or on the world the scientists worked in – their paraphernalia, their language, their methods of recording and their surroundings.

The outcome is a creative and informed interpretation of free radicals, in the form of sound-activated paintings, time-based landscapes, artful scientific installations, digitally-manipulated watercolour portraits and 3D-printed artwork.

Talking to both artists and scientists about the residency, it became obvious that both groups had developed a deeper understanding, true respect and profound admiration for each other’s profession and methodology. Working with highly-educated professionals allowed both groups to better comprehend each other’s world and the way they think.

The artists were engaged, receptive and eager to learn, looking for information and inspiration to fill their art diaries. The scientists were eager to respond to their questions and opened their lab books to share the results of their experiments, engaging in constructive discussions on the actual applications of their research.

So what are free radicals? Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons. As electrons tend to prefer living in pairs, the molecules are very reactive and unstable. They will desperately try to acquire another electron from other molecules and substances close-by, which as a consequence turn into free radicals, creating a chain reaction.

Free radicals are not visible to the naked eye but they have a profound effect on our lives. Dr Renee Beale explained: “Free radicals contribute to creation and destruction through their own game of ‘give and take.’ In their quest to find another electron to pair with their lone electron, they seek molecules on which to prey. Like a vampire in search of blood they are not too troubled by the quality or state of their victim; they are driven purely by desire. But as they ‘drink’ to satiety, they create, in their victim, a free radical with thirst to be quenched. As one free radical is created another is destroyed. The chain reaction of life. The balance (or is it imbalance) of all things.  Free radicals you might say are the great redistributors. Hero or villain, friend or foe, they are part of the evolution of life.”

On the good side, free radicals play a key role in the blood chemistry and our immune system. They allow for example cells to talk to each other by sending signals or they help white blood cells kill bacteria. Free radicals are also essential to artists as they participate in the process of oxidation which is required to cure oil paint. And if controlled, free radicals can contribute to the creation of innovative materials through polymerisation, such as plastics and combustion.

On the other hand, free radicals can be destructive as well. Their presence can cause many age-related illnesses and accelerate the progression of cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as cause the deterioration of plastics, the fading of paint and the degradation of artworks… hence raising the question of artworks’ longevity.

The artists said that they were intrigued and challenged by such a gripping paradox and by a world so molecular. They transposed those concepts around the themes of impermanence versus permanence, loss, degeneration, exploitation, survival, change and renewal.

Tony_Lloyd. Photo by Rita Orsini

Tony Lloyd - Photo by Rita Orsini

Tony Lloyd’s artwork made me think of a Moebius strip or an Ouroboros dragon. Tony spoke about the cycle of free radicals and how to transpose that concept into a landscape painting. “I decided to use landscape with its reflection in water as a metaphor for paired electrons. I painted a suite of these paired images as though they were radical so that each painting takes its reflection from the painting next to it, creating a chain reaction in the gallery”. He was not trying to represent free radicals as such but rather use them as a symbol, a model to investigate a new format. This residency took him in unexpected directions. Getting a sense of time in his artwork was new to him. “I ended up making a time-based painting, and connected art and chemistry in my painting through the four elements of water, air, fire and earth. I wanted to recreate the strangeness found in free radicals”.

Steve Lopes - Photo by Rita Orsini

Steve Lopes – Photo by Rita Orsini

A figurative painter, Steve Lopes said that the residency made him experiment more, explore patterns and abstraction, and think a bit like a scientist. Steve also spoke about the extraordinary bond that developed between the scientists and the artists during the residency. He discovered a great similarity between the two communities: the research, the new developments that came from mistakes, the creative mind, the discipline, the unknown, the desire to create something constructive that benefitted us all, that helped us move forward and reflect on life. Steve’s portraits convey this idea of resemblance between the two worlds. He depicted a science laboratory with stains and patterns like an artist’s workshop; while his pixilated watercolour portraits of the artist dressed in a scientist’s white lab coat beautifully carry the poetry he found in the  laboratories.

Anna Madeleine - Photo by Rita Orsini

Anna Madeleine – Photo by Rita Orsini

Anna Madeleine looked at the concepts of aging and degeneration of materials. Using new technologies and chemistry, she used a 3D printer to create colourful pills in blister-packs and make a triptych portrait of her family: herself, her father (a climate scientist) and grandfather (a scientist and artist) – three generations involved in science and art. Anna Madeleine spoke about the rich contribution between the two groups and said that the residency made her think about experimenting more and integrating science in her art. She explained to Owen Craven, the Editor of Artist Profile magazine involved in the project: “I have engaged with the new technology of 3D printing as a way to further represent the links between science and art. I have also used new found materials which relate to objects I saw in the chemistry labs, or materials such as pill packets that relate to science and chemistry in some way. Making the pill packet portraits has been a whole new experience – of outsourcing, working on an unfamiliar scale of tiny objects making up a whole, and of using a sort of a mathematical system to create the pixilated images.” She also believes that failure is often just as important, if not more so, than success to a process of investigation or creation.

Ruth Waller - Photo by Rita Orsini

Ruth Waller – Photo by Rita Orsini

For Ruth Waller, free radicals are essential but dangerous; she wanted to visualise that notion. She was also fascinated by the patterns and chain reactions of the molecules. In her artwork, she used the figure Dulle Griet as a symbol of the life force of free radicals – Dulle Griet is a Flemish folklore character, depicted by renaissance artist Pieter Brugel the Elder, who leads an army of women to pillage hell. Through that character, Ruth portrayed the relation between stability and instability, structure progression, aggression, corrosion in the world, order and disorder. Free radicals made her think about degradation, loss, and got her to reflect on the kind of culture we would live in, if everything lived on forever and degradation and loss didn’t exist.

Natalie O'Connor - Photo by Rita Orsini

Natalie O’Connor – Photo by Rita Orsini

Natalie O’Connor strongly believes that the association of art and science is crucial and has been evident through centuries. The 19th century letters between British painter Turner and his chemist clearly indicate the vital collaboration between the two disciplines as the chemist responded to the artist’s request for specific colours and qualities in a painting medium. Natalie’s artworks are like aeroplane windows. According to her, landscapes resemble fleeting intense paintings from the sky. In her hot red and fluoro blue windows facing each other, Natalie explores the impermanence and degeneration of fluorescent colours. Natalie believes that everything is in a state of constant flux. If you look at the hot red painting long enough, and then close your eyes, a fluoro blue colour appears on your retina for a fleeting moment. The impermanence of the impression stands as a parallel for the impermanence of fluorescent colours. Those red and blue windows are also windows into a scientist laboratory. “One part of the work deals directly with fluorescent colours and we know they have a short lifetime. The fluorescent red colour that I used directly related to the investigations and experiments we did in the lab residency and the discussions with scientists about the possibilities of colours that artists might use in the future.”

Peter Sharp - Photo  by Rita Orsini

Peter Sharp – Photo by Rita Orsini

Peter Sharp’s work combines paintings and sound samples recorded in the laboratories. The paintings are inspired by entries in the scientists’ lab books. “The symbols and drawings used by the scientists were like hieroglyphics to me. I wanted to create a portrait using their language, where the space between the visual and aural provide an interesting way of thinking about life in the lab.” Moving away from his romantic idea of a lab, he noted the sensations he had when walking into the scientists’ space, through security doors, looking through portholes, wearing a white lab coat. He wanted to recreate the impressions he had as a meaningful experience.

Artist Peter Sharp joined scientist Dr Renee Beale to create an eclectic collection of scientific and organic elements displayed on shelves and beautifully arranged in a harmony of yellows and blacks.

Dr Renee Beale - Photo by Rita Orsini

Dr Renee Beale – Photo by Rita Orsini

Through this exhibition, Dr Beale is hoping that viewers will become more aware of the impact free radicals have on our lives and gain a new perspective on these molecules. “I hope that the artists’ work encourages more freedom for creative thought about this interesting aspect of chemistry.”

And the scientists? What did they get out of this project? When I asked Centre scientist Yvonne Kavanagh, she replied that she felt that it was a great opportunity to get a different perspective on her own work from people from outside science. It made her think again about why and what scientists do because artists showed them that there is beauty and elegance in their work. She realised she used different terminology to communicate the notion of free radicals to the artists and make her work palatable. She felt that artists also have analytical minds so it was easy to transfer knowledge and qualitative concepts as the artists could easily understand the duality of things such as free radicals. It was refreshing for her to discover similarities between scientists and artists. They approach problems and formulate ideas in the same way.

Both artists and scientists agreed to say that they hold similar values and there are many parallels between their two worlds: they work on a blank canvas, in a disciplined and organised manner, drawing on research and knowledge, experience, experiments, mistakes, failure and controlled chance, pushing forward and maintaining a desire to further their projects. Scientists discovered how much research goes into art, artists were fascinated by how much creative thinking goes into science; both were impressed by the willingness to make lives better, to create new bodies of work that are constructive, benefit people and make sense of the world.

The other commonality was the importance of research and funding for artists and scientists working in a speculative field. They both face the dilemma between experimenting without a certitude of success in the short term, and creating economically viable products to secure funding.

The correlation between art and science is clear and bringing two creative communities under the same roof through exhibitions, residencies, exchanges, workshops and programs is great strategic thinking. Science and art go hand in hand; it can be a rich and healthy marriage with wonderful outcomes. The exhibition Insight Radical highlights that the complementarity of distinct approaches can spark  a creative process and contribute to a richer understanding of a complex concept.  Insight Radical is at the McLemoi Gallery, 45 Chippen St, Chippendale, until 9 December 2013. The ebook can be viewed online.

Insight Radical will also show in Adelaide as part of the Fringe Festival in February 2014 at the Future Space Gallery, The Science Exchange.

Insight Radical is proudly supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry & Biotechnology, Winsor & Newton, Artist Profile, and the Australian Government through Inspiring Australia.