A two-way thinking mirror
by Becca Freezer
In 1997, South Australian contemporary artist Catherine Truman was invited by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) to participate in a 3-month residency. It was an access-all-areas experience working with natural scientists, archaeologists, taxidermists and conservators. She recalls, “I spent some time visiting their studios. See I call them studios! Their laboratories – but they’re just so much like studios.”
The disciplines of art and science naturally overlap. In the laboratory and studio, the mind and hand come together as a means of investigation of ideas, theories and hypotheses.
Over the past twenty years, Truman’s works have focused on the intersections between art and science, informed by her residencies and collaborations with anatomists, histologists, neuroscientists, natural scientists, microscopists and ophthalmologists. The white cube that is GalleryOne exhibits the works, forming parallels between the conventional gallery space and the cool aesthetics of the laboratory. A curious exhibition experience is created through Truman’s films, photographs, installations and sculptures, using traditional and non-traditional materials.
What results from Truman’s MAGNT residency is a piece called The Recognition of The Art of Science and the Science in Art, 1997. This is a photographic essay documenting her experiences with the day-to-day practice of science. The original 35mm slides, now digitized, play on rotation on a flat screen television encased inside a white cubicle. The recorded clicks and shutters, clunks and whirs of the Carousel slide projector resonate throughout the space. Truman has captured artistic-renderings of species in scientific textbooks alongside innocuous tableaus of lab spaces filled with equipment, prized specimens and personal items, reminiscent of the artist’s own Gray Street Workshop. Interspersed throughout the slideshow are typed quotations by Truman and her colleagues. There are lines such as: “During research you have to be aware of the author’s idiosyncrasies,” and; “There are often instances when she has to interpret and translate the language of others.”
The essential gulf between arts and science is one of language. Truman sees herself as a translator and in her work she circumvents the mathematical language of the scientific universe to find a deeper level of commonality between the two fields. There is an obsessive element to the work of a scientist, for example, which is familiar to the artist. Truman also recognises how the idiosyncrasies of a person are reflected in their practice. The artist expresses her opinions through the nuances of her work. Likewise, the same discoveries, or existing bodies of knowledge, can be perceived in different ways by different scientists. “If two of them are studying the same species,” Truman says, “their descriptions are going to be different because they are different people.”
Equally, there is just as much art to be found in science – the artistic precision of the scalpel, for example, is demonstrated in the new work, Eye Chart Citizen Scope, 2017. A film of the artist’s hand delicately incising a Snellen Eye Chart made of Panda Plastic can be seen through a large aluminium viewing device. In the Glove dissection video series, 2015, senior technician, Pat Villimas deftly dissects a latex glove from Truman’s hand. The interchangeability of an artist and technician’s hand skills are clear, yet also apparent is the mutual respect and trust the two practitioners have built for one another over time.
No surface holds effectively communicates how each experience feeds back into Truman’s conceptual thinking and practice across a broad range of media. This is seen most successfully with In Preparation for Seeing: Cell Culture Glove and SEM Glove, 2015. The works are the results of Truman’s time spent in the Flinders Microscopy Suite. The work is informed by her desire to know more about the current culture of microscopes and the extraordinary, repetitive nature of cell-culturing. Placed on twin tables under glass, the gloves are laid out and under-lit ready to be examined like specimens. The sparkling pearlescent, Cell Culture Glove uses a protective cotton glove as its under-layer. The glove is encrusted with translucent glass balls, a process, which Truman reveals, took about 2-3 weeks to attach.
The affinity between art and science is emphasised as Truman relates to the repetitive, ritualised methodologies and intimate observations that are undertaken by scientists in the pursuit of discovering new materials and microbes living unseen in the world. In Cell Culture Glove and SEM Glove, Truman’s study of microscopic research practices become the focus of the work itself. By looking at what the practitioners of both fields are trying to accomplish, it becomes clear that the goals of the artist and the scientist are fundamentally the same: both wish to understand the world around them.
The takeaway from No surface holds is that art and science underscore the importance of critical thought and experimentation. Collaborations – such as those explored by Catherine Truman – show just how successfully artists and scientists can work together to enhance their own research projects and practices. Truman concludes that she has become, through her experiences:
Like a thinking-two-way-mirror. We start to develop our ideas together– anything can happen. It starts to influence the way I work and it influences the way they work.