A Synthesis between chemistry and art

May 16 / 182

Julian Aubrey Smith, Wilful Ignorance, 2016
Julian Aubrey Smith, Wilful Ignorance, 2016

Collaborations take time – sometimes far more than anticipated. Such was the case with a project begun in late 2014 between researchers at the University of Melbourne’s School of Chemistry and artists from the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

The residency, at the School of Chemistry, was initiated to allow PhD art students to work with chemists, and the aim, according to the promotional material, was simply “to see what would happen”.

“In the end it was quite revelatory,” says Dr Stephen Haley, a visual artist and academic at the VCA. 

“There’s a great deal of sympathy between scientists and artists and that became really apparent during this process.”

The residency has since culminated in an art exhibition, Synthesis, which is currently showing at the University’s George Paton Gallery. It features six artists, each of whom has three or four works on show, from sculpture to video to sound work and beyond. Dr Haley, who co-curated the exhibition and has three paintings on show, explains that the works were born of discussions between individual artists and chemists who had been paired together. In the process, they discovered more similarities than differences.

“Science and visual art are intimately involved with material investigation,” he says. “Both are experimental, playful even, with results that are often accidental. Artists and scientists have more in common than artists have with the humanities, which is largely theoretical.

”There’s a fundamental curiosity in both fields, a sense of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”

The residency was the idea of the School of Chemistry’s Dr Renee Beale, who co-curated the exhibition and has run similar collaborations in the past. While the artists have something obvious to show at the end of such projects, she says she’s always asked about the benefit to scientists. 

“Artists tend to work and think more broadly than scientists,” she says. “And just seeing that, being aware of it, is important for the scientists involved. 

“In this case, the artists would ask questions, many of which the scientists either hadn’t thought about or hadn’t considered for a very long time. Having access to those different perspectives helps them to look for unconventional links between things, which in turn could help them make new discoveries.”

Beale sees the current exhibition as a showcase for what can be done to help researchers “trigger new ways of thinking about their own work”.

Haley agrees. “For me, I’d really like to see more genuine engagement between science and art. The results, as this show proves, can be really interesting.”

Story by Paul Dalgarno

Synthesis is at the George Paton Gallery, Melbourne, until 3 June. Details here.

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