|Eye Sea You - Tim Wetherell|
Below is the written version of a talk the artist gave on Art and Science. If you dont read every single work promise me you'll read his last paragraph which I'll highlight so you dont miss it! Very thought-provoking!
Art/sci - A grumpy old man's perspective on the
art meets science phenomena
As part of the ANU National Science Week activities I was asked to give a public lecture at the National Museum of Australia on art, science and what happens when they come together - so called Art/sci. Given that I was once a professional research scientist and now work as a practicing sculptor, the powers that be presumably decided that I was the right guy for the job and I make it a policy not to argue with the powers that be! So I set about a little journey of exploration to see if I could condense my thoughts on the matter into a few vaguely sensible words that I could vent on the public without getting too many rotten tomatoes thrown at me. An overdose of classical education in my youth dictated the only possible starting point to be getting to grips with some definitions.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as "A branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematized observation and experiment..etc. etc." In fact, it has quite a lot to say on the matter and definitely leaves me with the feeling that the human race is pretty clear about what exactly science is. Art on the other hand, is afforded the cursory description "Human creative skill or its application." It gave me the feeling that despite the tomes that have been devoted to the topic of what art is, we're still not quite sure. I wondered what other people thought? What was the public perception? Because after all, we make art for the public, and a lot of it is paid for by the taxpayer right? So what they think probably matters. My lecture at the National Museum gave me a good opportunity for a show of hands referendum on how "artistic" a number of very different works were seen to be. We began with some slides of Michael Angelo's David and the Mona Lisa. Two great corner stones in the foundations of western art. This was comfortable ground for us all. Everyone saw both as great works of art and even our dusty old friend the Oxford English had to agree. Undoubtedly created by humans with great skill. So far so good. Then we moved on to Jackson Pollock and most of us were still happy with the "art" label. Perhaps the work wasn't executed with the same technical finesse as the Mona Lisa, but it was nonetheless creative. It was also abstract and it was expressive, and well, we all remember art theory 101. What was clear though, was that Jackson's work was beginning to stretch the Oxford's comfort zone. Finally, I trotted out Marcel Duchamp's Fountain - an "off the shelf" urinal. It wasn't really an expression of creative skill, at least not of Marcel's creative skill, but was it art? By this stage I'd lost perhaps half of my "public hands" but many people (including myself) still saw the work as art. And indeed to me, the fact that were were still talking about it almost a century after it was exhibited proved it was actually quite a profound work of art. However, there was no doubt that whatever opinions were expressed in the theatre, the Oxford English had been left a long way behind. This sure wasn't dictionary art. Yet it was acclaimed by many theorists to be art at the highest level. What had gone wrong? I blamed the Oxford. I think it's view of art as just creative skill is a notch off the mark. Perhaps a better definition might be; Art, an object, image or performance presented in order to communicate an idea which might be difficult to express in other ways. Looking at it this way the urinal, the Mona Lisa and Blue Poles are all art. I felt good about this definition of art and was ready to think about what Art/sci could be and should be.
The Oxford didn't have a lot to say on this. In fact where Art/sci might logically be expected to appear, Arty-Farty was listed as "pretentiously artistic". It wasn't a good start and it was about to get a whole lot worse. Thinking that Art/sci might be a little pedestrian for the big black book, I turned to the internet.
A Google image search for Art/sci returned a bunch of semi naked women with spears and guns and some sort of antennae things on their heads. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind. The images that popped into my head were of artworks that referenced science. Of art facilitated by science, Stelarc, Laura Cinti, stuff like that. Then I thought about a couple of Art/sci shows I'd seen around the traps over the years, and to be honest, I remembered that I had found some of them a bit disappointing. For the most part, they were just pretty pictures from various branches of science stuck on the wall in frames. Don't get me wrong, many of the images were really good technical photographs and they were pretty. But some part of me wasn't satisfied that they were really art. I thought of respected photographic artists like Tracy Moffett, John Ogden and Joachim Froese. Their images had a deeper, more profound quality. There were actually saying something. And there it was again, that idea of art as communication. An artist has something to say and uses his or her medium to say it. A scientific image, however spectacular it may be, is really just a statement of fact. "This is a bug". "This is what the great spiral galaxy in Andromeda looks like". To me, the artist's role is far more profound than mere statement of fact. It is to communicate not just what the Andromeda galaxy looks like but how it made you feel: Small and Insignificant? Powerful, in that mere humans had figured out how to build instruments that could see it? Scared because bug eyed monsters might be looking back at us from there? Something beyond pretty. Don't get me wrong, I like pretty. I have a pretty couch and a dinner set with some really pretty patterns on it and I love both. But in art I want something that I can get my teeth into. Something that speaks to me. I think that the common perception that any scientist can stick a picture on the wall and automatically become an artist is both wrong and disrespectful of our artists. It assumes that they just make pretty things to hang on the wall and that's all there is to it. Imagine if I wrote some gobeldygook equations and sent them to a leading mathematics journal because they bore a superficial resemblance to real maths? Actually, thinking about it, my maths tutor back at St Andrews would probably say that's exactly what I used to do! - but it didn't cut the mustard, and to be honest, nor do pretty pictures paraded as art.
I believe that art has a deeply significant role to play in science communication. It can interpret scientific concepts and the social changes they bring. It can make us aware of the human consequences. The sculptor Tony Cragg expressed this rather nicely when he said "In a sense it is obvious that in terms of the physical world, scientists make the more fundamental statements, but artists and philosophers don't have a less important job. They humanise , they find out what the significance of science is for human beings".
I think that as artists, that is exactly what we should be doing. If we allow the perception of Art/sci to be just pretty pictures taken from science books then at best we become no more than decorators. At worst we undermine art's central and critical role in human society. Let's talk about science, because love it or hate it it's coming this way and there's a whole lot of it. It is going to change every aspect of the world and our lives.
So let's do what we should as artists and e x p l o r e what these p r o f o u n d technological c h a n g e s m e a n to the human race.