For the recent Science Communicators Assn of NZ conference (Dunedin, Nov 14-16), I decided to challenge myself and present on art and science rather than my more accustomed themes of citizen science and community-led environmental restoration. Where to begin with drawers, shelves and boxes filled with over 2 decades of creative practice? Artist’s books, diaries, photographs, drawings, printed ephemera produced while travelling, studying and being an artist in residence. This post is a version of my presentation.
The day began with both Jenny Rock and Fabien Medvecky providing an academic grounding for the split between art and science, and how this has been reconfigured in recent years. My presentation was very much from a practitioner’s perspective rather than an investigation of theories.
Where to begin? With my great grandfather, writer and photographer Franz Otto Koch, who in 1926 paid homage to The Banana. This is one of his many publications resulting from years spent travelling around the globe exploring the intersection of nature and culture.
Although I use different tools, I’m of similar restless disposition. Like my forefather, I’ve had a foot in both camps, starting off in fine arts and veering off into science, conservation, restoration, development, zigzagging between disciplines over the years.
To chart a course through my creative practice, I formed 3 loose, overlapping categories or ways of seeing, capturing and contextualising information
Art as research: Documenting my surrounds in the most fundamental way possible through field diaries
Art alongside research: Stepping out of science and engaging in art to explore larger more universal themes (connectivity; attachment; morphology)
Art commenting on science: exploring the structures and conventions used by science to interpret the environment
I have a real horror of people whose sole way of seeing, interpreting and engaging with our surrounds is purely superficial. People who just look at a landscape and say ‘I just loooove all of that green texture’. And that’s it. That’s all they know. With formal science studies centring on ecological restoration and measuring change, there’s both a desire and a need for a technical understanding of what I’m looking at.
The philosophical novelist, John Fowles (1926-2005) describes the complementarity between science and creative visualisation:
I discovered, too, that there was less conflict than I had imagined between nature as and external assembly of names and facts and nature as internal feeling; that the two modes of seeing or knowing could in fact marry and take place almost simultaneously, and enrich each other
John Fowles. The Tree. 1979
Similarly when we want to look beyond the surface and try to understand structures and systems we can reach back to Carl Linneaus who developed the binomial classification system and either see them as constraining or liberating… a jumping off point.
Botany is one of the earliest sciences. I’m most intrigued by Marianne North (1830-1890) both for her adventurous, no-nonsense spirit and her botanical illustrations. They stand out on account the radiant oil paints she favoured, and because she placed her subjects in relevant landscapes instead of against a white vacuum. The results? Simultaneously chocolate box and valuable documents.
Art as research
Like my great grandfather who used photography as his primary research tool, I use basic media to explore, to document and to render 3d into 2d. I like the immediacy and the low-tech tools because it strengthens that connection both to place and within history. Throughout time, the intricacy, beauty and complexity of the world has largely been documented through line and light.
In the late 90s, I spent several months in Sabah (Borneo). It was in the rainforest surrounding a research centre that I had a chance meeting with a Hawaiian shirt-clad scientist. It transpired that he and I were both looking at the same phenomena – but through 2 different paradigms. I was drawing trees and exploring their structures, and here was a ‘tree architect. He introduced me to new terms: sympodial and monopodial, and from there, to a whole alphabet of plant branching patterns (see Bell & Bryan 2008).
Later as an artist in residence in the UK, I used these tree models – there are around 24 in total in a limited-edition artist’s book.
Art alongside research
Engaging in creative practice is an opportunity to access other areas of consciousness while doing formal science studies. Science and art in themselves are incomplete tools for investigating and understanding our surrounds and our relationship to it, but they also counterbalance each other. Studying science there is a sense of being anchored by systematically exploring a subject – yes there’s still space for serendipity, but there’s more of this space during the creative process. This seems to me the point at which art and science diverge. And I miss that – leaving cerebral thought behind and just going off as conceptual artists and master printmaker Mike Parr (b.1945) describes:
So much of the time I fly blind… I initiate situations which I only ever half understand. But, I am compelled to do so
Mike Parr. Identities. 1992
Art commenting on research
The order of nature and our order imposed on nature has also been investigated by artists such as Mark Dion (b.1961). Like Dion, I find the collection, translation and display of nature through historical collections mesmerising. But there are also the processes and methods themselves. A culture of science imposed on the natural world:
I have hung all systems on the wall like a row of useless hats. They do not fit. They come in from outside, they are suggested patterns, some dull and some of great beauty
William Golding. Freefall. 1959
The works in this loose category are linked because they all reference science-based methods: the ever-present dendrogram; a photograph of a herbarium specimen collected from Raoul Island in the late 1800s by botanist Cheeseman; a work from an artist in the residence in the US on ‘measurement’, and a toucan skull drawn out of storage in the Field Museum in Chicago.
The ‘Kermadec’ project is now well beyond its documentary phase; moving forward I find myself playing more and more with what’s in my head and finding ways of getting that out
Jason O’Hara. Kermadec. 2011
I still have a pile of barely touched writing, drawings, photos and photograms from 19 years ago as a Dept of Conservation volunteer on the incredibly remote Raoul Island. Just like my energetic great grandfather Franz Otto Koch, there’s so much more I want to make visual, and in the process, understand with greater depth and clarity.
There is no clear definition between illustrating and investigating, it’s a spectrum of ways of seeing and interpreting. But, like almost every science presentation, I’m going to leave you with an image from ‘The Observation of Men and Methods’ – More research is needed on this subject area.