Discovery channels art with science

Conservationists and artists will gather at a symposium at the CSIRO Discovery Centre to discuss the future of Australian wildlife, writes Sally Pryor.

<I>Tasmanian Wedgetailed Eagles </I> by Katherine Cooper.
Tasmanian Wedgetailed Eagles by Katherine Cooper. 

If you spend long enough hanging around in the art world, it's amazing how often you hear artists talking about their love of science, and about how similar the two disciplines are.

Or maybe it's not so amazing at all. Science, after all, is a thing of beauty. Like art, the natural world is full of systems and symbols and constructs and accidents. There is, in fact, no real conflict between the two schools of thought, despite what the name of a popular Australian music act would have you believe. Art versus science? Why pit two such complementary schools against each other?

<I>Royal Spoonbills</I> by Sally Elmer.
Royal Spoonbills by Sally Elmer. 

Nonetheless, it's worth asking what it is about wildlife and art that, when combined, works so well. Perhaps it's simply that we need a gorgeously rendered painting of an eagle - or a moth, a mosquito, a salmon, a dingo, a seahorse - to truly appreciate the beauty of nature. Or a painted landscape to help us see the world around us more astutely.

And perhaps it's these very images that bring home the dire environmental straits our world is in. That's the thinking behind a symposium taking place in Canberra next week at CSIRO Discovery Centre.

<I>Grey Falcon</I> by Peter Slater.
Grey Falcon by Peter Slater. 

Artists, scientists and conservationists will gather over five days to respond to issues facing Australian wildlife, and discuss the links between science and art. And these are legion, from the ancient symbolism of wildlife in Aboriginal art and watercolour illustrations accompanying the field notes of early European explorers, through to modern photographic technology and the mind-bending 3D printing of fossils.

Symposium curator Julia Landford, who is president of Wildlife and Botanical Artists Inc, says the event is designed to highlight the important work being done by Australian artists in collaboration with scientists to increase awareness of the country's rich - and increasingly threatened - flora and fauna. It is also, she says, a call to action, with speakers such as climate scientist Tim Flannery, professor of ecology David Lindenmayer and director of the National Botanic Gardens Judy West presenting on conservation issues alongside long-established wildlife artists and photographers, including Raoul Slater, Steve Parish and Katherine Cooper.

Of course, the stars of the symposium will be the artworks themselves, many collated in an exhibition opening at the Discovery Centre of works on May 15 - all of them are for sale, and all are related to the theme of vanishing species.

A symposium like this is, in many ways, a no-brainer for an organisation such as CSIRO, which has a long connection to the art world, with several artists taking up residencies in laboratories and workshops alongside its scientists and researchers. Director of the Discovery Centre Cris Kennedy said while the centre has never had a formal artist-in-residency program, many of the relationships between art and science have developed organically over the years.

<I> Who's the Real Threat </I>by Kerri Dixon.
Who's the Real Threat by Kerri Dixon. 

"The scientific mind is very close to the artistic mind - it's about asking questions, and that's apart from the fact that a lot of our scientists are artists anyway," he says.

Some, he says, have been driven by a desire to broadcast the beauty and wonder of scientific endeavours to the wider world. Others have been drawn to the laboratories for a specific reason, and have quickly found themselves immersed in a world that is both wide and intricate. Canberra-based artist Eleanor Gates-Stuart, for example, wanted to know why there was a scarcity of information about what goes on in the world of science that was accessible to the wider public, and embarked on a PhD in science communication. Along the way, however, she completed a commission for last year's Centenary of Canberra examining modern crop science - an art installation that, in its most basic iteration, looks at the science of wheat.

''I already knew a little bit about technology, but I had to learn more about 3D animation, and wheat,'' she said at the time. ''I've always been able to jump into situations and just very quickly learn them … but one of the things that I've found is that it's really easy to talk to scientists.''

Many have been irresistibly drawn to collections such as the National Herbarium - the dead counterpart to the living collection in the Botanic Gardens, with cuttings dating back to the Endeavour voyage.

And sometimes, an artist stumbles across a scientific collection and finds herself hooked.

Canberra's own eX de Medici, one of the country's highest-profile artists, raised eyebrows in the art world when she applied for, and received, a grant from the Australia Council to research moths. Yes, moths.

It was back in the late 1990s, and she was busy completing a major work that required, among many disparate elements, a couple of insect specimens to pull it all together. An old teacher knew someone who was a taxonomist at CSIRO, and she made contact with the scientists working with the Australian National Insect Collection.

"I just wanted one or two things to look at just to put into the picture, and I took in a few earlier pictures I'd done of things that came off the car grill, mashed things," she says.

"I just got along very well with [the scientists], and they said come back and do some more. I just kept on doing it just by myself, there was nothing formal."

But in 1999, captivated by the incredible beauty of the moths and other insects surrounding her, she decided to get serious, and spent her one-year grant creating "a show of very conservative studies of around 28 or 30 species of the same super-family" of some of Australia's smallest moths.

These moths have since become a recurring theme in her work, adorning, for example, some of the helmets in a collection of work she made as an official war artist for the Australian War Memorial in 2010.

They can also be seen on the throats of the five members of the band Midnight Oil in a work commissioned in 2001 by the National Portrait Gallery.

"The portrait had five specimens from the Kakadu National Park, very close to where the Ranger uranium mine was built, and of which there has never been another collection made since the mine was built," she says.

"They're all appearing as seemingly insignificant animals in the region because they're pollinators and cleaners and that region is destroyed now, so it's perceived by those taxonomists that those animals would potentially be extinct now."

Ultimately, she says, she ended up sitting amid those insects on and off for 12 years.

"I try to keep myself open to new things arriving, and it's an area I would never have gone in, never have even considered it," she said. "But I think really the thing that impressed me the most was, No. 1, the collection was extraordinary, but the other thing was that the scientists were just awesome. They're all conservationists, they're all very concerned people and they're specialists, and I really enjoyed them; they taught me an enormous amount of things about scientific observation, to a point where I can basically recognise hundreds of different super families now just by eyeballing them, and how to fit insects and how the types work, so they gave me a side education as well."

And by rendering the moths to such dramatic effect, she has also succeeded in shining a light, not only on a threatened species, but also on a major collection that is too fragile to ever go on display for any length of time.

"I think it was just good for them that the collection was getting some discussion outside of the science," she says.

The Discovery Centre's Cris Kennedy says the results of mixing art and science at CSIRO are often intangible - a meeting of minds between passionate people - but just as often, the benefits are obvious and apparent.

"One of the things that an organisation like CSIRO gets out of residencies is that exchange of ideas. You will find left-brained artists asking questions of our right-brained scientists - or maybe it's the other way around - and our scientists sometimes have their little minds blown because artists are asking these questions that artists think are really obvious, and scientists maybe even haven't thought down that path before."

De Medici thinks the division between the two disciplines is fallacious at best.

"I think the thing that's very important also is that there isn't a war between art and science. I don't know who started this stupid rumour, but most scientists are really open to art, they love pictures, they love going to shows - I've yet to encounter a scientist who does not like art.

"I think especially with biologists, they recognise beauty and they appreciate it, and art and music have basic constructs in this history. I think that this is a fake war between art and science - it doesn't exist, and whoever keeps pushing this stupid idea needs to have a good whipping!" Or they could attend next week's symposium. "We're hoping to have a whole range of wildlife artists from all over Australia attend, and also conservation groups who are interested in working with artists who can present their conservation messages."

Discover Wildlife: Art and Science is on from May 14 to 18. For a full program of events, visit csiro.au/wildlife2014.