Art versus science: A beautiful pairing for Erica Seccombe

Art versus science: A beautiful pairing for Erica Seccombe

It's a fact: most artists enter prizes regularly, and don't really expect to win. The process of entering, just like applying for grants, is an integral part of one's professional practice, a way of crystallising one's goals in a bid to be taken seriously.

Still, not winning hurts, admits Erica Seccombe.

Erica Seccombe uses X-rays to produces 3D images. Her aim is to show how science and art can be combined.

Erica Seccombe uses X-rays to produces 3D images. Her aim is to show how science and art can be combined.Credit:Jay Cronan

"You always do have a little cry, when you don't get grants in particular," she says. But the Canberra artist is not sniffling in self-pity at the moment. Far from it: she's still metaphorically punching the air, having been named the winner of the Paramor Prize for Art and Innovation at the Casula Powerhouse Art Centre in Sydney.

Her winning work, a huge print of germinating seeds on a highly mirrored surface, wasn't even created as an artwork in the first place, much less an entry to a competition worth $20,000. Instead, it's the result of her getting first dibs on trying out the ANU School of Art's massive new Inkjet printer. She knew the image would look great, printed on aluminium composite board, but she didn't know how great, until she heard her name being called.


She attended the awards ceremony at the Casula Powerhouse with her family more as an excuse for a mini-break with the kids. She recalls standing in the audience with her partner, National Library curator Nat Williams, and her two stepchildren – his from a previous marriage.

"When they called out my name, I looked at Nat and said 'Oh, far out!' And then all I could hear was [our son] Nick saying, 'Holy shit!' It made my night!" she says, laughing raucously. It's a typical scenario for an artist whose general approach to her practice is to be game, to give it a go and try new things. Her biggest job is convincing others to get on board with her.

But, back in 2005 when she approached the Department of Applied Mathematics at ANU, keen to use X-ray technology in her art, employing plastic animals as subjects, she had no idea how fruitful the relationship would turn out to be. She began working with Tim Senden, who is head of the department, and Ajay Limaye, at VizLab in the ANu Supercomputer facility, who had only recently created the software Drishti ("insight" in Sanskrit) used to visualise data.

"What I didn't realise was they'd just … got together this incredible 3D micro-computer x-rayed tomography," she says, rattling off an explanation speckled with techno-jargon. It comes so easily to her these days that she could just as easily be giving me a recipe for risotto. I'm frankly stumped, but seeing and reading about the results that won her the $20,000 Paramor prize is clearer.

"I have been experimenting with capturing the dynamic phenomena germinating seeds as they transform from embryo to first leaf. This work shows a moment captured in the stages where mung beans and alfalfa seeds started to grow roots and leaves," she writes in her artist statement.

"As an artist I am using this science innovatively but also looking at the aesthetic potential for this virtual data to be experienced through different mediums such as inkjet printing."

Her aim is to show how science and art can be combined to "engage us with the natural world through processes of rational observation and subjective experience". Virtual Life, her award-winning work, represents a "techno-scientific culture where our relationship to nature and experience of the natural world is increasingly mediated through technology. Our own reflections in the surface of this work position us in the present but our ability to cultivate plants also represents our survival and the continuity of human culture."

She wants the viewer to experience the same wonder, while gazing at a massive image of a microscopic process, with the same wonder as she does, every day.

Born in Brisbane, she lived briefly in Canberra before her father moved the family to Darwin in 1977.

"It was pretty amazing," she says of post-Cyclone Tracy Darwin.

"Sometimes we have memories of it – you'll go, 'Remember that tree with the metal wrapped around it?' People all lived under their demountables. So I left school and went and did a year and a half in the Darwin Institute of Technology, and then quickly realised that that was a waste of my life. It was pretty bad. I love Darwin, but… I got into the Sydney College of the Arts."

There, she studied photography and screen-printing – still her main media – before moving to Canberra in 2000 to complete a Master of Philosophy at the ANU School of Art, in printmaking.

"That's when I was starting to look at scientific visualisation, because it's right on the cusp of digitalisation," she says.

"I didn't have a digital camera - the only way I could scan these plastic animals was on a flatbed scanner, and so then I went from flatbed scanning things and screenprinting them to X-Ray scanning them and visualising them as three-dimensional. It was this huge leap, but it kind of had a nice segue-way into it, it made sense in my practice. So since then, that's how it's developed and that's how I've started to do all these different things with applied maths."

She's stayed in Canberra since finishing art school, deeply ensconced in the art scene and her life with Williams. A member of Megalo Print Studio since 2003, she became chair of the board there and weathered the storm now known as the Fitters Workshop Debacle. It was she who convinced members that they had to give up their dream of moving into the heritage building that had been promised to them, and all because of the building's acoustic properties.

"I was very, very angry because we had nothing – we were about to fold, that was it, and so I had to convince [director] Alison [Alder] that we had to give it up, and a lot of the board members were really upset, and the members were upset because they wanted to keep fighting… I was waking up every morning going, 'f---!'."

But, glancing around the already cosy new space occupied by Megalo just doors down from the still-empty Fitters Workshop, she admits that it all worked out for the best. Although she shudders to think what could have been.

"I think the government was very relieved when it realised it had this space. It all happened in a week," she says.

"[But] you should have seen it, when we walked in and looked at it. I went, 'Oh my god', because the ceilings were about two metres lower and there were no floors, there was just nothing."

She has since quit the board and is instead reaping the benefits of the beautiful new studios, working at Megalo part-time while she finishes her PhD – entitled Grow – Experiencing Nature in the Fifth Dimension, the result of her project with the maths department.

After her initial approach all those years ago - she proposed making the X-rays of plastic animals, and the mathematicians were all for it - she received her first grant from ArtsACT, to work in the department as an artist in residence for three months. It was a stint that resulted in a successful exhibition two years later, Nanoplastica, at Canberra Contemporary Art Space at Gorman House.

"I then started to think about the fourth dimension," she says. "They were adding time to their datasets and I really wanted to be part of it."

She eventually received a Synapse Art Science Collaborations Grant through the Australian Network for Art and Technology, and another Arts ACT grant, and began to germinate seeds and record the results.

She's been working on various scientific projects ever since, and has discovered in the process that it's a surprisingly eclectic bunch of people who populate the labs of such departments.

"My relationship with the Department of Applied Mathematics has turned into this really amazing relationship where I can go in and use their equipment and use their 3D printers," she says.

"We've looked at different ways of visualising things and I've influenced the way that Drishti has gone. Because I'm a visual artist, but I'm not a scientific illustrator - I come to them with these ideas but they're so liberal-minded and arts-educated. I go to galleries with them and these guys are amazing. It's applied maths, so a completely different group of people, very mixed. I've kind of become part of this bizarre scientific community."

She's even received an ArtsACT grant to travel to the Natural History Museum in London, a project she was worried she wouldn't be able to complete without more funds. Winning the Paramor has solved that problem; she can now spend two months in London and work on her latest project.

Over the years, more artists have become involved in the Department of Applied Mathematics, all working on different concepts.

"They're doing completely different projects and they're interested in a whole range of things and they've met with other people, so there're hundreds of different people doing different things," she says.

The department has even started to actively support the art school – giving it the funds to purchase the Inkjet printer, for example.

"I'm a great supporter of the art school," she says.

"It's the only art school in Australia that still has studio programs, really, the full gamut, it's pretty amazing, and so maths gets that, and it's really good."

It's the spirit of collaboration that she loves most about Canberra. In fact, it was through taking the kids to crèche in their early years that she first got the idea of approaching the Department of Applied Mathematics in the first place.

"There was this woman who ran the crèche who kept saying, 'What do you do?', and I'd tell her, 'I'm interested in science and art', and she'd say, 'You've got to meet my son.' And Tim Senden's her son. People ask me that, they say, 'How do you meet people like that?' And I say, 'Through a crèche!'."

She says she feels out of her depth in Sydney, where artists rely so much more on family connections and networking than fortuitous meetings.

"You can't get ahead anywhere, you have to be connected through family, whereas when you come to Canberra everyone says, 'What do you do? Do you want to try this out?'" she says.

"They're all such bum-sniffers in Sydney, you've got to know someone, you've got to do the hard yards, you actually have to go and do the whole network thing. It is hierarchical, you would never go to dinner with someone from the National Gallery, or you'd never go to an opening where you'd have that kind of mix," she says. In Canberra, though, senior arts figures mix with students at barbeques, and gallery directors become integral members of the local community.

"I suppose it is size, really, but I love it, I don't think I'll ever leave," she says.

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