The Lady Botanist. By Erica Seccombe. Megalo Print Gallery, 21 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston. Until April 29.
Erica Seccombe was born in Queensland, and as an artist trained in Darwin, Sydney and Canberra. From her catalogue note we learn that in 2017 she will be awarded a PhD in Photography and Media Arts from the ANU School of Art and Design.
Seccombe's exhibition consists of 21 large-scale screenprints and photogravures that stem from her 2015 residency at London's Natural History Museum, where she was initiated into the museum's 3D imaging program for their specimens. She was particularly taken with the technique called Micro-computed tomography (or Micro-CT for short) where a mass of about 3000 X-ray projections are taken over a 360-degree rotation creating a 3D model of the internal and external organs of a specimen. This information is stored as a data set that has microscopic precision and which can be decoded with the appropriate computer software. The equipment used to produce these 3D X-rays is very big, very high tech and smacks of sci-fi.
As I understand it, Seccombe has transferred these data sets, with the help of ANU technicians, into accessible images that can be reproduced as screenprints and photogravures.
A second conceptual strand interwoven throughout this exhibition is the idea that historically many of the Victorian era scientists and botanists were women of leisure. This included the remarkable Anna Atkins, who was friends with William Henry Fox Talbot and from him learnt two of the earliest photographic techniques, the photogenic drawing, where an object is placed on light-sensitised paper and exposed to the sun to produce an image, and the calotype. From Sir John Herschel, she learnt the cyanotype photographic technique, frequently called blueprints, where the object is placed onto coated paper and exposed to the sun, so that a silhouette image is produced and because of the chemicals employed it is usually a blue image. Atkins produced many cyanotype images of ferns, and seaweed (which she referred to as algae), some of which she published as books.
The third strand in the exhibition is the verse of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive 19th century American poet who in recent years has attained something of a cult following. Seccombe consciously draws on all of these traditions in her art practice. What we have in Seccombe's The Lady Botanist exhibition is a series of prints, which exploit some of the most recent developments in 3D imaging, that are printed in a manner resembling cyanotypes, one of the earliest and most primitive photographic techniques, and exhibited with titles inspired by Emily Dickinson's verse.
Personally, I find X-rays and skeletal structures in art a slightly eerie experience and the knowledge that we are looking at museum specimens of long-dead creatures heightens this sensation. Despite their source, they are somewhat prickly attractive images, where the enigmatic titles, such as Knowledge without conclusion, A path divided and Neither Wing nor Keel, hint at a past that is irretrievable, but distantly familiar. The preference for black, blue and occasionally purple backgrounds also hints at old-school natural science illustrations but, as you peer closer into the image, you encounter a mesmerising complexity of detail and a strange detached lyricism.
As a child, I was drawn to a particular verse by Dickinson, that I never really understood. In this exhibition, it once again comes to mind: "'Faith' is a fine invention / For Gentlemen who see! / But Microscopes are prudent/ In an Emergency!"