Arts / Canberrans mix science and art

Still from Erica Seccombe’s winning video, ‘Metamorphosis’.

WHEN the touring exhibition of winning and highly commended works from the SA Museum’s 2018 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize hits The National Archives at Old Parliament House on Wednesday night (August 22), all eyes will be on Canberra artists and their increasing engagement with science.

This year’s winner is Canberra artist Erica Seccombe for her video, “Metamorphosis”, while the winner of the $10,000 “emerging artist” prize is also a Canberra artist, Hayley Lander, for “The great forgetting”, a surrealist look at eucalyptus leaves in various states of decay.

But the Canberra talent doesn’t stop there.

Erica Seccombe

Among the shortlistees on show in Adelaide during June were “Fool’s gold”, by Anna Madeleine commenting on the rapid decline of bees, “Tide Blown”, glass with multi-fired enamel by ANU honours graduate Erin Conron, the highly commended glass works “Bush flower bicornuals” by Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello, “Windows to soul’s garden”, by Maiju Altpere, “Shield no sword”, telling how soil is full of life and death, by Natalie Maras, “Eucalyptus mantle”, by Sally Blake and “Apocalyptic fracture”, an apocalyptic vision by Mahala Hill.

Given the concentration of scientific institutions in Canberra, it is not surprising to find Canberra artists exploring links between art and science, and past Waterhouse prizes have also gone to artists from the ACT.

Dan Power won the emerging category in 2016 and glass artist Harriet Schwarzrock won in the sculpture and objects categoryin 2014. In 2010 another glass artist, Nikki Main, was both overall winner and first in “sculpture and objects”, and now, after a period of reassessment, the focus of the main award has been tightened to produce just a winner and an emerging artist, setting the Waterhouse Prize on a securer path to the future.

Seccombe is, in the popular lingo, “hot”. Her work hits a contemporary nerve, spanning as it does traditional photographic print media, drawing and experimental digital platforms using frontier scientific visualisation software.

In 2011, she was commissioned to create a permanent foyer installation in the High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre at CSIRO. In 2015 she won first prize in the Inaugural “Paramor Prize” at Casula Powerhouse Art Centre. In 2016 she was named CAPO Fellow. And now, she has won both main prize of $30,000 but also the Scientists’ Choice Award of $5000.

“Metamorphosis”, the judges said, “represents a deep collaboration between scientific and aesthetic enquiry, with the tools of one being instrumental to the realisation of the other… While at one level the video documents the metamorphosis of a pupating fly… at another it works to enlarge our understanding of the mysterious cycles of life itself.”

“CityNews” caught up with the winning artist during a busy day at ANU, where she lectures at the ANU School of Art & Design, teaches for the Centre for Art History and Art Theory and is the convener of graduate studies coursework.

“I have no background at all in science,” Seccombe tells me, “it’s just that I really find the ways of thinking interesting, so I got involved in interdisciplinary collaborative processes that can lead to different outcomes.”

But her work doesn’t fit into a nice, neat category.

“Some people don’t accept my art, they don’t think it looks artsy enough,” she says.

“I fall into the cracks but the great thing about the Waterhouse Prize is that you can be doing many different things at the same time.”

Hayley Lander’s “The great forgetting”

Seccombe describes hers as a “strange and long relationship with Canberra”, having started schooling here, continued interstate, then returned to Canberra in 2000 to do a masters which turned into a PhD on sprouting mung beans, and pretty much stayed here – “now it’s my home,” she says.

The mung bean studies, reproduced in 4D, led to her work on the fly and to the charming headline in the Adelaide daily saying: “Maggot video wins Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize” — she relishes that.

Seccombe knows she has been fortunate and is full of praise for ArtsACT, who supported her in residencies and trips, notably to the Natural History Museum in London.

Fortunate also in her career timing, as universities begin to make connections between disciplines.

“They’re starting to understand the collaborative relationships that are so important in their own work and we can achieve a new way of thinking with collaboration,” she says.

The National Archives is, as in previous years, hosting the Waterhouse Prize, and Canberra remains the only location outside Adelaide to host the exhibition.

The 2018 Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition of winning and highly commended works, this year at the National Archives’ temporary home in the The National Archives at Old Parliament House, King George Terrace, Parkes, open to public from  August 23 to October 14, daily 9am-5pm.

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