A fascinating collaboration has been taking place around Cardiff University, where the seemingly mutually exclusive fields of art and science have seen the two join forces to spectacular effect. Emily Garside investigates.
There are things in the basement offices of Cardiff University that you wouldn’t expect. Physicists and scientists side by side with strange and mysterious things…artworks. These artworks, now a permanent addition to the department, are part of a collaboration with local artist Penelope Rose Cowley, and represent part of a growing relationship between the artist and Dr Dan Read and his team.
Too often the worlds of science and art are seen as polar opposites. As artist Penelope Rose Cowley describes: ‘Artists and Scientists are different elements. The artists offer or makes questions….the scientists generate answers. Each sees the ‘object’ differently, a table stands in between as the buffer and the object, a glass perhaps is placed on top, the two elements face each other, observing the glass from different perspectives.’
In the case of this collaboration it was a chance encounter with one of Dan and his team’s demonstrations that sparked the imagination of the artist. The idea began for Penelope at Cardiff Science festival in 2013 where art and science accidentally met. Here Penelope was exhibiting some of her earlier work – a long-standing fascination with expressing elements of science through art has been central to her work. Meanwhile Dan and his team were also exhibiting. It was here she first encountered the Meissner effect demonstration run by Dan and his team at the Cardiff Science Festival in 2013. They happened to be exhibiting opposite one another – one with physics and one with paintings – polar opposites it seemed; but both quickly became interested in the other’s work. Penelope describes the encounter with Dan’s science demonstration the way many describe a first encounter with art: ‘It’s difficult to express this first moment. At first glance I thought my eyes betrayed me. A small cube, dark in matter, tinged with frost, seemed to be levitating above a small round disk; this was set in a pool of the strange ethereal fluid substance with a cold mist dancing evaporating like lazy smoke flowing off the table descending with gravity.’
Following this meeting Penelope visited the laboratories at Cardiff University several times, observing and becoming further fascinated by the scientific explorations of the team. Her encounters, and her description showed that the scientific process of discovery was not unlike artistic discovery. As she describes understanding their world;
‘I came to understand these magical people intend to offer the world their ideas, theories and inventions to this world; to be delivered unhindered, peer reviewed, tested and expressed through an infinite variety of applications. The world will in turn use, alter, enhance and change at will all of their potential outcomes.’
And as Dan and his team continued to explore their world, work on magnetic monopoles (a hypothetical elementary particle in particle physics that is an isolated magnet with only one magnetic pole – a north pole without a south pole or vice versa) and using Leavtrons to explore the Meisner effect demonstrations like this showed the kind of scientific magic that goes on the laboratories. When it came to making artistic work as a result, Penelope was not short of inspiration.
On visiting the lab to observe further, the artworks were created on canvas to express the artist’s experience of ‘observed, imagined and assimilated’ within the scientists’ work. As a result she created three acrylic on canvas paintings reflecting the work being created in the laboratory. In this parallel creation it is clear that artists and scientists are not so far apart. Both processes begin with a spark of imagination – one filters into laboratories and experiments, the other into artistic experimentation.
The work, originally exhibited at Cardiff Science Fair in 2014, was recently acquired by Cardiff University for permanent display close to the laboratories and the ongoing work which inspired them. Art and science are clearly working in harmony in this project, and the processes each went through in their part of the project shows that inspiration and experimentation are never that far apart even in seemingly opposing disciplines.
This collaboration continues with ‘New Signals’, a new project run by Professor Derek Jones, in conjunction with Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) which will coincide with the creation of the new building, CUBRIC2, a £44M investment into Cardiff that will bring together world-leading expertise in brain mapping with the very latest in brain imaging and brain stimulation. This next project will combine with further artistic work, including from Penelope Rose Cowley with a touring exhibition of the ‘New Signals’ with 2 other artists at 6 locations across the country is planned for 2017-18.
(Photo credits: Penelope Rose Cowley)