Scientific imagining: studio based research into genre images of science and how art might interpret modern science

Leach, S 2016, Scientific imagining: studio based research into genre images of science and how art might interpret modern science, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Art, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Scientific imagining: studio based research into genre images of science and how art might interpret modern science
Author(s) Leach, S
Year 2016
Abstract Art has an important role to play in providing a critical reception for science and in considering the way scientific findings affect us emotionally. Understanding this complex relationship is key to my own studio practice and is the primary motivation behind this project.

The central questions for this research project are as follows:

How has the genre of representations of science changed since the early Enlightenment?

In what ways can I employ painting to respond to the changes in the genre?

Science has become a dominant social force in liberal Western democracies and, arguably, the world. Nonetheless, science frequently comes under attack from political interest groups, evident in the critique of military applications of science, recent attempts to undermine the science of climate change and critiques of biogenetic engineering from environmental groups concerned with the potential of science to disrupt or corrupt nature. Yet, as the impact of climate change grows increasingly severe, both the practice of scientific research as well as public understanding and acceptance of that research are vital.

While science is influenced by the personal, emotional motivations of scientists, it is often characterised as a process of dispassionate, unbiased observation. In this studio based project I use painting to depict the practice of experimental science, including aspects of scientific discovery and scientists themselves. My studio based research draws on the historical genre of visual art representing science and examines how this legacy informs and shapes the current public reception of science and the engagement of the public with science.

Since the late 20th century there have been significant efforts to foster and encourage collaborations between scientists and artists through the establishment of dedicated institutions and galleries. These initiatives have fostered much interesting work, suggesting the possibility of a hybrid discipline and encouraging the application of emerging technology in art practice. However, the projects facilitated by these institutions are often framed as an aspect of science communication and, while these endeavours may be highly successful as artworks, they may also run a risk of contributing to the mystification of science. My work uses the discipline of painting to attempt to understand the practice of science as a cultural phenomenon.

I follow the relationship between art and science from the 17th century when experimental science first emerged, and at which time it shared its cultural status with art. I then consider the professionalisation of scientific enquiry and subsequent divergence between art and science at the beginning of the Romantic period in the early 19th century. I also consider later initiatives designed with the specific intent of decreasing the gap between art and science in the 20th and 21st centuries. The investigation of paintings and artworks up to the Romantic period reveal a shifting impression of science. This is because, with the exception of some portraits, the iconography changes its meaning from a largely negative and satirical genre, characterised by paintings of quacks or alchemists, to a more respectful iconography of doctors and chemists. By the 19th century, artists were incorporating scientific discoveries in their work with depictions of weather, geography and archaeology. Artists also worked with scientists in the development of the new technology of photography, and towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, representations of more abstract concepts from physics and mathematics began to be used as the basis for artworks. Scientific concepts have remained a theme in the imagery of science in art beyond the mid-20th century, when science was also represented in artworks that incorporated emerging technologies.

Studio based research also leads me to consider the more formal qualities of such representations shaped by the influence of experimental science and the legacy the early Enlightenment. While recent studies have considered scientific theories as a mode of representation, and applied aspects of visual art theory to analyse them (Mutanen 2010), my studio research has led me to consider this relationship by constructing paintings drawing on works of the mid to late 20th century as models for examining representation and perception in visual art, which I combined with references to scientific research and theories. My paintings use this new understanding of the aesthetic dimension of scientific theory to reconfigure the ways in which representational painting can be constructed.

In particular, the artworks of Chris Henschke, Laurent Grasso, Keith Tyson and Mark Fairnington provide useful indications of possible approaches to art, referencing both historical and contemporary scientific practices. My work has also been informed by the ideas of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman in how experimental science practice also represents the world, along with Martin Bauer’s work on the inherent tensions and mystifications in the processes of science communication.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Art
Subjects Art History
Art Theory
Fine Arts (incl. Sculpture and Painting)
Keyword(s) Art
Contemporary art
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Created: Tue, 19 Apr 2016, 14:05:30 EST by Keely Chapman
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