Objects in the Field

Collaboration between the arts and the sciences is both increasingly prominent and, perhaps as a consequence, increasingly problematic. Projects and practices describing themselves as interdisciplinary collaborations are on the rise, in part as a result of funding availability. But it’s also more complex than that: art is always drawn to power, and few institutions in the Western world today wield as much power as omniscient Science.

But to what extent can pure, balanced collaboration ever actually occur? Is it not always marked by the spectre of the parasite, or of exploitation? On the one hand, perhaps this particular period in the history of relations between the arts and the sciences may be seen as a great coming together of shared interest and understanding (but what would that look like?). On the other, and less explicitly, perhaps it’s actually seeing a crystallisation of existing oppositions, whereby each so-called collaborator retreads the same lines of opposition in the very process of ‘collaboration’. Perhaps, as ever, it’s a bit of both.

Such questions are deftly alluded to by Sophy Rickett in her thoughtful and elegant exhibition, Objects in the Field. Originally exhibited at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, the project has been expanded upon and is now on show at Camilla Grimaldi’s temporary space in an intriguingly unprepossessing office block on Old Burlington Street.

Sophy Rickett, Observation 87, 1991/2013 & Observation 123, 1997/2013, black and white bromide prints

The various photographic images on show all share a single origin: the work carried out in the 1980s and early ‘90s by Dr Roderick Willstrop at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. Willstrop designed a ground-breaking three-mirror camera telescope that enabled him to take photographs of the universe with a much larger field of view than had previously been possible. His telescope produced 125 black and white film negatives before it was modified to capture digital images in 1991. It is these negatives that, developed by Rickett, form the basis of Objects in the Field.

On show in the white-walled office-cum-gallery space are a range of more or less similar images treated in a variety of ways. Large-scale bromide prints seem at first like glistening black globes, or then the universe glimpsed through a porthole. Particularly notable are the several iterations of the same negative: ‘Observation 95’. Each in some subtle way draws our attention to the process by which the image has been produced. So what looks at first like clouds of interstellar space dust is in fact evidence of the nitrogen used to increase the speed of the film: “clouding the purity of the data,” as Rickett puts it.

Rickett’s work not only operates on an aesthetic level;
it stages an opposition between the ‘artistic’
and ‘scientific’ handling of an image.

Similarly, the same negative has also been developed as a series of ten smaller-scale coloured C-prints. The colours used to fill each image were sampled, Rickett tells me, from Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen’s famous image of the Eagle Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. By drawing our attention to the processes by which images are made, Rickett demonstrates the way in which knowledge is mediated (in this case, through aesthetics) and therefore open to manipulation. She tells me about work done by American academic Elizabeth A Kessler, who has compared Hester and Scowen’s own choice of colours to that of paintings of the American West in the 1890s. “The Hubble images are part of the Romantic landscape tradition,” Kessler has argued, “they fit that popular, familiar model of what the natural world should look like.” It’s an apt comparison: as The Arts Catalyst’s recent Republic of the Moon exhibition suggested, the pattern of frontier narratives (and the colonialism they engender and underpin) are in danger of being repeated.

Rickett’s relationship with Willstrop is beautif_DSC4254ully described in her essay that accompanies the exhibition. In it, the artist makes clear that her engagement with the photographic archive has operated on a primarily sensory level – aesthetic/emotional – rather than out of interest in the original scientific purposes and results. That is not to say that her work operates on a purely aesthetic level; rather the work stages an opposition between the ‘artistic’ and ‘scientific’ handling of an image, thereby presenting a more open form of engagement with the inter-relationship between the two.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in a series of four small-scale works that combine resin-coated contact strips from Willstrop’s research with text written by Rickett. The same phrase written each time across two lines: “another idea / that came to nothing”. It testifies to the futility of much scientific (and indeed artistic) endeavour: the individual practitioner, alone, day after day, night after night, putting ideas to the test, over and over again. It is, finally, in Rickett’s beautiful, beguiling work (and the accompanying writing) that the work of two individuals comes together, not in conflict, not really in collaboration either. The simple act of the double signature (RVW/SR) and a twin date of production – 1986/2013 in the case of Test for a Guiding Probe (an idea) – is a masterstroke: touching, generous, understated and decisive. Perhaps the entire art-science problematic, the very question of collaboration, right there in that forward slash.


Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field is at Camilla Grimaldi until 22nd March 2014.
Rickett also has two pieces in Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration at Two Temple Place until 27th April 2014.
Objects in the Field REPRO

Image credits, top to bottom:
Objects in the Field, 1991/2013, black and white bromide print (DETAIL)
Observation 87, 1991/2013, black and white bromide print
Observation 123, 1991/2013, black and white bromide print
Test for a Guiding Probe (an idea), 1991/2013, vintage resin-coated contact strips with text
Objects in the Field, 1991/2013, black and white bromide print

The Learned Pig

Tom Jeffreys

Tom is a writer and curator, and editor of The Learned Pig. He writes primarily about contemporary art, and is particularly interested in work that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. His writing has been published in, among others, Apollo, Frieze, Monocle, New Scientist, The Independent, and World of Interiors. His first book - Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot - was published by Influx Press in 2017.