Art Science and Mapping: Reconstructing
Experience Beyond Visibility

Dr Peter Hill Artist and Writer

No one profession has, or should have, a monopoly on the beauties and terrors of the Universe, nor on the ways that it can be measured and depicted. We live in a time when many university science faculties have problems recruiting new students, especially into physics. However, visual arts faculties can help do just this by showing high school students such artworks as James Turrell's Roden Crater (1974-), the "stumbling objects" of Fischli and Weiss (Der Lauf der Dinge 1987), a remarkably poetic commentary on the laws of physics, the star photographs of Thomas Ruff (1990) or David Stephenson (2005), the fictive zoology of Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera (1987-), and any number of biology-related artworks that have come out of the Welcome Foundation's peerless funding of art and science projects in the United Kingdom.

There are other examples: the painstaking drawings of the night sky by the American artist Vija Celmins; Walter De Maria's The lightning field (1977); Nike Savvas' Atomic: full of love, full of wonder (2003); and Olafur Eliasson's The weather project, his captured sun installed in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2003. What all of these works have in common is a huge and uncompromising ambition, one driven not by a quest for power but a submission to both wonder and curiosity.

The same can be said of the work of Felicity Spear, whose practice also interrogates the art-science interface. Her recent work Deep field, featured in the exhibition Beyond visibility, is a seven-panel, multi-layered speculative map of cosmic space. Deep field references various image-capture processes and mapping models used in astronomy. Its title acknowledges the Hubble deep field (1995), the iconic photograph constructed of 342 separate exposures taken from the Hubble Space Telescope that presents a "needle-eye view" of the observable limit of the Universe.

In Beyond visibility, Spear's mural-sized images form part of an installation of works concerned with space and imaging its depths. David Malin's highly detailed large-format photographs show in true colour the depths of the Milky Way, seen through a telescope at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. Gulumbu Yunupingu has created a group of complex and patterned larrakitjor memorial poles about the stars and our place within the Universe.

In this installation the spectator is, if not at the centre of the Universe, certainly a significant contributor to its full realisation. Because as well as being concerned with the material properties of space and the Universe, the work is interested in how we situate ourselves within space and how we attempt to represent it. The spectator might be aware that life on Earth is made from the gas and dust between the stars. However we are not only dealing with the intellect and the precise facts of measured science here, but with more imprecise and fluid senses and emotions, and an ever-present awareness of a limited time-span of existence in which to observe and partake.

Both art and science map the Universe, but their approach to cartography is quite different. Spear is one of the few artists or scientists I know who get close to understanding - and more importantly conveying - this difference in intention. While acknowledging that the map stands in for space, giving a form of visible reality to an invisible reality, Spear emphasises that "mapping is always embedded in the subjective conditions of human thinking".

The French Situationists used to talk about how "the map is not the territory", suggesting a slippage between a given space or place and our efforts to represent it in a map. It appears to me that the light that emanates from Felicity Spear's work comes from the gap between the map and the territory. Spear explores the increasing reliance on the complex technologies of image capture associated with light and other radiations, and our consequent representations, re-creating ideas about time and space, nature, culture and reality. Spear is curious about the relationship between "out there" and "back here", what is visible and what is beyond the visible.

Peter Hill's most recent book is Stargazing: memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper (Random House, Australia, 2004).

Reproduced with the permission of the author and MGA