Crux (Felicity Spear) Which Way Is Up?

Alex Selenitsch Poet, artist and architect

There is a fundamental difference between a scientist’s work and that of an artist, despite the shared experience of inspiration when a relationship is caught and given form. A scientist works to measure, to simplify and then distil an abstract statement which can be applied to every particular case. An artist, on the other hand, works to complexify, to materialise, to particularise.

The artist’s work is to create. The most common method of ensuring that this will happen is to confront contradiction and disorder. Even then, there is no expectation of a specific outcome: given the same bundle of contradictions, different artists will produce different compositions, and the same artist may produce a different composition from the same bundle at different times. Further, the resolution that is a composition is not a blending or smoothing out of the contradictions, but their acceptance and transformation into a palpable whole.

These contrasts in ways of working come into focus when an artist shares a field of enquiry with those working in science. Felicity Spear’s ongoing interest in mapping space through the charting of light and time naturally links her practice to astronomic surveys.

The novelty of contemporary scientific images at macro scales seem to further confound distinctions between art and science. For example, the Anglo-Australian Observatory’s image AAT6, “Star Trails around the South Celestial Pole” is a time-lapse photograph of the southern sky by astronomer and photographer David Malin. At the base of the image there is ground and an observatory building: above it, concentric circles of light, which are the stars’ engravings on the negative. But despite the sublime rationality of the concentric circles, the photograph is a closed representation of a single event. Various facts can be gleaned from this representation, but the data is internal to the event being recorded, and not intended to be applied as semantic imagery for other situations. It is purely scientific in that other frames of reference are deliberately excluded, so that the data can claim to be consistent and factual.

Older representations reveal both the purity and limitations of an image like AAT6. For example, a detail from a 1646 map by Corsali, located by Spear in the Crux Collection of rare maps in the State Library of NSW, consists of three superimposed images: the Southern Cross constellation, a strongly-bordered square and a field of wavy lines. The three discontinuous means of representing space play off each other, so that the constellation (itself an illusion caused by our viewpoint) is associated with both stability and uncertainty. It is an image of negotiating a place and therefore an existence. Against this kind of eclectic dissonance, the contemporary astronomic image proposes a consistent space which cannot be transformed into a place.

Corsali’s drawing - a sailor’s icon, not a scientist’s diagram – is a precursor image for Spear’s method of making art from data-based images. AAT6 is one of the source images for Spears’ large digital work Deep Field. Other source images include another AAO image, MISC6 “Moonset in the Warrumbungles” and such NASA images as the Two Micron All Sky Survey, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 3D universe map, and a diagram of red shifts in the spectra of quasars. The source material has been shuffled into different scales, and juxtaposed through vertical strips. This allows for all the images to be seen simultaneously as the eye sweeps left to right, guided by the spectrum line across the lower part of the composition. Different scales and different images co-exist in a composition that weaves a horizontal reading convention through vertical segments.

This crossing of the eye and data helps to structure an image not only of the sky and beyond, but also of the way we make images. It confirms that science looks for the measurable in the unmeasurable, while art looks for the immeasurable in the measurable. Deep Field does this as a specific work. It also points to how all of Felicity Spear’s work is to be read: her work shows how we search and navigate through information, whether that information is in a pre-recorded format or is in our individual sense intake of the world around us.

Alex Selenitsch is a Melbourne-based poet and architect, and a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.