This delightful project was the fruit of collaboration between Sarah Wilmot, Outreach Curator for the John Innes Centre and Dr Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Fine Art Lecturer at the Norwich University of the Arts. Krzysztof and Sarah met accidently in a coffee shop close to the White Cube Gallery in London. We’d individually trekked in to the metropolis for ‘The Archivist as Curator’ conference and found that we both worked in Norwich. Sarah invited Krzysztof to come and see the John Innes Historical Collections and the idea of an archive-inspired art project with Norwich University of the Arts was born. Five students from the BA Fine Art course signed up for the assignment which was to produce and exhibit work stimulated by or in dialogue with the John Innes Historical Collections. Some responded to the rare botanical books, others to the photographic archives of twentieth century plant and microbial science. The group also had to consider where to situate and how to display their work within the constraints of the display areas available. At the end of the exhibition the students had an opportunity to talk to JIC staff about their work and engage with a scientific rather than arts-based audience which was a stimulating experience for all involved.
What follows is a flavour of the exhibition, with an explanation of the artworks in the students’ own words:
Cecily Boon: textile sculptures
‘My current practice explores interactive, textile art, using a combination of natural and manmade materials as an examination of the senses. Focusing on the contrasts between the natural and the manmade, the artificial and the real and the cyclical process of nature- to manmade- and back to nature, has enabled decision making towards the material I have associated with my work.
Throughout my practice I have been creating small, textile, sculptures of moss, using methods such as sewing and manipulating fabrics. Throughout this development I have created my own miniature archival collection, representative of a botanical study. I believe situating my work, which represents natural objects, within the context of the JIC, questions the visual aspect of the artificial and the real, through juxtaposing re-creations of nature within an environment that examines nature itself.’
Michelle Brown: sculpture
‘While visiting the rare books collection at the John Innes Centre I was reminded of the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century book containing images of plants, biology and astrology. The book is similar in appearance to other books in the collection, but where they differ is interesting. Many cryptographers, both professional and amateur, including code breakers of WW1 and WW2, have attempted to de-code the text. Yet no one has been able to figure out what the book says, making it famous in cryptography. With this and the Centre in mind I have created my own version of the manuscript and hidden it in the collection’.
Chrissy Leech: sculpture and wall pieces
‘The English scientist Sir John Herschel discovered the cyanotype procedure in 1842. Soon after Anna Atkins, an English botanist, used the process to create a limited series of cyanotype books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive collection. Atkins placed specimens directly onto coated paper, allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. She ‘received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time’.
Anna Atkins emulated the aims of the John Innes Centre in many areas. In her time, Atkins was a leader in plant science, taking forward new discoveries. Through her study, research and documenting she generated a knowledge of plants which she made available to society through her publications. Similarly the John Innes Centre has rare illustrated botanical publications and the archives include many original drawings of plants and insects, scientific photographs and visual documentation. My contemporary cyanotype prints, inspired by Anna Atkins and the John Innes Centre, are produced by this scientific procedure and displayed in this scientific/research setting’.
Jayne Bushell: wall piece
‘My work is a mixture of printmaking and photography. Photography gives me flexibility and the ability to record what I see at that moment in time. It is after taking the photograph that I further develop my ideas in Photoshop. Recently I have mostly worked in black and white, which gives a traditional feel. Printmaking gives a graphic feel to my images allowing more control than with photography. However, the combination of these medias permits me to experiment. I photograph images to use for my printmaking designs.
The image presented here was created using a variety of images from the archives collection that used the traditional ways of photography. By using these images I have created another image in response to my inspiration from these old photographs. I love the microscopic images that were produced in black and white forming very simple shapes, similar to the style of typography that was used in the books’.
Rosalind Hawkes: sculpture
‘I have been inspired by the exquisite works of Nehemiah Grew. His magnified images of dissected botanical specimens capture the complex patterns of nature that normally elude us. I am intrigued by the uniformity of these intricate cellular structures that are hidden from the naked eye.
I hope that my installation will emphasise and expose the sculptural qualities of these organic shapes by playing with scale and representing them in an abstract way. The use of 17th century oak provides a natural connection to the archives that were the inspiration for this work’.
We wish Cecily, Michelle, Chrissy, Jayne and Ros all the best with their future work. ‘The Unexpected’ exhibition was a new venture for the John Innes Centre and we think it showed that bringing art in dialogue with history of science collections can expand our appreciation of the areas common to image-making in both science and art.