Successful collaborations within, and between, research fields produce particularly rich strands of explicit, implicit and tacit knowledge. This open sharing of approaches between individuals and teams is especially pertinent to contemporary public engagement, which increasingly questions the relevance of experiencing one field of knowledge presented in isolation. METABOLON: Changing Perceptions Tour is a clear example of how art and science collaborations can energise both the practice of the participants, and the focus of the audience, to enmesh objectively verifiable scientific research outcomes together with the creative intelligence which models knowledge as an interconnected imaginative rhizome.
Artist Seiko Kinoshita, scientist Nate Adams and sculptor Darren Richardson are based in Sheffield, and indeed METABOLON was originally commissioned for The University of Sheffield’s 2016 Festival of the Mind. The exhibition in Hartlepool forms part of a national tour and the installation is made up of three monumental works, METABOLON itself, and the more recent Aegis (2018), both resulting from artistic interpretation of enzymology research, and the earlier One Sunny Day (2010).
METABOLON (paper, acrylic, steel and computer-controlled LED lighting) stretches diagonally across the main gallery and forms a curving membrane or barrier that affects the way the viewer navigates the space upon entering. The lighting changes over time, casting colour across the white work, the viewers, and the walls and ceiling. Seiko Kinoshita has used traditional Japanese origami techniques to create six thousand geometric shapes on a steel frame (designed by her and built by Darren Richardson). Scattered around are smaller welded polygons, simplified geometric renderings of the complicated ‘blobby’ structure of enzymes, magnified around fifty million times. The work responds to Nate Adams’ research into the production of chlorophyll, demonstrating how ‘proteins talk and dance together’ forming ‘an assembly line, known as a metabolon’. Rotating a standard model through ninety degrees to the vertical, and increasing its size to a macroscopic scale, Kinoshita powerfully demonstrates an alternative way of representing both the data produced in the increasingly computer-led procedures of nanobiology research, and the knowledge that comes from material thinking, that grows in the actual process of making by artists in practice-led research.
In the distance, the long, spiralling forms of Aegis (paper yarn, steel, polystyrene, nylon thread and float stop) hang from the former church’s ceiling on a steel frame high above the viewer. They represent magnesium chelatase, cocooning a pink protoporphyrin IX molecule. This protective gesture, which prevents damage to the pigments formed during the creation of chlorophyll in Adams’ laboratory research, is here made at monumental scale using other traditional skills in Kinoshita’s practice – weaving and hand-dying paper yarn. The work is polychrome, with each dynamic helix mutating between blues and purples, and the moment when porphyrin forms a chemical reaction with magnesium appears to take place above us, as we move around beneath. It becomes possible to imagine we have shrunk to nanoscopic scale.
The final work in the exhibition, hung in a smaller gallery space, which would have originally been a side chapel, is One Sunny Day (paper yarn, steel, float stop, plastic tube and nylon thread), approx. 3m x 3m. Physically separated from the other two works, it nevertheless relates to Kinoshita’s long-standing exploration of how we experience the natural world. Triggered by understandings of how place identity affects the self, here she examines differing international perceptions of atmospheric conditions. Again, One Sunny Day is hung above the viewers, but this time closer to us, and close enough to cast shadows on the nearby wall. It is possible to see the traditional techniques and specific hand-dyed colours, yellow, orange and red, of the paper yarn at close hand, and to connect with Kinoshita’s need to produce ‘originary’ thinking through the weaving together of ideas with the hand and eye – the importance of handling as expressed by Heidegger.
The METABOLON project appears to have had profound effects on the practice of the collaborators, highlighting points of intersection, and providing long-term connections going forward. Their enthusiasm about their individual and collaborative research challenges the old duality question ‘Are art and science incompatible?’, indeed, the question seems outdated here in this ‘third-space’. This openness supports the hypothesis that fields of knowledge are not separate from one another, and are instead woven together, providing a fabric from which to explore the relationship between art, science and our understanding of the world around us. This illustrates the vital importance of STEAM, not merely STEM education, in the 21st Century.
METABOLON: Changing Perceptions Tour continues at Hartlepool Art Gallery until Saturday 16th March, and is supported by ACE, The University of Sheffield and BBSRC.
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside.