Insight Radical: Where art meets science

An art exhibition inspired by the work of scientists working at Melbourne’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology is now on show in Sydney at MCLEMOI Gallery in Chippendale.

The Insight Radical project uses art to generate awareness of the impact that free radicals have on our lives – and art materials.

Conceived by science communicator Dr Renee Beele, the project involves six Australian artists – Tony Lloyd, Steve Lopes, Anna Madeleine, Natalie O’Connor, Peter Sharp and Ruth Waller – who participated in a year long residency at the at the ARC Centre and created works in response to that experience.

A free radical is a molecule that has unpaired electrons. Electrons prefer to be paired. Consequently, free radicals are very reactive and will steal electrons from neighbouring molecules. Although satisfying their need for an electron, this leads to the neighbouring molecule becoming a radical. As a result they create chain reactions.

“Free radicals have the potential to be both tremendously useful and damaging,” said Renee. “They help our immune system fight infection, create new plastics and paints, but also cause materials to age, and contribute to ageing related diseases.”

Aging occurs because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. For most biological structures, including humans, free radicaldamage is closely associated with oxidative damage.

This has a parallel with oil painting, which cures through a process of oxidation. While not having worked with artists before, Renee was convinced that artists would find compelling ways to communicate free radical chemistry to a general public audience.

Speaking at the Sydney launch, she said that the Insight Radical project sparked new ways of thinking about free radicals for the scientists as well as the artists.

“I used to assume that artists and scientists were very different,” said Renee. “In reality, they share creativity and passion. They are seekers of knowledge, excited by new ideas, ‘happy’ accidents and new discoveries.”

All who participated agreed that the project was both educational and inspiring. Interactions included experiments, observation and conversations. Importantly, the artists discovered much about paint chemicals and how free radical reactions are a crucial part of the painting process.

This information was particularly useful to Natalie O’Connor who lectures in Methods and Materials at the College of Fine Art, UNSW. Natalie is completing a PhD and her work explores materials that are intended to change over time.

Not surprisingly, many similarities between artists and scientists emerged. Among commonalities identified were obsession, curiosity and creativity. Dedication in the face of scepticism and optimism were other qualities shared by both professions.

Artist Tony Lloyd said that he joined the Free Radical project because he has always been interested in science. Rather than talking about his own practice, Tony preferred to listen to the scientists discuss their work, enjoying their appreciation of elegance, simplicity and beauty. His series of four serene landscapes (pictured above) aptly depict the never-ending cycle of free radical electron exchange.

For Peter Sharp, the sounds of the lab were of particular interest and ambient sound recordings form a major part of his installations. Anna Madeleine created a series of ‘pill-portraits’ and stop-motion animations, while Steve Lopes created striking portraits of the artists and scientists at work in the lab.

Ruth Waller’s paintings portray a woman known as Dulle Griet or Mad Meg, the legendary mad woman featured in a painting by Peter Bruegel, the Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. (Interestingly, Mad Meg was also the source of inspiration for Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage). Ruth’s dramatic portriats of Mad Meg are set amidst intricate motifs derived from Arabic tiles.

“These designs were drawn from tiles in the Alahambra Palace in Granada. I thought the complex patterns mirrored the interlocking of molecules in intricate sequences,” said Ruth.

With support from Inspiring Australia, Renee toured the Insight Radical exhibition to London earlier this year. She will also show it again in Adelaide next year as part of the Fringe Festival at the Future Space Gallery in February.

You can see Insight Radical at MCLEMOI Gallery until 9 December 2013.

Address: 45 Chippen St, Chippendale, Sydney.

Watch the Insight Radical video: