Erica Seccombe, A path divided, 2017, Screen print, Ed. 4. image: 55 x 90, paper: 77 x 112, data courtesy Natural History Museum, London 

THE LADY BOTANIST

screenprints and etchings inspired by 3D Micro CT

 

In 2015 I had the amazing opportunity to work at the Natural History Museum in London supported by an artsACT project grant. My research was based in the Museum’s Imaging & Analysis Centre where I joined the team scanning and visualising various specimens from their collection with micro-X-ray Computed Tomography, or Micro-CT. This technology creates three-dimensional datasets of the original objects with a microscopic resolution of 2-5 microns.  When rendered in a scientific software program the 3D datasets reveal both the interior and exterior at the same time, providing the viewer with unique perspectives of the original item.

At the Museum I spent my spare time roaming the passages, stairwells, corridors and towers behind the scenes, away from the public galleries of this iconic gothic revival building. I visited the huge collection rooms that store rare plant specimens, preserved animals and fish, insects, fossils, meteorites, corals and more. Like the pull of a tide, I could feel the tug and undertow of the history of scientific curiosity and discovery in every turn I made. In the library I had access to the original work of Anna Aitkin (1788-1871). Her 1843 cyanotype impressions of British algae are considered to be the first form of photography. These exquisite blue prints of delicate natural forms captured through daylight made me compare my artistic pursuits of frontier scientific X-ray imaging in the 21st century with Aitkins some 150 years earlier.   

 

Aitkin was an innovator and pioneer in her field, but after Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, the study of nature really started to ignite public imagination in the Victorian era. Many women, including Beatrix Potter and Emily Dickinson, turned to collecting, illustrating or classifying specimens of plants, flowers, insects and birds. As this was considered merely a lady-like and educational hobby, their intellect and work was rarely acknowledged in the male domain of noble scientific endeavour. The original contributions from these so-called ‘lady botanists’ are only recently becoming more widely recognised.
 
As a visual artist, my practice is informed by how the history and contemporary scientific vision seeks truths in order to understand our place in the universe. As I have also made innovative investigations into frontier scientific visualization, I am interested in how art asks different yet equally valid questions as science. In this exhibition I have evoked the figure of the lady botanist (hear the swish of hooped skirts), as these new works reflect my deep sense of curiosity and passion for the natural world. The titles are inspired from the work of Emily Dickinson to move away from a direct scientific analysis in order to create more poetic interpretations of the images created. Yet these works are deliberately playful and ambiguous. I have juxtaposed both the beautiful and the repellent, from botanical forms to animal mutations, as a way to create new meanings and to reflect upon our understanding of life in the present time.

The screenprints and etchings I have created for this exhibition are sourced from volumetric datasets lent to me from researchers at the Natural History Museum, the ANU Department of Applied Mathematics, the ANU Research School of Biology, ANU National Laboratory for X-ray Micro Computed Tomography and the ANU Centre for Advanced Microscopy. All the data has derived from 3D Micro-CT which I have then visualized in a volumetric exploration tool, Drishti, an open-source software which is developed at ANU Vizlab, National Computational Infrastructure (NCI). This exhibition has been generously supported by the Capital Arts Patrons Organisation 2017 CAPO Fellowship.