Muse of the lab shapes edgy art (2)

June 3, 2005

Science can inspire art and art science - just ask Mark Miodownik, a mechanical engineer, and Jane Prophet, an artist, whose collaboration in the use of novel materials sparked a creative buzz

The artist: Jane Prophet

Two years ago, I set myself the goal of filling a 1.5m-high glass tank with liquid, submerging a three-dimensional fishing line structure within it and then growing a giant crystal tree. This was to be part of a larger installation that would impart a sense of time passing.

But I had no idea how to achieve this. Memories of making crystals at school provided few clues. Undaunted, I set to work with an array of jam jars, buckets and aquaria filled with household chemicals such as salt, sugar and washing soda. The results were a few sorry-looking crystals in murky liquid. I needed help.

On a friend's recommendation, I contacted Mark Miodownik. I told him what I wanted to do, and he suggested trying potash aluminium sulphate (which apparently is used to keep gherkins crispy). I have now made spectacularly giant crystal trees on five occasions, each time captivating my audience.

Such art would be impossible without the advice of artist-friendly scientists such as Mark. Sometimes I have an idea that demands a certain sort of material. Often I don't know if the material even exists - JI just know what I want it to do. Tips from an expert are essential.

Mark visited my studio last July. He brought with him a tantalising briefcase. Inside were phials of remarkable liquids, powders, wires and substances - most I had never heard of - selected from his materials archive. He pulled a piece of shape-memory alloy wire from its container and I twisted it into a little line drawing. But when Mark held a lit match under it, it snapped straight. That demonstration told me much more about what shape-memory alloy did - and what I might be able to do with it - than any amount of reading. Having this haptic relationship to the material was inspiring, and I'm now planning to make vandalisable artworks with it.

This is why Mark's archive is so wonderful. It provides artists with access to hitherto elusive materials and expert advice on matching substance to design. I hope it gets bigger and crazier, so my artworks can get bigger and crazier, too.

Jane Prophet is director of the Centre for Arts Research Technology and Education at Westminster University.

Mark Miodownik and Jane Prophet will be speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 9.

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