Dark Matters: a conversation between art, science and astronomy

Review by Richard Taylor for a-n


For Dark Matters, Edinburgh Printmakers has commissioned nine artists to create work in collaboration with astronomers and space engineers at the University of Edinburgh and the UK Astronomical Technology Centre. Richard Taylor sheds some light on the project.


“We had a ‘blind date’ of artists meeting scientists as part of the initial curatorial process,” says David Faithfull, curator of the Edinburgh Printmakers’ exhibition Dark Matters and one of nine artists involved. “Each artist is exhibiting work over the next 12 months: three for this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival, three for next year’s festival and three artists presenting further site-specific installations inbetween.”

Produced in collaboration with astronomers and space engineers at the University of Edinburgh and the UK Astronomical Technology Centre (UK ATC), Dark Matters hosts new work by Alastair Clark and Mike Inglis in Edinburgh Printmakers’ current gallery space, with Faithfull’s site-responsive project Eclipse at Castle Mill Works, the organisation’s new site from 2017.

Castle Mill is the former North British Rubber Company HQ in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh. Here, Faithfull has collaborated with Dr Hermine Schnetler, Dr William Taylor and Will Cochrane from UK ATC to present a series of projections, 3D models and printed matter. These illustrate the lunar and solar eclipse cycle and the heritage of Encyclopedia Britannica, which was printed in Fountainbridge from 1777 to 1826.

With conceptual underpinning, the installation At Castle Mill opened on the morning of Friday 20 March during the lunar eclipse, with up to 200 audience members in attendance. It will subsequently close after the turn of the solar eclipse, in time for the science festival launch on 4 April.

“Every lunar eclipse is followed by a solar eclipse only visible in the southern hemisphere two weeks later,” continues Faithfull. “But the installation takes care of that, it gives us an eclipse in the north too, using a kinetic construction with a projected light source, a model of the Earth and a model of the Moon covered in powdered anorthosite.”

The anorthosite, or ‘moon dust’, was sourced from a Hebridean island and ground to powder by geoscientists at Edinburgh University. The installation’s creation also involved collaboration with local metalwork and woodwork group The Forge, to encase “high-end quality robotics in a beautifully crafted steel box.”

Other works at Castle Mill take the form of enlarged full stops from scientific texts in the Encyclopedia, including The Principia by Isaac Newton, published in 1687, which historically marks the beginning of The Age of Enlightenment. As Faithfull portrays it, this was also the beginning of “the dark ages for the arts” – a shift in public consciousness which saw the sciences take the moral, financial and industrial high ground.

Prints of star patterns sourced by astronomers feature as a thematic arc. “The patterns are based on six editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica between the 1700s and 1800s,” explains Faithfull.

During an eclipse, such patterns can be seen within clear windows around the Sun and the Moon. The works act as specific windows in time, depicting stars exactly 200 to 230 light-years away. “If you were on the stars and took a telescope to look back at Earth, you’d see the planet at the time when each edition was being printed.”

On earth, in space

Clark and Inglis, with commissions installed back at Edinburgh Printmakers, exhibit work developed from direct collaboration with individual scientists. Read as laboratory exploration and mirrored environments exposing printmaking processes, their installations have transformed each gallery beyond recognition.

“It was more specifically about the conversation,” explains Clark, who collaborated with University of Edinburgh’s Dr Eckhard Sutorius to produce lithographic prints inspired by UK ATC’s SuperCOSMOS machine for sky survey scanning programmes.

A mirrored jigsaw of star coordinates researched and edited down from an existing database, one side of the room shows the lithographic plates, the other side the prints themselves in colour formations reminiscent of imagery from exploding stars.

“I have worked with science-based imagery for 20 years, but this is the first time I have worked directly with a scientist,” says Clark. “It was a challenge to envisage how we would both approach the collaboration. My understanding of what he does was so limited, and likewise his confidence in being involved with visual art. We really collaborated from the idea stage.”

In the adjacent gallery, Inglis’s work presents a story closer to science fiction and language manipulation. His collaboration with space engineer Martin Black has resulted in a collection of golden honeycomb-like screen prints of graphic quality, which fill the room. Synonymous to telescopic investigations of nature’s mathematical order, the prints, which interlock to create a larger surface for linear compositions, are in fact a to-scale version of the base of the Hubble Telescope.

“It’s about two languages,” says Inglis. “I was interested in how scientists use diagrammatic and mathematical constructs. From the outset I asked them, ‘Do you think visually or mathematically?’ A lot of them do think with shapes, so I became interested in their use of geometry.”

Inglis has successfully created a surface – a language – upon which both scientists and artists can meet in how they construct ideas. On to this surface the artist pours his skill as a draftsman and his interest in science fiction, with a cyber-punk underpinning. “The forms are taken from the geodesic structures ofBuckminster Fuller,” concludes Inglis, “a mid-‘60s vision of the future.”

In his written interpretation of Dark Matters, Faithfull posits: ‘In 1687, mankind took a giant leap towards ‘Enlightenment’ …the distinct paths of art and science separated forever.’

On the project’s continuation, Faithfull concludes: “Not all the one-to-one, artist to scientist collaborations have worked. The project should now be read as each artist collaborating with scientists as a whole.” With more collaborative projects to reach audiences over the next year, there’s plenty of time to get it right – and for art and science to speak fluently again.