Engineering Beauty

6 March 2008

David Grundy ponders whether these science photos can be considered as art

The Michaelhouse Centre

Department of Engineering Exhibition

25 February – 16 March

You’ve probably walked right past the Michaelhouse Centre several times, without even realising it was there. One of Cambridge’s numerous quaint, small churches tucked away unobtrusively on various streets, it fades into the background round the corner from Gardie’s and opposite Gonville and Caius. Inside, though, is a pleasant, spacious area. Run by a COE-funded charity, half of the building is taken up by a cafe (frequented, it would seem, by mothers and children, OAPs, and the occasional group of students), while the other half is the original church.

I’ve come to see photographs from the University’s Department of Engineering. These are arranged above cafĂ© tables and chairs, rather than being allocated a separate space. Not exactly the Fitzwilliam, then–but, having spent the morning before my visit wading through Theodor Adorno’s immanent critique, it felt like a refreshing change.

The exhibition aims to reveal “the unsuspected beauty of images from engineering,” through the winners of the department’s annual photography competition. I’m not sure it entirely succeeds: science doesn’t always make for good art, as the photos by Saffron Wyse and Cinzia Casiraghi bear out–they almost resemble cheesy sci-fi effects from some 80s movie. A “Still Life” by Tore Butlin depicts, in his own words, “an image of traditional engineering building blocks–everyday objects to engineers in the same way that teapots and fruit are to an artist”–its surfaces are all silver metallic sheen and dull, rusty grey. It’s an interesting experiment, but, being an arts student, I can’t confess I find the same fascination in spanners and a “hexagonal honeycomb backdrop for lightweight stiff structures.”

Still, other photos do manage to make the images of science aesthetically pleasing, capturing some sense of the wonder experienced by looking at the small world made large, under the microscope. Two notable examples are the purple shimmer of Alison Ford’s “Crystal Growth”, with its intertwining, petal-like “crystallising chiral dopant,” and the floating, fabric-like milk bottle flakes depicted in Amanda Wycherley “Polymer Life.” Dr Steve Hoath’s “Tails from the Nozzle Bank,” meanwhile, shows a row of black, sperm-like ink drops hurtling towards the page in an inkjet printer, over a rich, watery blue backdrop, turning an everyday, functional object into something stranger and more interesting.

For me, though, the exhibition highlight is the work with the biggest scale: Nicholas Patrick’s “The coast of Peru from the Space Shuttle Discovery.” There’s a wonderful, disorienting quality to the shot–a feeling of surprise that some of the other photos don’t possess. It grabs you, takes your mind a while to adjust to, momentarily disorients you, and even makes you feel slightly giddy: that’s the power that space has for many, and that’s what this photo has. At first, the white coast and blue sea look like wispy smearings of cloud across the sky, and the space shuttle like a naval ship. But then you realise that the strange, insect bug-eyed structure in the foreground is far too reminiscent of science-fiction to be any sort of sea-ship; and you realise from how high up this photo has been taken. Even from a safe place, it gives a queasy sense of vertigo, and, in a pleasant Cambridge cafe, that’s quite an achievement.