Newspaper Feature : The Courier: The Nature of Things by Laura Wilson, 2009

DE RERUM NATURA: The Nature of Things, displays work created by the artist Ronald Forbes during his time as Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, and has opened at the Hannah Maclure Centre in Dundee. Laura Wilson spoke to Ronald about the exhibition.

DURING  THE two-and-a-half year period he has spent as Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, Ronald Forbes has become very enthusiastic about science.

“We are learning things every day that are so mind-boggling and intriguing I” he exclaims, surveying his exhibition.

”The education system I went through forced you to make a choice as to whether you wanted to study science or study the arts, and it was a choice I greatly resented being forced to make. My scientific education, as a result of having a passion for art, was practically non-existent.”

A successful career as an artist followed, but it is unsurprising that, when given the chance to take up the residency at SCRI, Forbes took the opportunity to explore what he believes to be an important relationship between art and science.

For months he watched scientists at work, observing new scientific disciplines such as informatics, looking through confocal microscopes and learning about the process of DNA analysis.

“The practices of science and art have very different outcomes, but they share remarkable similarities of operation in the investigative process.”

This observation has led to Forbes using his new found scientific knowledge not just as inspiration for the subject matter of his work, but as inspiration for the creative process. The result is a multi-media exhibition consisting of traditional paintings, a short film, and a new technique in which hand-painted images are fed into a computer, manipulated and multiplied. Forbes has labelled it the “digital collage”.

The technological approach reflects the techniques he became fascinated with when working alongside SCRI scientists.

I had a self set task, which was to celebrate the work of the scientist, but I wanted to think beyond the purely scientific images to make a more poetic statement.”

The results are somewhat surprising, as De Rerum Natura is full of inspiration from the wor1d of Renaissance art, and features Biblical images and depictions of famous figures from Ancient Greek and Roman mythology. These are subjects which could easily be considered the very antithesis of science, but as Forbes explains, they have a lot to convey about the modern world.

“These are stories which underpin our society and stimulate thought about our currant situation and the dilemmas that we face today.”

Central to the exhibition is the painting Finding Eden, which takes inspiration from the German artist Cranach’s masterpiece, Adam and Eve. Forbes presents the central figures of the painting stepping out of Cranach’s traditional depiction of paradise and into a man-made, cultivated landscape. It has been described by Forbes as “modern people playing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” and raises questions about human curiosity and the manipulation of the planet with newfound scientific knowledge, a subject on which he is keen to talk.

“Intelligence causes us to change things, and we can’t un-learn the things we have already discovered. It is part of human nature to enhance things, and there is no good and bad science-it’s all about how we choose to use the knowledge we possess.”

This is a theme which is explored further in the digital collage, Hermes Bearing Gifts. “I took a romantic approach,” says Forbes, “wanting to portray the scientist as a hero. Scientists discover things rather than create them, but what they do create is a human understanding of those discoveries.”

It was the idea of the scientist as a conveyer of new messages that led to his presentation of Hermes, mythological messenger of the gods, in the centre of another cultivated landscape, this time surrounded by pollen.

On close inspection, the pollen is made up of many tiny Renaissance-style angels and devils, which were influenced by the work of the Italian artist Giotto, and represent the good and the bad which can result from the expansion of human knowledge.

The collage also features De Rerum Natura’s recurring image, the rose. “We have a love affair with the rose,” Forbes says, and despite no research into the rose being conducted at SCRI, he has focused on it due to it being an aspect of nature man has formed a strong connection to.

What really sparks Forbes’ interest is the way we find nature so attractive, but often have very little curiosity or appreciation for the way in which it comes to be. His short film, entitled By Any Other Name, charts the progress of the rose’s creation, showing the tiniest cells that make up leaves and petals, and examining graphs which chart the appealing scent of the flower.

“This is a rhapsody to the rose,” Forbes explains. “It looks at the formation of things we can’t see with the naked eye, but are essentially what make the rose so beautiful to us.”

By Any Other Name also furthers Forbes’ intentions of exploring the possible connections between art and science, using imagery photographed through microscopes and combining it with the words of the Robert Burns poem A Red, Red Rose, which is sung on the film by the Dundee vocal group, The Lazy Susans.  Forbes hopes that De Rerum Natura will capture people’s imaginations, and make elements of science, such as the formation of the rose shown in his film, accessible to those who come to view it. ·”So far,” he says, “people are engaging very positively.”

There are as yet no plans for another artist to take up the residency at SCRI, but Forbes has hopes that it will happen, as the post has proved that there can be strong interaction between the artistic and scientific communities. In the period that he has been present at the institute, scientists have embarked on their own artistic projects, and visitors have been encouraged to create works of art through photographing the agriculture on display. He is proud of the interactive and creative atmosphere that the residency has produced, and despite the fact that his time at SCRI has come to an end, he remains fascinated by science.

“The more you look at nature, the more you realise we’re all made of the same stuff,” he enthuses, sure that science will continue to inform his work for a long time to come.

“I’m still flowing with so many ideas!”