Embracing Innovations: Volume 2

25 May to 7 July 2012

Stephen Barrass (UC), Greg Daly (ANU), Leah Heiss (RMIT), Brendan Murphy, Lan Nguyen-hoan, Dr Rajiv Padhye (RMIT) and Peter Schumacher (UniSA).

 Brendan Murphy, Impossible Perpetual, 2012, laser sintered nylon. Photographer: Creative Image Photography

Diffraction by Dr Mitchell Whitelaw

Greg Daly's lustrous glazes owe their shimmer to the nano-scale phenomenon of diffraction. Layers of crystalline material within the glaze reflect and scatter light of different colours in different directions; when these reflections interact just so, they interfere. Light waves are reinforced or suppressed like ripples in a pond; they cancel out and intensify each other, creating patterns and forms that don't belong to the pot, the crystalline glaze, or the light, but to all three at once. Differences vibrate and interact with each other; dynamic new things arise. The same is true, in fact, of all the works here.

Daly's work provides a phenomenal grounding for this notion; as he points out, lustre is not a colour - even less a thing. Lustre is an event of light and material; it forms a complex spatial field of energy that enfolds us; to move around one of Daly's forms is to move through it, navigating pockets of bright and dark, traces of colour. In one sense Daly's methodical glaze investigations are all about the material - engineering silver and bismuth, melting silica - but in another sense the material itself is only a scaffold, a nano-scale machine for bending light and scattering energy. The object here expands to become a luminous encounter.

In many theories of creativity combination - the bringing together of different elements - is one of its key mechanisms. According to this theory, the "innovative" object does not appear fully formed, but is put together from familiar parts, joined in unfamiliar ways. This is another way of thinking of the interaction of differences we see in diffraction - for the surprise here depends on difference, on the interactions of the unlike with each other. So in Lan Nguyen-hoan's work jewellery and sculpture meet animation, and out of their differences a whole world emerges, populated with sad robots, wearable characters and drawings that walk off the page. Thanks to Hollywood (and anime) we're familiar with worlds that span image and object: we've bought the toy of movie of the TV show - but Nguyen-hoan's work suggests something smaller, and much more poignant.

The work of Rajiv Padhye brings us back to material difference: Padhye and collaborator Lyndon Arnold intersperse Kevlar with wool to create a remarkable "ballistic" (that is, bullet-proof) material. Like Daly's glazes, this is not so much an object as a dynamic capacity: a microstructure where differences interact. While the performance of this material is a triumph of engineering, it has no shortage of poetry. What better way to improve a material like Kevlar - a paragon of Big American Science and the petrochemical industry - than to splice it with the coat of the humble sheep? Kevlar exemplifies our ability to manipulate and control matter, to bend it to our will; but here it sits sandwiched with a fibre that is found, not made; a material adapted - not designed - over millions of evolutionary years.

These two intelligences - the designed and the adapted - reappear throughout the exhibition. Peter Schumacher's Leaf Lamp is more than a pleasing form; the tree structure is a model for spatial efficiency, generating spatial volume from minimal mass. This work also demonstrates a hybridity of process; the lamp is manufactured but self-assembled. No two will be quite alike, for while the parts are identical, their configuration can be tweaked and modified. Mass production here comes up against the handmade, the everyday tweaks and adjustments we make as we tend our living spaces; as Schumacher says, like arranging flowers in a vase. Manufacturing is modulated into something richer and more various, where the object is no longer just another copy, but a unique instance of its type.

Again in Leah Heiss' Seed Sensor, we are between the designed and the evolved - but also between the object and its environment; the work hovers between multiple domains of difference. The notion of art for your insides is provocative, but the work is more complex than that; it seeks a more intimate relationship, a subtle intervention. It doesn't just inhabit us, but augments our experience. Familiar concepts of "art" and "medicine" mingle here, and start throwing off rich diffractions, as Heiss investigates an interdisciplinary practice that folds artful making, experimentation and exploration into the development of medical products.

Digital manufacturing - and especially 3D printing - are much heralded for their potential transformation of manufacturing. In the works of Stephen Barrass and Brendan Murphy here 3D printing plays a conceptual, as well as a practical role. The wide-open malleability of the process - the promise of making anything at all - is taken up as an element of the works themselves. For Barrass, 3D printing enables a chain of transformations and crossings - more interacting differences. The ephemeral vibrations of sound are solidified into steel, a resonant thing-in-itself that can ring again, becoming sound, steel, and so on. 3D printing is often framed as a technology for making the immaterial material - or the virtual real. Barrass shows us otherwise; the digital here is an intermediary in a thoroughly material process, between sound and ringing form. Similarly Murphy's Impossible Perpetual works with the physical quirks of the 3D printing process, creating a form whose components must "grow together". Here the traditional symbolism of the ring, as a sign of endlessness and connection, is reimagined, and the 3D-printed object - often a curio, a prototype, or a somehow provisional thing - takes on new emotional weight.

If each of these works is a little diffraction engine - surfing the emergent patterns that arise from their internal differences - how to describe exhibition as a whole? Perhaps a pattern of patterns, no doubt more subtle and complex again than its components. Writing is not much use at this point: it starts to disappear up its own abstractions. For in fact the great joy of this work is that these concrete, un-abstract things - lumps of atoms, just like us - give off such startling diffractions; such sparks and flashes of lustre.

Dr Mitchell Whitelaw, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Design and Creative Practice, University of Canberra