Muse of the lab shapes edgy art (2)

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.

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

  • Woman taking homeopathic medicine

Alternative treatments in healthcare plan is latest in a series of homeopathy-related controversies

  • Man lying beneath rugby pile-up

Six academics share their experiences before delivering a verdict on the system

  • Zygmunt Bauman with hand over mouth

Eminent sociologist has recycled 90,000 words of material across a dozen books, claims paper

  • Foot about to step on banana peel

Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle offer tips on making postgraduate study even tougher (which students could also use to avoid pitfalls if they prefer)

  • Sorana Vieru, National Union of Students

Sorana Vieru says exams and essays 'privilege' more advantaged students, calls for changes to 'Middle Ages' format