The Lady Botanist - Erica Seccombe

Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol43 Issue13 17–21 April 2017

Visiting Artist, Erica Seccombe
Dept Applied Mathematics

New screen prints and etchings inspired by experiences at the Natural History Museum,London, the ANU CT Lab, The Research School of Biology and the Centre for Advanced Microscopy

Generously supported by the 2017 CAPO Fellowship 

Megalo Print Studio & Gallery
21 Wentworth Ave, Kingston, ACT

  • Exhibition dates:  6 April - 29 April 2017
  • Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 9.30am - 5.00pm

Opening speech by Pasty Payne:

“The Lady Botanist”

Erica is a storyteller. She unveils mysteries and shows us intriguing forms revealed beneath the skin of things, dragged from the recesses of our memory, perhaps imagined on a dark night.

Monsters, hybrids and beasts emerge from Erica’s time in the dark rooms of her practice. Initially the specimens are discovered in the dusty recesses of museum archives. The forms are assaulted by imaging procedures which peel back their skin, flay them, expose them, create vast screeds of numbers that represent them. Then they creep out from time spent in the windowless climate controlled rooms which contain the technology powerful enough to render in three and four dimensions the monsters constructed from these vast datasets. They finally emerge out of the darkroom where the voluminous visualisations have gone through another transformation from 3 dimensions into 2. They have been beaten and flattened into submission in order to be re-imagined through the dark arts and techniques of print.

Here they are, now pinned to the wall as specimens retrieved from various museum repositories with a mist of memory trailing behind; evoking their journey through the rooms described. The narrative they reveal is one of hidden knowledge, occasional moments of illumination and the wonder of being glimpsed and understood and then perhaps the sadness of being put away.

These forms have a long journey from the collecting jars and equipment of Victorian ladies on the coast of England, or the flower hunters of the jungle in Papua New Guinea or daughter assistants in remote laboratories of America in the 19th century. The specimens collected and observed so carefully became part of the amazing museums of Europe and America, added to a body of knowledge based on the systematization enabled by the relentless and vast collecting program of intriguing and wonderful objects from the natural world. Their own story was subsumed and  became part of the mythology of science.

Erica embarks on a particular project at the British Museum, but is drawn into the secret recesses of the archives kept for decades, sometimes centuries. Her storytelling instinct leads her to identify particular objects which contain an aura, reveal a glimpse of the truth of their origin and the truth of the careful analysis undertaken by the hidden assistants supporting the famous men of science as they attempted to make sense of the complexity, vastness and microscopic detail of the natural world in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century pursuit of TRUTH.

I’ll digress here to explain what Erica refers to in her statement. As botany transitioned from an elite pastime to a professional science in the second half of the 19th century, the field became  increasingly specialized. While a small number of women achieved respected positions in botany through academic study at institutions of higher learning, this avenue remained unavailable to most. Despite the barriers women encountered in seeking a career in the botanical sciences, some women managed to use  alternative means, such as illustration, to break into the profession. As in the biological sciences, illustration was a crucial component to the study of botany. Moreover, illustration and botany both existed in a liminal space more accessible to women, as illustration was not considered fine art, nor was botany considered among the most rigorous of the hard sciences.

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller is one of the foremost figures in science in 19th century Australia. He was appointed government botanist by Governor Latrobe in 1853 and was appointed the first director of the Melbourne Botanic gardens. He published over 800 papers and major works on Australian botany, he collected and identified, presented lectures and presided over committees. He also supervised many women collectors and illustrators – individuals such as Euphemia Henderson, Harriet and Helena Scott, Ellis Rowan and Marie Wehl. With Mueller’s support these women engaged in the meticulous work of collecting and identifying specimens then produced the most beautiful illustrations of newly identified and described species in Australian botany.

Here is one announcement that Mueller wrote to the editor of The Perth Inquirer in 1870. “Dear Sir, permit me to call the ladies’ attention through your widely circulated journal to the very interesting employment of preserving flowers and seaweed. Those who are at all disposed to amuse themselves at their leisure will find the best time for collecting seaweed is to take a walk on the beach during the winter months.” To use Dr Mueller’s own words, “….any contributions will tend to augment the material for good work in which he is engaged”. Von Mueller was not modest. I tell this anecdote as an illustration of the secret history attached to much of what we see in museum archives. This history is part of what has inspired Erica to work in the way she has.

What stories does Erica tell us? The pictures are full of information and intrigue. They are both based on truth (data) and a fiction. Information and suggestion are held in the forms which occupy the strange spaces created on these pages. The pages become windows into other worlds. Are they botanical or biological forms that hover on the edge of vision, glimpses from our unconscious or simply the practical structures revealed by sophisticated imaging procedures?

The art of these works is in teasing us to visit our own imagination, to make up our own meaning out of stories which come to mind as we stand and contemplate.

I have been reading Confabulations – a collection of essays by John Berger. The title made me think about the nature of confabulation – it is both conversation and discussion, but there is another meaning which is the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true.

These pictures work in reverse to this process of filling a gap in memory. They are based on truth but we believe them to be imagined. What a wonderful trick for an artist to play and what an interesting way to remind people of the value of archives and repositories which house objects separated from their original context which can take us on fictional and fascinating journeys as we reimagine the past of the world, the interconnection of the intricate systems balanced on and around the planet – the wonder of nature.

Throughout his career John Baldessari explored the imperfect nature of communication and individual knowledge “everyone knows a different world and only part of it. We communicate only by chance, as nobody knows the whole, only where overlapping takes place”.

Erica is firmly located in the world of picture making and story telling. But this quote from a scion of Conceptual Art elucidates for me the reason we tell stories, the reason we are constantly drawn to images and forms collected from nature – we share them as we all try to make sense of our world with our imperfect modes of communication. Why not make pictures and see if its possible to reveal the way you make meaning, make sense of existence, understand your infinitesimally small moment of relevance in the vast aeons of time in the universe.

Patsy Payne April 2017

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