Art and Science collide: Interview with a chemistry student on their first visit to John Hansard Gallery

Arts Ambassador Molly Adams discusses Hamad Butt’s Familiar, art galleries, and Southampton’s cultural quarter with 2nd year Chemistry student Alex.

As an Arts Ambassador, one of my main goals is to inspire people to explore some of Southampton’s cultural venues and experience new and unique experiences.

One of the artists exhibited in John Hansard Gallery’s Time After Time, Hamad  Butt, had trained initially as a biochemist. As one of his pieces was the visualisation of some original research, I saw this exhibition as the perfect opportunity to bring people to a place that they might not normally feel was a natural fit for them. So, on a Saturday morning, during which time he could have been sleeping, I dragged a STEM student to an art gallery.

Molly: So first of all could you introduce yourself?

Alex: My name is Alex, I study Chemistry at Southampton, I’m in my second year.

M: Do you have any particular interests within chemistry?

A: Um… pharmacology mostly

M: So before our visit to John Hansard Gallery (JHG), did you have any preconceptions about art galleries? Would this have been the sort of place you would have visited unprompted?

A: I don’t usually go to art galleries. It depends what an art gallery is specifically exhibiting, I won’t just go for any old reason. Usually I’ll go if it’s related to a specific social thing. I won’t go for specific artists because I don’t care about their names. It’s a really mean thing to say, but it’s true!

M: No, I get that. So the piece that we saw in Gallery 1 [Familiars by Hamad Butt] was a more science-related piece: what were your first thoughts? How did it immediately make you feel?

A: Hmm. I was intrigued, because the first thing I saw was the Newton’s cradle [Cradle]. I was curious as to what pushed the artist to deal with that sort of thing. I thought it was interesting… and dangerous! Super dangerous! If literally one thing were to mess up, if one of the things were to break that whole place would be screwed.

Image Credit: John Hansard Gallery, 2018. Hamad Butt, Familiars (1992) © Elspeth Williams 

Here we went on a terrible-for-publicity tangent about the various dangers of chlorine gas in a closed environment. Not the best for encouraging people to come to a venue, but it was quite interesting for me!

M: The artist, Hamad Butt, had trained up as a biochemist before he got into art, and so some of the pieces were the embodiment of his own original research. Had you ever considered the relationship between arts and science in the visualisation of a concept?

A: Not really. That may come from a social thing though: we think of there being a very stark divide between art and science, but sometimes people mix it. Like with chemistry: there’s a lot of science behind making paints and other resources for art. It shouldn’t be surprising that they aren’t mutually exclusive, they do cross-over quite a bit. For example, the chemistry behind colour can be so interesting. So many new colours we see are developed through chemistry.

M: Do you think using the arts as a way of presenting and conceptualising scientific data should be promoted more?

Image Credit: John Hansard Gallery, 2018. Hamad Butt, Familiars (1992) © Elspeth Williams 

A: I guess it kind of depends on what you’re aiming to achieve within the general field. I think it should be encouraged on some level to try and bridge the gap between the two. I’m trying not to get political, but I think it’s important to bridge the gap because not only does it offer a new development within art to bridge outside of what we think conventional art is, but also because it offers a way to think about science differently and to think about the ways we apply science in the real world. Also it makes science a little more interesting!

M: As Art Ambassadors, one of our shared goals was that galleries and similar spaces can be a little intimidating for some, and we really want to try and show that’s not the case. Did you find you felt that way on your way in and had that changed by time you left?

A: Well going into Hamad Butt’s Familiars wasn’t really alienating for me in that I kind of understood what was going on with it, but I guess without that knowledge background, it might be a little bit alienating. I went to an exhibition at Solent Showcase last year of LGBT-based artwork, and that wasn’t alienating because it was something I could identify with and something I kind of had a background in. It was easy to make connections between things. When you go into an art exhibit, it all depends on your knowledge and what you can relate to.

M: Did going to this exhibition change your preconceptions about art galleries, or about John Hansard Gallery in particular? 

A: A little bit, I guess. It makes me want to go to more free, open art galleries, but it’s maybe not something I’d do often, it’d probably be something I’d most likely do if there was an exhibition I knew I’d be interested in. I’d definitely still take a look to see what the new exhibitions are. I think public art galleries are really important for a city, as they’re places where you don’t have to pay money just to exist, I think it’s really beneficial.

M: Okay, well I think we’ll call it a day there, thanks so much for sitting down to talk to me.

To find out more about events and venues across Southampton, follow Arts at University of Southampton on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more information. Time After Time is at John Hansard Gallery until November 3rd and is free admission.

Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.

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