Since its emergence in the late 1990s, the concept of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has held particular sway in contemporary pedagogy, and initiatives to address the so-called ‘STEM Crisis’ have greatly influencedpolitical and educational agendas globally. While the comparatively late arrival of the ‘A’, for Art, in what is now STEAM, brought the important role of creativity to the table in a welcome acknowledgement that STEM was not enough, the concern remains that the ‘A’ is an add-on, enhancing the way in which STEM is taught, but not valued for the significance of its contribution alone. Accordingly, within the realm of Art+Science collaborations, and in exhibiting contexts, this often results in the instrumentalisation of art for the science and work that is sadly, not great art. Yet the division between the arts and science is a relatively recent phenomenon and the history of both disciplines is replete with individuals who consciously played, tinkered, experimented, created and worked across the two, with someone like Leonardo da Vinci becoming something of a poster boy for the possibilities of art and science coming together in harmony.
The extraordinary work that has developed from eX de Medici’s now 20+ year involvement with the Entomology Division of the CSIRO’s Black Mountain Research Facility in Canberra, working with the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIS), is a welcome antidote to well-intentioned Art+Science arranged marriages, resulting from a personal interest in and passion for science and scientific research and its connection to present-day geo-economic politics. The artist first met taxonomists and evolutionists Dr Marianne Horak and Ted Edwards during her initial period as an Artist Fellow at the Institute (a Fellowship which eventually extended from 2000 to 2012). Over time their relationship evolved into one of true collaboration, where de Medici’s work imaginatively encapsulates the scientists’ study of Microlepidoptera (small moths) while also communicating
the broader political shifts and environmental impacts that close research of and comparison between these specimens brings to light. As de Medici has explained:
... It was a case of not having any particular interest in the field, but connecting to thinkers and getting carried along on their rivers of compulsion and obsession, and applying that to my own concerns. Weapons come with their own genealogies, timelines and migratory spread, as do the insects. It took some years to get a grip on yet another new discipline, that of scientific description, before I could apply it to my own ends. It must be noted here that scientific illustration is also an exploration into miniature precision. Tattooing had prepared me well for that. 1
de Medici’s intricate watercolours of these tiny subjects (the largest of which is 14mm across) literally conjures them ‘into existence’ for both the scientific community and wider world, as many remain unclassified, and are thus denied the recognition, study and inter-species connection that being formally named provides. In a further entwining of personal and scientific concerns, the artist’s longstanding interest in the symbolic and actual power of weaponry has led to her conceiving of guns themselves as ‘species’, with the evolution of each species having a very particular purpose that is reflected in its design. There is no room for error when the aim is to overcome, maim and kill. ‘The gun is an abstraction of power “loaded” with potential violence.’ 2
As someone who leaves her studio reluctantly, and when there works at stretches of 16 or so hours a day, the rhythms of eX de Medici’s life weren’t particularly disrupted by the choking smoke that engulfed Canberra in late 2019 and the subsequent covid-lockdowns of 2020. However, they did somewhat hinder the artist’s love of international travel, enabling her to concentrate for an extended period on a major two-part project based on her work at the CSIRO. The second part of that ambitious project is Double Double Crossed.
The eleven moths within the exhibition are de Medici Frankenstein creations— their bifurcated bodies bringing together two genetically-related specimens from New Guinea and mainland Australia. 4 Despite the fact that some moths might live for only two hours and are the physical embodiment of the smallest moments of time 5, the species from New Guinea also speak in terms of geological time, forming part of the ancient evolutionary map of Gondwanaland which bridges between northern Australia and the islands of New Guinea. 6 In de Medici’s work however, our comprehension of this passage of change over a vast period of time is brought sharply into the present through her disturbing and somewhat macabre transplantation of contemporary weaponry into the space where the animal’s tiny abdomen would be; exploding scale and filling the ‘place of reproduction and classification’ with ‘various scientific methodologies of destruction’ 7, biological/ societal control (Viagara and Anxious, both 2021) and environmental impact (Greenhouse, 2021, Plutonium (Fission), 2022 and Nerve / Fission, 2021). de Medici’s hybrid creatures are at once beautiful and monstrous harbingers of a near-future of our creation. As she has said:
Two sciences, one examining the deep time of the complex evolution of life on our planet, the other of accelerated brief development of that which violently takes and poisons life: ammunition schematics, cluster bombs, depleted uranium/ fissile reaction, weapons manufacturers’ logos, greenhouse gases, molecular WMD, Prion disease of the brain (‘Mad Cow disease’ for example), and molecular representations of corporate-designed drugs of addiction and psychosis management. 8
The final punch of Double Double Crossed is the triptych comprising two large-scale gun portraits—elaborately wrapped and tied like sickening presents—with the moth image, East India Trading Company, 2021. The first gun composition, Elizabeth x Mauser,2021, with its elaborate flourishes of red and pink ribbon, cloaks the Mauser used by Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie (1977) —in a nod to contemporary moves toward the colonisation of space—in the fabric of the dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I in the iconic Armada Portrait, 1588 (Collection National Portrait Gallery, London). 9 An extraordinary iconographic feat the sees the transformation of an individual, and a woman at that, into a symbol of power, the resting of the Queen’s hand on the globe at the lower left of the painting, with her finger
pointed towards America, says everything of her ambitions for the global expansion of Empire. The second gun portrait wraps bushranger Ned Kelly’s flintlock in the fabric of the doublet worn by Sir Walter Ralegh (or Raleigh) (1554-1618) in a painting of 1588 (Collection National Portrait Gallery London). Ralegh spearheaded the Virgin Queen’s expansionist agenda, attempting to establish England’s first colony in America in 1855. This later became the complex network of power, domination, corruption and slavery that was the East India Company, whose banner unfurls from the abdomen of the moth at the centre of the triptych. Together, these three works collapse time, historic and not-so-imagined future events, linking the past, colonisation, and national mythology—essentially, how we re-frame and justify our collective (ab)use of power—with where we have landed today; seemingly hellbent on our own rapidly approaching destruction and taking everything on the planet down in our wake.