I recently spent an idyllic afternoon wandering around the Royal Society Library, having arrived there by a rather circuitous route.
I should probably start by explaining that it has been a long time since I was a practising scientist. I used to be a PhD student at the Wellcome Centre for Parasitology at Imperial College, but after four years of studying parasitic nematodes (Toxocara canis) I gave up on my thesis and ran away to become an artist instead. That said, science still remains a passion and it informs a lot of the work I make now.
I was in the Royal Society Library ostensibly to take some photographs, which I hoped would form part of the research for my next piece of work (I’m currently completing my Masters of Fine Art at Goldsmiths College). 6-9 Carlton House Terrace is not a hard building to find inspiration in – there are objects of wonder at every turn – but it was upon finding the Collected Biography section of the Library that my directionless noodling took a more productive turn. I was surprised and delighted to find that many of the texts in the Society’s collection have also been long-time, treasured companions on my bookshelves for years. That got me thinking about the influential role that several Fellows of the Royal Society have had on my life to date.
The work that eventually came out of that early research in the library is entitled ‘Fellows of the Royal Society: John Maynard Smith, Richard Feynman & Alan Turing’. If galleries are the new cathedrals, then I like to think that this work is the equivalent of the stained glass in the north transept: a pseudo-digital, secular triptych for a society saturated in advertising hoardings and talent shows. Ten metres long and three metres high, this imposing portrait is wrought from tens of thousands of hand-mounted and tinted, scintillating metallic discs, shimmering gently in a breeze generated by a host of computer fans.
Why did I pick Maynard Smith, Feynman and Turing? Well, each of these three Fellows has had a profound and direct influence on my life. I was lucky enough to be taught (briefly) by John Maynard Smith whilst a Biological Sciences undergraduate at Edinburgh University, and his lectures on applied game theory and evolutionary stable strategies have shaped my view of the world ever since. Richard Feynman – the model of a polymath and a constant exemplar that if you find something curious enough then it’s probably worth pursuing. And because ideas of artificial intelligence and the singularity are recurring themes in my work, I couldn’t possibly have omitted Alan Turing from the wall. I wanted to pay homage to each of these wonderful thinkers and hoped that in doing so I might also engender something of the same wonder and delight in the viewing audience, first aesthetically and then also, hopefully, conceptually. The final work was exhibited in Goldsmiths College in July as part of my suite of Degree Show works – if you’d like to see more, then please take a look at cherylfield.com.