Shadowgraph: Seeing the Invisible


My father dedicated his life to aerodynamics, turbulence research and the then emerging fields of bionics and biomimicry, so I have been around the sciences most of my life. When I was five, we visited the NASA facilities in Houston. Physics had a tangible aura of excitement and adventure for me, but it was only much later that I began to understand how challenging this highly creative discipline really is. My upbringing instilled a firm belief that human curiosity, wonder and a need for reason are shared driving forces across both the arts and the sciences.

There has been a growing interest in art-science collaborations in recent years, both in Ireland and internationally. A number of residencies and awards currently support various opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration – a proposition that seems to merge the apparent objectivity of scientific research with the more subjective individual experience of artistic endeavor. As a visual artist, I have been invited to participate in a number of residencies across a range of settings – from museums and academic institutions to laboratories and factories – and have developed several bodies of work at the intersections of art and science. Working in scientific contexts has been hugely enriching for my practice and has led on to many other opportunities.

In 2010 I took part in a residency in Giza, Egypt, where I initiated my ‘Triangulations’ project retracing the expedition made in the 1840s by the Egyptologist Richard Lepsius. The bulk of the project was realised during another residency the following year at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), one of Germany’s most distinguished and historic institutions. The work was well received and I was particularly pleased with the positive reactions from the in-house scientists who showed great interest in the complex project. I was subsequently invited by the Neues Museum, Berlin, to outline my project in a book about Lepsius that was published in 2012. It was particularly gratifying to feel that Egyptologists within the specialist field of archaeology perceived my contribution as valuable.

In 2013, I was invited to showcase a 10-year retrospective of my work in a large Kunsthalle outside Berlin. A comprehensive monograph, Of Painting and other Adventures, was published to coincide with the exhibition, which offered useful ways to contextualise the work and helped me recognise my recurring interests. I had initially been concerned that developing research-based projects in science settings might somehow negatively impact on my established painting practice; however, my use of different materials across a range of media has in fact reaffirmed painting as the backbone of my practice, particularly regarding my approaches to composition and installation.

The following year I undertook a fellowship at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg, Institute for Advanced Study, Delmenhorst, Germany, where I worked alongside neuroscientists to observe cutting edge research on neuroplasticity. It has been important for me to consolidate my experiences in science contexts with gallery exhibitions. Having been out on a ‘pioneering limb’ with scientists for a long time, I found my gallery exhibition in April 2016 very refreshing, not least because I was reminded of the wide-ranging knowledge existing within the art world that sits in contrast to the extreme specialisms that tend to occur in the sciences. Overall, it has been an enriching experience for me to explore the symbiotic relationships between art and science and it is always beneficial to connect with people outside the echo chamber of one’s own peer group.


Last summer I was awarded a six-month supported residency as part of the SPARK Artists’ Residency Programme, a partnership project of Leitrim County Council Arts Office and the Leitrim Local Enterprise Office. The SPARK Residency was initiated in 2012 and is aimed at artists who are interested in working in new environments and companies interested in collaborating with artists and promoting creativity within their organisations. Leitrim County Council Arts Office has been remarkable in developing this residency over the years and has built strong partnerships within the county. Because of the support structures offered, the proximity to my home, and the relatively long duration, SPARK enabled me to develop more in-depth dialogues than are usually possible in residency situations.

The 2016 SPARK Residency was hosted by Prior PLM Medical – a medical device company situated in Carrick-on-Shannon. My recent residency in the neuroscience research centre in Germany, coupled with my previous experience in science settings, meant that I was quite familiar with the medical sector. Prior’s is a family-run business employing about 30 staff members who research, invent and manufacture medical devices in collaboration with firms across Ireland, Europe and the US. Their work is highly ambitious, involving physics-driven research, product design, engineering and precision mold making: a dizzying array of activities and a new world of material investigations for me to learn about.

During the site visit in May 2016, I was pleased to encounter an unexpected open-mindedness towards art and design among the staff. I subsequently found them to be very patient during my observations and questions about their fields of expertise. I hope that my interactions were somewhat mutually beneficial, even if the employees just got to view what they do every day in a new light. I quickly began to understand that one of the major strengths of the company is the way in which scientific theory and material knowledge of tool-making and engineering are successfully interlinked.

During my residency at the company, I learned a lot about their intriguing inventions. I witnessed the highly unusual application of the historic Schlieren imaging technique, which was used in conjunction with innovative medical devices. I encountered engineering processes in which ‘shadows’ facilitate highly precise measurements. The shadowgraph technique dates back to the seventeenth century and has origins in optics and the development of telescopic lenses. The use of shadowgraph processes in the factory makes visible microscopic details, such as thermal differences, that are generally invisible to the human eye.

Making something visible through the use of shadow is an intriguing concept. I began to direct my artistic thinking towards mapping and measuring the ‘immeasurable’. The use of shadow in early cinema and popular culture was also a point of reference, in its capacity to create mysterious, threatening or foreboding atmospheres. Metaphorical notions of shadow also poignantly convey the physical, emotional and psychological aspects of illness that the medical device sector is ultimately trying to assist.

The artworks I developed explore the effects of light and shadow and are punctuated with the inhalations and exhalations of human breath: the literal inspiration and expiration of corporeality. The use of transparent materials in an installation made from industrial packaging offers behind-the-scenes glimpses into the production process. Machines used to manufacture medical devices are theatrically lit to cast sharp shadows. Not only do these machines support man in his frail existence, but they merge and interact to form new entities.

The interactions of organic and mechanical systems take centre stage in a new site-specific artwork, which offers a fitting way to conclude my residency in this remarkable environment. The reception and opening of the exhibition ‘Shadow of Ourselves’ takes place at 6pm on 31 March 2017 in the industrial complex (behind Kennedy’s petrol station), Dublin Road, Carrick-on-Shannon.

Tinka Bechert is an artist, originally from Berlin, who lives and works in Sligo.

Images: Tinka Bechert, Shadowgraph close-up; still from Illuminate.

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