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Science as Art masterclass and exhibition in China

Date: 07/11/2017

Students from Shanghai Universities with artist Sarah Butterfield and AHRC Chief Executive Andrew Thompson

At the prestigious ART LABOR gallery in Shanghai’s Jing’an District on 24 October, 12 select students from leading Shanghai universities were led by renowned British artist Sarah Butterfield in a masterclass on the subject of ‘How thinking like a scientist has helped me as an artist’. 

Utilising images and concepts drawn from different scientific disciplines, the students created original artworks in charcoal and oils, drawing on Ms Butterfield’s own approach to observation and the theory of colour.

Led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in partnership with the Research Councils UK China Office, the masterclass was supported by a host of science and creative industries bodies in the UK and China, including a number of AHRC’s fellow research councils. 

It drew inspiration from artworks displayed on the walls of the gallery, an exhibition on the theme ‘Science as Art’ curated by the RCUK China Office as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations.

Contributing institutions

- Science and Technology Facilities Council
- Medical Research Council 
- Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council
- Natural Environment Research Council
- John Innes Centre
- British Antarctic Survey
- Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
- Hartree Centre
- Diamond Light Source
- Alexander Whitley Dance Company
- China Central Academy of Fine Arts - Shanghai Jiaotong University
- UNESCO Creative City (Shanghai) Promotion Office
- The Shanghai Promotion Centre for City of Fashion
- The Shanghai Theatre Academy 
- The Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture

By drawing attention to the synergies between scientist and artist, laboratory and studio, this showcase of UK research excellence – reimagined as curated art exhibition and interactive workshop – highlighted the crucial importance of interdisciplinary approaches to research and innovation, and how the arts and humanities can inform and further how we understand and experience the world around us.

The artworks themselves, ranging from etchings of slices of the human brain and coloured enhancements of protein crystals to high definition video of contemporary dance set to visualisations of solar cycle data, were sourced from across the UK Research Councils and affiliated institutions, and selected as much for their scientific interest as aesthetic value. 

The Chinese students who attended were keen to discuss their works, sharing their experiences and details of the exhibition on social media, while Shanghai network Dragon TV provided broadcast media coverage.

Following the masterclass, the students’ works were incorporated into an installation at the centre of the gallery. This became a talking point during an evening reception and formal opening of the exhibition, attended by senior UK and Chinese delegates attending the two-day Development through the Creative Economy in China workshop. 

This workshop initiated a major new partnership between the AHRC and RCUK China with the UNESCO Creative City (Shanghai) Promotion Office, the Shanghai Promotion Centre for City of Fashion, the Shanghai Theatre Academy and the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture. It tied neatly into the themes of the masterclass and exhibition, bringing together senior figures straddling art, design, innovation and academic research to explore the potential for new UK-China collaborations in the cultural and creative industries. 

As part of a wider relationship-building visit to China, AHRC Chief Executive Professor Andrew Thompson joined the workshop. He said: “Creative industries generate new knowledge and understanding about our global past, and project views of the UK and China to new global audiences”. 

Artist Sarah Butterfield speaking at the event

“This exhibition and workshop celebrated the international influence and reputation of both our countries.” 

At the event, Sarah Butterfield added: “It is such an honour and a privilege to be here in Shanghai. I love art, and I love science. The laws of motion are as true out in space as they are here on earth. And art can be used to explore how to represent these laws.

"Art and science can be very close together. They are both inextricably linked to nature. Both involve massive observation, conceptualisation and measurement as well as insight and imagination to take things forward.” 

Also at the workshop was Dr Livia Rezende from the Royal College of Art, who said: “The exhibition was inspiring and set key parameters for the discussions and exchanges that were to come in the following two days of workshop.”

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