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Hypersonic Art


The scramjet is a unique engine that breathes oxygen, has no moving parts, and is designed to operate at hypersonic speeds. Source: Centre for Hypersonics, University of Queensland

By Tara Roberson

An artist with a passion for bringing the abstract and strange to life, Peter Hennessey has immersed himself in the world of hypersonics, and given researchers a fresh perspective about their work.

Peter Hennessey is best-known for his space-inspired artworks, including My Voyager (2004) and My Hubble: The Universe Turns on Itself (2010). Now, as artist-in-resident at The University of Queensland’s Centre for Hypersonics, he has explored engineering as a science and an art.

Hypersonic aerodynamics has been a major research activity at the university for more than 20 years. Within the UQ Centre for Hypersonics, the HyShot Group has been working to produce an engine with some remarkable features. The aptly named Scramjet engine breathes oxygen, has no moving parts, and is designed to operate at hypersonic speeds of around 8600 km/h, or eight times the speed of sound).

The exhibition Peter Hennessey: Making It Real encompasses the past 10 years of the artist’s practice, illuminating key themes in his work and including new artworks that have been produced as part of his residency.

The genesis of Hennessey’s work lies in the difference between representing spaces or objects and the experience of them. As a young architect, Hennessey found that the models he created were consistently different to his experience of the spaces they were designed to represent.

“The gap between what you replicate and your experience is stark,” he says. “Being an architect is about negotiating that gap. In my art practice, a lot of what I do is what I call ‘re-enactments’ of objects – objects you can’t stand next to, but you can Google. Looking at an object online gives you no sense of the experience. A flat picture can’t tell you about the sensation of standing next to it – even if it gives you an idea of scale.”

It’s this unique approach that makes Hennessey perfect for the task of turning a highly technical subject like hypersonics into an accessible and tangible experience, particularly given that for the majority of us the idea of moving at the speed of sound has little meaning. Moving at eight times the speed of sound is incomprehensible. At most, we can accept that it sounds extremely fast.

For Hennessey, this residency has been about making art that does more than just illustrate the research in simple terms. He has been inspired by the researchers’ intelligence, focus and methods of working.

“There is an unexpected dimension of wonder to this residency, which I am interested in reflecting – as well as giving people a different perspective on the work being done,” he said. “The ideas and realities that the researchers deal with are amazing, almost unimaginable, but in the process of researching they have become commonplace – their wonder is forgotten. I hope to bring that wonder to light again – to illuminate an area which, for me, is very much a work of art.”

During the residency Hennessey observed that there are outcomes people tend to expect from such projects. One is that the scientists will learn to apply artistic approaches to creativity. The other is that artists will be able to give form to the scientific ideas they encounter.

“My residency at the Centre for Hypersonics has been reciprocal,” he said. “As well as, hopefully, giving the researchers insight into artistic process, I have found my own practice modified and expanded by some of the ideas and approaches that I have seen and discussed.”

During his residency, Hennessey worked with Prof Michael Smart, Head of the HyShot Group and Professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, to gain a deeper understanding of the Group’s research. “A lot of creative energy goes into good science,” Smart said, “and I felt that having an artist interacting with our students and academics would be a great way to communicate this beyond the walls of our laboratories and offices”.

Smart noted that many of the students and academics found themselves talking to Hennessey about their research in a different way to how they talk to one another. “The residency gave us context for what we do,” he said. “I think, for the students in particular, the residency helped them think about their research from a different perspective, which is really valuable. Ultimately, I’d like the relationship with Hennessey to become a means by which to make a stronger connection between science, creativity and the public.”

Art can be a valuable medium for connecting scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical concepts to lay audiences. The union of art and engineering that has resulted from Hennessey’s residency at the Centre for Hypersonics reflects a broadening of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) approach to a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) model.

This change isn’t just happening in Brisbane. During Australian Engineering Week in 2013, the University of Technology, Sydney held an Art and Engineering Walk and Talk that examined four examples of engineering projects as art installations around the city. On the other side of the world, Canada holds an annual Beakerhead event during which science and art groups hit the streets and present interactive installations to a wide-ranging audience.

Making It Real will place the artworks emerging from Hennessey’s residency in context with his previous work. The exhibition’s curator, Samantha Littley, said that the idea to develop an exhibition devoted to Hennessey’s art came about after his sculpture My Humvee (Inversion Therapy) (2008) was acquired by the University of Queensland.

“Hennessey’s work is connected to multiple discourses that are relevant to fields of study at UQ,” she said, “so it was an exciting project to take on. I was immediately drawn to the work because it is as ideas-based as it is object-based. Each artwork has a physical presence, and conveys a range of concepts that connect to science, social justice and the political systems that dominate our lives.

“The art/science nexus was an area that needed to be explored. Previously, Hennessey had considered space and technology in his sculpture My Voyager (2004), which is an account of the Voyager 2 space probe, one of two that the US launched in 1977 that are still in orbit.”

Scientists and artists, she said, had more in common than might be thought. For example, in order to attract funding for research or artistic practice, projects need to be framed to suit the objectives and requirements of external organisations that have their own agendas.

Hennessey’s sculpture My Voyager (2004) exemplifies this. In the work, Hennessey considers the union of the political motives that drove the space program during the Cold War along with the idealism of the NASA scientists who were motivated by a thirst for knowledge to test limits and further scientific research. Hennessey’s artwork, Littley says, likens the space program’s emblematic scientific imperatives to conceptual art – the artist acknowledges that these fields have minimal impact on everyday existence, but emphasises the valuable way they extend our thinking.

“I think artists provide a different perspective on science,” Littley says. “Hennessey isn’t a scientist – he studied acting and architecture – but he is fascinated by scientific developments and his enthusiasm is infectious. In many ways, Hennessey is practising a form of science communication – his sculptures give people cause to think about the relevance of scientific advances.

“When he recreated a neonatal intensive care unit, as he did in My NICU (2006), he encouraged us to think about the role this equipment plays in sustaining life. We encounter something that is vital to healthcare but, unless we’ve had reason to rely on the technology, it’s unlikely that we’ve stopped to appreciate it. This approach lies at the heart of Hennessey’s endeavour: to bring objects outside our actual experience within our reach and our understanding.”

Littley clearly believes science can be a catalyst for art. “There is a long history of artists who have worked with science or as scientists,” she said. “Leonardo da Vinci traversed both these fields, among others.

“Science is deeply embedded in society, whether we are aware of it or not, and perhaps never more so than now when digital technology has expanded its reach. Artists will continue to be inspired by scientific thinking and practice, and to critique and challenge its conventions.”

The use of art to communicate science shows that we are coming to appreciate the science of art and the art of science, and how these two disciplines can complement one another.

Tara Roberson is undertaking a Master of Science Communication at the University of Queensland, and blogs about science communication at Hennessey’s exhibition, Peter Hennessey: Making It Real, is open until 12 July 2015 at The University of Queensland Art Museum in St Lucia, Brisbane.