The field to which the title refers in Sophy Rickett’s new work relates not to earthly subjects, but instead to constellations and the cosmos. However, this is only the starting point, launch pad perhaps, of a journey of appropriation leading to a body of work forged from the remains of one man’s quest for celestial knowledge.
Dr. Roderick Willestrop, a retired research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is the invisible subject of Rickett’s new work, whom she met while on an artist’s residency at the institution. During her search for inspiration and a visual aesthetic to ‘key into’, Rickett began a series of encounters with the man, the results of which can be seen as a terrestrial collision between the two worlds of art and science.
In short but intense interviews, Rickett became interested in the academic’s life beyond the rigorous confines of his work. Anecdotes would slip around the edges of sentences describing highly specific technical processes. It was these ‘slippages’, we learn, away from formal narratives, to which the artist was drawn, and wanted to draw out somehow. A potentially rather dry conversation about optics brought back memories of a childhood experience at the opticians, which Rickett has reproduced in a booklet to accompany the exhibition. For the viewer, this booklet places the work within the context of encounters which bridge two worlds.
These personal interactions create an intriguing back story as the artist, acting as investigator, becomes locked in a tussle for the deaccessioning of the scientist’s negatives. Rickett is entranced by the now obsolete processes of recording the night sky through exposures on sheets of black and white film, sometimes with durations of 30 minutes or more, using a special rotating telescope pioneered by Willestrop. These negatives – glimpsed over his shoulder – are, it transpires, deemed useless due to the constant realignment of the planets. However, the act of ‘liberating’ the negatives becomes a delicate process, and forms the framework of an interaction around which the work is made.
Willestrop expressed his regret, we are told, not only at the obsolescence of his work, but also in technical inconsistencies, including fingerprints and dust, which had invaded an otherwise faultless astronomical record. Yet these very human traits are referenced, albeit obliquely, in the prints, and speak of the intimacy of both Rickett and Willestrop’s relationship and the scientist’s solitary communion – he made his observations alone throughout his career – with his subject.
This feeling of melancholia is further enhanced with the piece entitled ‘Another idea that came to nothing’. It comprises of very small contact prints of objects used in a ‘Test for a guiding probe.’ As with all the work on show at Camilla Grimaldi, this is titled both by the scientist and the artist, and speaks of a collaboration of sorts.
One left with a much deeper understanding of the process behind the making of a body of work which on the face of it seems as impenetrable as the night sky. The poignancy of this project comes not from looking out into the heavens, into the undisputed aesthetic qualities of the images themselves – but on looking in, through the back of the telescope to the retired scientist and his obsolete archive, who in deference to planetary rhythms, still returns to the University to make his weekly observations.
A monograph of Sophy Rickett’s earlier work can be bought from Photoworks here. The show at Camilla Grimaldi is on until 21st March 2013.