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Opposites attract

Miquette Roberts looks at how Turner Prize finalist Keith Tyson can help students bridge the gap between art and science.

A Keith Tyson show brings together all kinds of objects, whose appearance reflects the artist's interests in science and philosophy as well as art. Some of the art works in his Turner Prize display have components such as computers, digital counters and microprocessors, but he equally makes use of traditional drawing. The 39 large drawings included in his Turner Prize display act as a sketchbook to his mental processes.

Tyson is a man of many interests and diverse knowledge who refuses to restrict himself to one pigeonhole. It is significant that he completed a course in mechanical engineering craft studies before studying fine art at Carlisle College of Art. These two different areas of study encouraged him to explore thought in all its variety, refusing to be tied to one discipline. Although he makes it clear that he is an artist rather than a scientist, he is careful not to reject anything that could potentially be of interest to him.

As schools are encouraged to embark on cross-curricular work, this is an opportunity for science and art teachers to bridge the gap between their disciplines, making joint excursions to view Tyson's Turner Prize exhibits, accompanied by their GCSE and A-level students. The scientists could elucidate for the artists some concepts which have inspired Tyson and the artists could (although this is difficult) explain how Tyson transforms scientific concepts into art.

But is this as easy as it sounds? In the catalogue to Keith Tyson's Kunsthalle Zurich exhibition, which took place earlier this year, writer Michael Archer lists some possible interpretations of his "Supercollider" (not part of the Turner Prize exhibition) as follows: no. 2 "An illustrated encyclopaedia of potential" and no. 3 "A partial solution to the equation ((4F x 93E)4D) = X" Do you understand this, teachers of art, and will it be within the grasp of students who no longer study science? The list continues with no. 4 "A non-linear poem", while no. 5 is " A great big action painting", and no. 6 "Something always destined to be written".

Scientists, how do you feel about 4 and 5 following on from 1 to 3? Do the references to art and literature make you take the artist's interest in science less seriously? Tyson himself does not believe that science is infallible. According to Michael Archer, Tyson works with the area at which science's system of logic cannot adapt to theories with which it is incompatible.

Item 7 is "yellow like a stellar furnace" and here perhaps scientists and artists could be united since the concept is one which is both poetic and scientific.

Like Fiona Banner and Liam Gillick, two of the other shortlisted artists, Keith Tyson refuses to accept the kind of specialisation that starts at school when students have to decide which subjects to choose. Such specialisation has existed for a long time with the result that teachers and students are moulded by it. This means that polymaths such as Tyson are rare, and perhaps making these early choices makes us defensive when faced with unfamiliar concepts in science or art.

Tyson binds the two disciplines of art and science closely together in most of the objects he produces so that, according to Archer, the scientist could interpret the swirling lines in "Think Tank" (not in the Turner Prize) as "the dendrons of a neural network, wiring, maps, logic pathways, the internet and so on", whereas to the artist, the same pattern of lines might conjure up: "the clash of abstract expressionist and post-painterly abstractionist quotations to be found in David Hockney's swimming pool paintings of the mid-1960s."

The drawback for the viewer whose knowledge is restricted to one field is that the work only assumes its full meaning if you can interpret it from the points of view of two quite distinct subject areas. As an artist, Keith Tyson uses the language of science and refers to its practices because he feels: "everything should remain available."

Fortunately, however, non-scientists will be able to relate to at least some of the work included in the Turner Prize. Time is a subject of scientific research but is also something that affects each of us personally. Tyson likes to juxtapose the idea of "now" with extended time, that of the life of a human being or, on a quite different timescale, a planet.

"Now Capacitor", 2002, explores this interest. It is a framed mirror with digital counter, microprocessors and velvet-lined shutter, an object which has an inbuilt lifespan so when that comes to an end, the art work will cease to exist. Its lifespan is that of an average human being, namely 76.5 years. "Now Capacitor" only assumes its existence while it is on view; the rest of the time it is covered with a velvet-lined shutter. When it is "alive" its digital counter records the flow of time moving it towards extinction and at the same time the mirror reflects what surrounds it. When viewers look at the mirror, they see themselves, caught "now", an instant within the much longer, but nonetheless finite, parameters of their lives.

Tyson says: "I'm using (my work) to locate myself, to find out where I am."

This is typical of his fascination with both micro and macro and the way that we constantly have to balance our perception of one against the other.

The Turner Prize 2002 exhibition at Tate Britain runs until January 5, 2003. The winner will be announced on December Miquette Roberts is education resources officer at Tate Britain


A Keith Tyson was born in Cumbria in 1969. After studying mechanical engineering craft studies he went on to study art, followed by an MA in alternative practice. He was one of four artists representing Britain at this year's Sio Paolo Biennale.


Teachers of science and art to GCSE and A-level students should consider making a joint trip to see Tyson's work in the Turner Prize exhibition so that they can explore connections between their areas of study.

Each group of students could start by exploring the work from the point of view of their own discipline. What catches the eye of the scientists? What qualities in Tyson's work do the artists admire? It would be particularly interesting for both groups to consider Tyson's studio drawings, which can be paralleled with the way art teachers encourage their students to use sketchbooks to record and explore ideas.

The scientists could debate the validity of the way Tyson allows his imagination to develop science into fantasy. As follow-up in the classroom, the scientists could make a sketch to illustrate and fantasise about a scientific idea and the artists could investigate one of the theories which interests Tyson and see whether understanding the science helps them appreciate the art.

Although this year's Turner Prize exhibition is not suitable for primary children, it is worth their teachers visiting. It will encourage them to promote links between subject areas, as many of them do when they embark on projects which involve all of the curriculum.

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