Handmade Universe at State Library Victoria highlights how the contributions of women to science and art have often been overlooked or forgotten. By Saskia Beudel.

Handmade Universe

Atlas Coelestis by John Flamsteed, part of Handmade Universe.
Atlas Coelestis by John Flamsteed, part of Handmade Universe.
Credit: Sam D’Agostino

It’s easy to forget science’s historical roots in amateurism, in small acts of personal observation and discovery. The word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1834, when professional scientific disciplines began to emerge from more diffuse categories such as “natural history”. Add to this the question of gender. The Royal Society of London, which boasts fellows from Newton to Darwin and Einstein to Hawking, elected its first women in 1945 – almost three centuries after the society was founded in 1660. The French Académie des Sciences took even longer, with women excluded as full members until 1979. At the Australian Academy of Science, women are 18 per cent of the fellowship.

State Library Victoria’s new exhibition, Handmade Universe, is full of evocative reminders that women, through necessity, have often practised science not only in obscurity but in a productive netherworld of domesticity, amateurism, “self-led discovery” and invention. More unusually, the exhibition adds aesthetics to the question of scientific or technological breakthrough, blurring lines between artistic and scientific disciplines. One of its centrepieces, Stargazing (2018) – a knitted map by Melbourne software engineer and artist Sarah Spencer – is a case in point.

The map was derived through hacking a 1980s knitting machine, with Spencer thinking up algorithms in the small hours while she nursed her first baby. “I was physically exhausted, and my arms were full,” she says. But her mind was active, puzzling over how to modify the machine’s code to make a multicoloured baby blanket. Spencer, an unabashed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) enthusiast and promoter of the “beauty of science”, later conceived of a large work fabricated by the adapted machine to celebrate astronomy and the night sky.

Displayed on a tilted dais at one end of the Victoria Gallery, Stargazing is ambitious in scale – three by five metres. The room with its lofty, ornate ceiling is held in subdued light, reminiscent of twilight. Pinpricks of coloured LEDs – magenta, blue, green, red – shift across the map’s ultramarine surface, picking out star formations.

According to co-curator Linda Short, Spencer’s donation of Stargazing to the library spawned Handmade Universe. It triggered an open-ended curatorial process of gathering other objects and newly commissioned artworks into constellation with it. Among them are fragments of lace wrought by Margaret Ann Field in the 1920s to resemble stars of the southern skies; a small watercolour by Ludwig Becker, an artist on the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860, depicting a meteor flaring in a muted, night landscape; intricately embroidered 19th-century vests whose geometric “fancy work” is likened to “the original pixel”; a mediaeval manuscript whose finely lettered vellum pages posit a geocentric universe, with planets and stars orbiting Earth.

These and other intimate objects – many of which have never been exhibited before – sit in specially designed display cases arranged at intervals around the twilit room. They form a counterpoint to the larger-scaled contemporary artworks.

Wurundjeri-wilam woman Mandy Nicholson’s Dharangalk Biik | Star Country (2022) is “married up”, as Nicholson puts it, with Spencer’s map. A digital print on porous PVC mesh, it lines the walls of the room, an ephemeral mural. It too depicts the night sky, but from a Wurundjeri rather than Western perspective.

Dharangalk Biik is charged with countering traumatic historical memory residing within the colonial architecture: it “brings light” to the library. With its subdued dusk-like colours and overlaid linework, the mural “gives a big hug” to the room. It represents layering in Wurundjeri Country: Below Country, On Country, Water Country, Wind Country, Sky Country and Star Country.

Other pairings proliferate across the exhibition. Field’s lacework is coupled with her instructional booklet for beginner astronomers, The Stars for 3D (1910). Displayed nearby is Mary Acworth Orr’s An Easy Guide to Southern Stars (1896). A video of artist Kate Just – knitting one of her many panels that declare “Anonymous was a woman” – sits behind a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929).

In part, the exhibition takes a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities approach, bringing eclectic items into orbit with one another, creating connections and associations rather than a chronological historical narrative. Visual motifs also thread through the works. Deep, rich blue runs between book covers, Stargazing, Becker’s watercolour and an installation of alluring cyanotypes, A is for Alam (pen): The object, the language, the archive (2022), by Deanna Hitti.

One of the most poignant aspects of Handmade Universe is how it foregrounds seemingly humble objects and casts them in new light, retrieving not only forgotten handiwork but also achievements from the past. Edith Coleman, a self-taught naturalist, is a fascinating example. Coleman learnt through years of patient observation in her backyard that three Cryptostylis orchid species are pollinated through “pseudocopulation”. The flowers entice the male ichneumon wasp, Lissopimpla semipunctata, through mimicry of the female wasp’s form, scent and colour. This illusion replaces the more usual temptation of nectar, an unusual phenomenon that had long puzzled scientists around the world, including Charles Darwin.

A dark alcove displays an aged tobacco tin discovered in the library collection by artist Donna Kendrigan. The tin once stored 1920s photographs of orchids and wasps commissioned by Coleman. Kendrigan’s own work, Season of the Orchid (2022), responds to these images. Her animation turns orchids into hybrid, semi-sentient beings, their strange balletic movements choreographed against a black background. Here the curatorial strategy is not so much pairing as aggregating: a book on acacias by Coleman, a page of Darwin’s analysis of orchids, a 19th-century stereoscope and seductive, finely detailed stereographic images of Coleman’s specimens.

Equally powerful is a 1960s photograph from NASA archives showing seamstress Hazel Fellows adapting her knowledge of fabricating high-tech women’s underwear such as Playtex bras and girdles to the puzzle of constructing fail-safe spacesuits for astronauts. While NASA and Playtex engineers were the official collaborators on developing an Apollo moon suit, the technical expertise contributed by seamstresses wasn’t acknowledged until later.

Observing Fellows at her workbench, I was reminded that it’s not romantic to persist with creative, technological or intellectual endeavours in the face of inadequate recognition and remuneration. It is hard, demeaning and demoralising. It requires tenacity and courage. Perhaps, too, as artist Louise Bourgeois claimed, it requires rage.

Handmade Universe is not a celebration of rage. What the exhibition celebrates are the quiet, reflective, hard-won moments of discovery, which for those who practise in obscurity are – perhaps – reward and pleasure enough. 

Handmade Universe: From craft to code and the spaces between is showing at State Library Victoria until February 2023.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Quiet revelations".

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