Visions of Science

“My main aim is to raise questions about how scientific developments – particularly relating to my current preoccupation with medical imaging – change the way people think about themselves, their bodies and their identity”.

Julie Light is a visual artist primarily creating sculptural objects in glass and other materials. Her current work is focused on the relationships between medical technologies and the self.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Julie Light:  I am fascinated by developments in medical science, particularly those which allow us to see within ourselves. I explore how people visualise their interiors, often at a microscopic level, and have recently been concentrating on the visualisation of cells and mutation, with an interest in how that influences a sense of embodiment and ultimately their impacts on our understanding of identities.

I work mainly in glass, although often incorporate metal and a variety of other materials.  I strongly believe that engaging with physical objects facilitates radically different ideas and conversations to solely viewing images, whether those images are analogue or digital. Visibility, invisibility, tactility and texture are central to my work.

Julie Light, Gross Domestic Product Series (Specs), 2018. (Image: J Light)

RB: Why is working with glass important to you?

JL: I first learned to cast glass a little under ten years ago, and working with glass is still central to my practice.  It’s a challenging and versatile material, producing totally different effects when worked hot (at glassblowing temperatures), warm (shaped in a kiln) or coldworked using grinding and polishing or laminating techniques. My glass pieces are generally made in a kiln and then finished cold.  Encouraging the glass to take the exact shape or produce the finish that I want is often a complex, multistage process that is a science in itself. I find the technical challenges totally absorbing and the element of chance that is intrinsic to working with glass adds an extra dimension to my work.

A crucial factor of working with glass is the way that you can play with light as part of the construction of a piece, seamlessly blending transparent, textured, translucent and opaque surfaces within a single piece.  I integrate internal lighting into many of my pieces, and consider the light to be an essential part of the construction of those pieces.

Having come to making art more generally initially through working in glass, I have found the relatively small world of glass art in the UK a fascinating study in the relationship between art and material.  Glass gallerists often seem to focus their attention on shiny, precision-engineered, reflective, transparent, decorative glass, and the UK has some amazing glass artists creating these kinds of pieces. However, increasingly there are artists working in glass to create messier, less constrained and more conceptual pieces and installations.  Some of these, like me, come from using glass as their primary material, investigating how glass can convey different ideas and meanings.  But it is also interesting to see artists with little experience in working with glass experimenting with the material and bringing different sensibilities to the medium.

Recently I have also been working with other materials – metal, fabric, found objects – in combination with glass or alone.  These have given me a freedom to express different ideas and work at a scale and speed that glass doesn’t easily allow.  My installation piece, Cellscape, for example, relies on the interplay between glass and steel and their relative qualities.

Julie Light, Breathless (Detail), 2013 (Image: J Light)

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

JL: Growing up with a medical physicist father turns out to have become a major influence on my artwork.  I was immersed at a young age in the practices of medical research; my sister and I were occasional guinea pigs for my father’s development of a non-invasive technology to measure blood flow in the body.  There was always a lot of kit for that and other research projects lying around the house and that all set me up perfectly for an art practice dealing with medical technologies.

There was a long period where I was not making artwork but instead was involved in the media industry, researching and working in media organisations.  During this time I developed an appreciation of how the media contributes to culture generally and the impact of organisational culture on individuals.  Whilst this seems somewhat tangential, in fact it has proved invaluable to making art – underpinning projects such as the Museum of Extraordinary Objects and my research into medical imaging representations.

Recently, as I have become more fully absorbed with the overlaps and synergies of art and science, I find that the work of Charlotte Jarvis, Simeon Nelson and Beatrice Haines, amongst others, have all in one way or another influenced my creative thinking about the relationships between art, science and the viewers of artwork. And on a granular level, working closely with other artists – such as ongoing partners in crime, Jill Mueller or Stephen Bennett – has brought a whole new perspective to my work.  I am enormously grateful also to scientists such as Niamh Nowlan at Imperial College, Sasi Conte at Kings College and Susan Brooks at Oxford Brookes, who as well as being prepared to share ideas and inspiration have also brought a much greater measure of knowledge and understanding to my work.

Julie Light, Broken (Detail), 2014 (Image: J Light)

RB: Themes of scientific histories and medical developments often become the subject of your work. What fascinates you about these themes and can you give some examples?

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