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The exhibition Quantum Colour: Capturing the Movement of Light displays the evolution of Karen Cunningham’s research in incorporating nanoparticles into her studio-based glass practice.
Undertaken in collaboration with the Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics (CNBP) and University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS), Cunningham’s experimentation explores the fusion of cutting-edge research in the scientific fields of photonics and nanotechnology with creative design in glass.
Cunningham and her scientific collaborators were inspired by the discovery of the curious properties of the famed Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman decorative vessel held by the British Museum in London. The surface of the glass cup remarkably changes from a deep transparent red to opaque green, the cause of which remained a mystery until the late twentieth century. In 1990, British researchers discovered that the colour change was caused by naturally occurring particles of gold, silver and other metals deeply embedded in the glass. These tiny particles, now known as nanoparticles, were shown to scatter and transmit light in different ways depending on the direction, angle and wavelength of light passing through them.
In recent years researchers have been searching for new ways to exploit nanoparticles, and the way they interact with and alter light, in order to bring innovation to the fields of medicine, optics and electronics. As a glass artist with a background in science, Cunningham has fostered a deep interest in light throughout her practice, noting that “the majority of my work has focused on the physical and chemical properties of materials and their potential interactions with light.”
In her experiments, Cunningham has incorporated synthetic diamond particles into JamFactory studio glass to explore how light may be subverted or augmented in hand-made glass art. The synthetic, ‘activated’ diamond particles were provided by CNBP and in exchange studio glass samples were provided to researchers in order to share knowledge about an array of different glass compositions and properties. Cunningham’s experiments have seen the successful incorporation of diamond particles of different sizes into her studio glass, each with unique illumination characteristics.
The collaboration and the work in her exhibition demonstrates Cunningham’s long held interest in the way that science informs art and art informs science, the experiments allowing the artist to contribute to innovations both within and beyond those of the visual arts.
“I am excited by this unique opportunity to research the integration of this cutting-edge technology in to my art and design repertoire,” Cunningham says. “It is fitting that experimenting with refraction and the internal reflection of light within clear solid glass formed the basis of my earliest lighting pieces. I am hopeful that it will lead to new knowledge in the scientific sphere as well as the creation of new things in art and design.”