Wonderland creations

Art and science have come together for an exhibition looking at environmental issues such as pollution and waste. Ian Soutar reports

THE worlds of art and science have combined to create a pioneering exhibition at different locations in Sheffield to shed light on some of today's most pressing environmental issues.

Wonderland, the brainchild of chemistry professor Tony Ryan and artist and fashion designer Helen Shorey, is currently intriguing passers-by at Meadowhall shopping centre and in the Botanical Gardens.

The collaborators have used their different backgrounds to spark new ideas to suggest practical solutions to current ethical issues such as pollution and waste in materials and energy. The project has developed a number of products with potential.

On show at Meadowhall are Disappearing Dresses, made from dissolving textiles, which question the environmental sustainability of the fashion industry and what happens to used clothing.

The dresses will be lowered into giant goldfish bowls full of water until they completely disappear to coincide with the end of the exhibition on July 13.

Trisha Belford from the University of Ulster designed the textiles. "We started with materials which would gradually dissolve at the right rate, which is less than a millimetre an hour," says Prof Ryan. "Then it was a case of working out the exact rate that they should be lowered and designing a machine to do it.

"We used some old bike wheels and frames. We lashed things together from what was lying around but the arts people said aesthetically it was perfect and told us not to change it so we ended up having to make a full set of them."

Fashion was an obvious choice but not just because Helen Storey was involved. "Fashion is almost a metaphor for waste. It's the ultimate disposable industry but it's also perfect for getting across a message because everything about it says glamour and global."

But their next project, the fruits of which can be viewed in the Botanical Gardens, were Dissolving Bottles.

"Helen and I were sitting in a caf in Banbury having visited Wrap (the Waste Reduction Action Project) and were thinking of a project to make people think of waste reduction when I said 'We could make a bottle turn into a bunch of flowers'."

If this sounds like a conjuring trick, Prof Ryan cites Niven's Law that "any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology".

His idea was to design plastic bottles which, once they were empty, would form a gel in which seeds could be grown.

"The first thing was to find a gel that would germinate and then reverse and turn the polymer into a bottle," he says.

"All the science on this has been done in Sheffield. My Phds and post-docs are used to leaving the office thinking 'What's he going to come up with this time'? and nine times out of ten it doesn't work and we end up in lots of blind alleys. But then there are the times when it does work."

Tony Ryan is a down-to-earth talker which belies his status as ICI Professor of Physical Chemistry and director of the Polymer Centre at the University of Sheffield.

It was hearing him talking on a Radio 4 programme, Material World, that pricked up Helen Storey's ears. "By then I had left the fashion world for over a decade and was working in developing collaborations between art and science," she explains. "I wanted to get people to work together because no one person has the answer, neither politicians, artists nor scientists."

The division between art and science is a comparatively modern phenomenon, she says, pointing to Leonardo da Vinci as the example of unity. "It's only because of the schooling system which makes children choose one or the other."

She and her sister Kate, the daughters of novelist David Storey, made opposing choices, one becoming a biologist and the other going to art college from which Helen emerged to work for leading fashion house Valentino before going on to launch her own label, which was worn by the likes of Madonna and Cher in the Eighties.

She eventually turned her back on fashion. "It was because of a combination of things," she says. "I had learned as much as I could from the fashion industry and I had always had this frustration that I didn't have any lasting expectation of what my contribution was going to be.

"Ethically I was beginning to find it difficult that, because of the nature of it, after six months your design would be deemed rubbish."

It was in fact her sister who set her on her present path by sending her a leaflet about a Wellcome Trust science-and-art initiative.

In 1999 with business partner Caroline Coates she set up the Helen Storey Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation promoting creativity and innovation in art and science. Her achievements were recognised by the University of Sheffield, which made her a Visiting Professor of Material Chemistry.

"The collaboration will continue," says Prof Ryan. "We scientists want to push ahead and save the world but it needs artists and designers to show us what are acceptable solutions."