Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize

Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize Title2024 Finalist Artworks. South Australian Museum. 22 Apr 2024


Public awareness of the changing environment and the impact of global heating has escalated rapidly in recent years due to the frequency and intensity of climate-related weather events, the problem of pollution and the growing calls for action.


Visual artists have long used art to illustrate elements of nature, from botanical illustrations to landscape paintings. As might be expected, many artists today address the changing environment, species extinctions and the characterisation of significant natural phenomena. Increasingly, it seems that artists are concerned not only with the scientific documentation of the environment but with the articulation of its vulnerability and preciousness.


Established in 2003 by the South Australian Museum, the biennial Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize encourages artists to create artwork from a natural science perspective and to contribute to the environmental debate. This year’s Waterhouse Prize exhibition showcases a diverse and illuminating collection of artworks that range in perspective from the microscopic to the geological and from the representational to the metaphorical.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 1

Jessica Murtagh, Six is the loneliest number, Emerging Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


Jessica Murtagh’s Mongarlowe Mallee comprises six exquisitely crafted glass vessels illustrated with images of the leaves of the six remaining specimens of the Mongarlowe Mallee tree which are estimated to be between 3,000 and 13,000 years old and which are nicknamed ‘ice-age trees’. It may be that such artworks will be the only reminders of extinct life forms when they are gone.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 2

Joseph McGlennon, Leap Number 5, Open Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


Joseph McGlennon’s startling image of a leaping kangaroo, entitled Leap No 5, which shows a sailing ship in the background to represent colonial settlement, draws attention to the impact of colonisation on native fauna. The kangaroo is an Australian emblem, shown on the coat of arms, and is hunted for food, and its habitat has been significantly eroded. McGlennon’s work is both a superb illustration and a reminder of the need to balance conservation with exploitation.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 3

Laura Wills, Encounter, Open Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


Laura Wills’s Encounter is an illustration of a sea lion superimposed on a Department of Lands map of Encounter Bay, highlighting the tension between the local environment, the traditional Kaurna custodians, and the ‘legal’ recognition of the colonial appropriation of the district.


There are two absorbing videos that represent life from very different viewpoints. Sophia Dacy-Cole’s Soil Breathes is a three-minute video of a soil sample under a microscope. She says:


‘The title, Soil Breathes, refers to the natural science practice of measuring soil's vitality through respiration tests. Soil literally breathes. These images were taken from tablespoons of topsoil, dug out of humus and filmed under the microscope while still wet. These sounds were taken from that same layer, the sensitive microphone buried between layers of damp sedimentation.’


The video provides the viewer with an unparalleled appreciation of the life of the ground on which we walk, something that we should not take for granted.


By contrast, Kailum Graves’s epic five-hour video entitled Cosmos, or A Chronicle of Life’s Incredible Order, Complexity, and Remarkable Struggle Against Entropy and Resistance of Decay comprises a mesmerisingly rapid sequence of still images that depict, in the artist’s words, ‘the interconnectedness and interdependence of life… the project documents diverse ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives, narrating the story of life's intricate order amidst the entropy of the universe.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 4

Emma Jackson, King Prawn, Emerging Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


A broad geological perspective emerges from Emma Jackson’s King Prawn, a rug of wool and silk that represents the Gawler Craton in South Australia’s Gawler Ranges, the various colours representing particular rock formations. At first glance, King Prawn is an abstract artwork that would nicely decorate any home, but its depiction of a unique three-billion-year-old geological formation makes us aware of the age of the Earth and the brevity and fragility of human existence.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 5

Nyunmiti Burton, Seven Sisters Story, Open Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


Nyunmiti Burton’s Seven Sisters Story, which depicts her Tjukurpa (creation story) about the constellations of Pleiades and Orion, takes us a further step back from earthly concerns so as to see the planet in the context of the wider universe. Most importantly, Seven Sisters Story offers an alternative appreciation of the origin of human existence and the nature of the universe, and it asserts the cultural significance of such understanding.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 6

Harry Sherwin, Altered Hawkesbury Landscape, Open Prize finalist, photo Angus Northeast


Harry Sherwin exhibited two fine paintings showing rural areas in flood. Floods are very much in the public mind, but the artist states:


‘I wished to avoid making 'disaster art'. Rather, the lyrical treatment of these vast watery landscapes fits within my own painterly practice and the wider tradition of Australian landscape painting.’


While Sherwin’s declared emphasis is on artistic representation, the viewer cannot remain emotionally or intellectually detached, and Sherwin’s work subtly but firmly prompts consideration of the increasing frequency and intensity of flooding and its impact on affected communities.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 7

Jenna Lee, Grass Trees – Growing Together, 2024 Open Prize winner, photo Angus Northeast


The Waterhouse Open Category prize of $30,000 was awarded to Gulumerridjin (Larrakia), Wardaman and KarraJarri Saltwater artist Jenna Lee for her extraordinary work Grass Tree – Growing Together which is strikingly different from the other works in the exhibition and brings together two important stories. These representations of grass trees are composed from the shredded pages of a decades-old Aboriginal language dictionary (Aboriginal Words and Place Names) that contained errors. The artist states:


‘By transforming a flawed Aboriginal word dictionary into a pair of Grass Trees, I draw parallels between First Peoples linguistic resilience, and this plant’s ability to rise from ashes. This work celebrates the enduring spirit of both traditional language and flora in the face of their ecologies near destruction.’


The interrelatedness of the impact of colonisation and environmental mismanagement is made clear in Jenna Lee’s work.


Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 8

Andrew Gall, Coming Together, 2024 Emerging Prize winner, photo Angus Northeast


The $10,000 Emerging Prize was awarded to Pakana artist Andrew Gall for his 3D-printed shell necklace Coming Together. He describes it as:


‘The first kanalaritja strung using 3D printed porcelain shells. Ocean acidity levels are rising; our shells for kanalaritja are fragile and diminishing. How can we protect our sacred Pakana tradition, practiced since time immemorial? This necklace is my response to this threat of cultural extinction.’


The artists shortlisted for this year’s Waterhouse Prize take varying approaches to the balance between dispassionate scientific or technical illustration or representation on one hand and environmental or cultural statement on the other. The use of 3-D printing, as exemplified by Gall’s thoughtful and evocative work, speaks of how the latest technology might be used to represent traditional cultural forms and the species on which they are based.


The artworks in this outstanding Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize exhibition are thoughtfully conceived and finely executed, and the exhibition is a must-see, not only for the scientifically and artistically minded but also for the general public.


Chris ReidWaterhouse Natural Science Art Prize Title


When: 12 Apr to 10 Jun

Where: South Australian Museum

Bookings: events.humanitix.com

Exhibition page: samuseum.sa.gov.au