Art and engineering fused in startling new work

Monash University’s Faculty of Engineering is embracing creativity with the installation of an inspiring large-scale artwork.

Head of Materials Science and Engineering, Professor Nick Birbilis, commissioned the piece and hopes  that  it will ignite excitement and the pursuit of beauty and excellence in his students.

“This significant new work is an amazing addition to the interior landscape of our faculty. For me, it really highlights the connections between art and engineering – they both rely on creativity and problem solving.

“A future engineer is no longer someone that walks around with a calculator. A future engineer is someone that designs, someone that does things for the greater good,” he said.

Incorporating art and design into engineering aligns with the STEAM philosophy, which advocates for the importance of the arts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The multi-panelled work was created onsite by in-demand Australian artist James Drinkwater, who assembled it almost entirely from materials found at the university. With pieces of rusted steel, mirrors, wood panelling and old school desks that have been cut up and scorched, both the form and the fabric  of  the work reflect its location.

“It’s a cluster of imagery and a cacophony of noise and light and colour and form,” the artist said.

Drinkwater’s inspiration for the piece came from spending time with the engineering students and discussing their work.

“I met up with those wonderful bright young minds and when I got to the metal shed, I was just thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve arrived’. Just that space and the grubbiness but it’s orderliness, and the sparks and the colour and the metal, it just flicked a switch for me,”  he  said.

The work is titled Walking with Giants, which Drinkwater said could refer to the great engineers of the modern era, or the lecturers at the university.

“The work, the narrative, is all about passing the knowledge on and where that transfer happens. That bit of magic that is hard to document or put your finger on, but it does happen. That moment where it just clicks and fuses and the giant passes the torch,” he said.

Drinkwater agrees with Professor Birbilis’ ideas about the creative nature of engineering.

“My brother’s a civil engineer and he’s incredibly creative. I think as engineers and artists we kind of get the same brief – here’s a problem, solve it. And within that solving there has to be method and an immense amount of creativity and outside-the-box thinking,”  he  said.

The work has been installed high on a brick wall inside an otherwise utilitarian engineering building, overlooking a busy corridor where students and academics walk between laboratories.

“I can’t predict how it’s going to live on,” Drinkwater said, when asked how he thought the students might receive his work.

“New materials and people and technology will come in to the space… hopefully it will live on and stimulate conversation and interest for many years to come.”