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Iridescence Exhibition

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by Moira Simpson (subscribe)
Artist, art educator, author and freelance museum and art gallery consultant. Teaches fibre arts and encaustics at her studio in the Adelaide Hills and organises visual art workshops taught by Australian and overseas artists. See
Published March 5th 2015
Don't miss it - last few days
Iridescence the shimmering effect of rainbow colours - is the subject of a fascinating and very beautiful exhibition at the South Australian Museum (SAM). It's a wonderful blend of natural science, ethnography and art from around the world. Whatever you do, don't miss seeing it but be quick - it closes on 15 March.

Iridescence exhibition, South Australian Museum (SAM)

Iridescence is seen in nature in bird feathers, beetles, butterfly wings, pearls, fish scales, peacock ore and more.

Golden-headed Quetzal, collecion of SAM.

Chalcopyrite - peacock ore
Chalcopyrite (peacock ore). Collection of SAM

Iridescent colours are not pigments but are produced through interference or diffraction of light. As Peter Sutton, one of the curators of the exhibition emphases, iridescence is the result of a relationship between an object, a viewer and a light source producing a shimmering myriad of colours as the relationship changes.

Throughout the ages and in many cultures, people have been fascinated by the beauty of iridescence and exploited the qualities of iridescent natural materials to ornament objects, to adorn their bodies, embellish clothing, bags, costumes, and headdresses, and generate power.

Feather plume for headdress, Papua New Guinea. Collection of SAM.

Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces
Maireneer shell necklaces made by Tasmania Aboriginal women. Collection of SAM

For many centuries, Tasmanian Aboriginal women have gathered tiny maireneer shells to make beautiful shell necklaces. A few continue to make shell necklaces today, most notably Lola Greeno, who has been recognised as a Living Treasure, Master of Australian Craft.

The exhibition includes a number of items made from or embellished with pearl shell including Chinese wood panels, Maori carvings and carved pearl shells from the Pacific.

Detail of a Chinese lacquered wood panel with mother-of-pearl inlay. Collection of Peter Sutton.

The subtle colour variations of iridescent materials are a challenge for artists to capture in other media, but Australian artist, Grace Paleg, skillfully uses pastels to capture the subtle iridescence of mother-of-pearl shells and lustreware china. She has also begun to use gold, silver and iridescent foils to add another layer of colour and shimmer to her pastel paintings

As well as using naturally iridescent materials, artists can also use chemistry to create iridescent effects on glass, ceramics and metal. In the late 19th century, Louis Comfort Tiffany developed favrile art glass by applying metallic oxides to molten glass which he used to make exquisite lamps, vases and mosaics.

Detail of iridescent glass bowl by John Ditchfield, 5197
Detail of iridescent glass bowl by John Ditchfield, 1983

Pottery decorated with iridescent glazes, known as lustres has been produced in the Middle East and Egypt for centuries, before spreading to Spain and Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries where it was used to decorate maiolica. In England, in the 19th century Josiah Wedgwood created pink and white lustreware dishes which gave the appearance of mother-of-pearl.

More dramatic iridescent colours can be achieved on pottery by using raku methods, involving reduction and oxidation firing. Opportunities to learn raku pottery techniques are offered at various times by the Adelaide Potters Club and Studio Potters SA. You can watch a demonstration of raku firing at the Studio Potters Open Day on Sunday 26th April, 11am-4pm

Detail of raku pottery colours, 5521
Iridescence on raku pottery

The Iridescence exhibition includes contemporary examples of iridescent objects and artworks, including iridescent papers, boots, and jewellery.

Irridescent boots, 5506
Iridescent Doc Marten boots.

Peacock brooches, Meghan O'Rourke, 2010

Anodised titanium brooches by Adelaide jeweller, Meghan O'Rourke, show how the technique of anodizing turns dull metal into rainbow colours by passing an electric current through an acid bath so that anodising dyes adhere to the surface of the metal; different levels of current produce different colours. If you would like to add iridescence to your jewellery box, Meghan's website has a large gallery of necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and rings in myriad colours, inspired by sea creatures and by patterns of India. Meghan also teaches occasional jewellery-making classes as well as the techniques of colouring anodised metals if you'd like to make your own.

'Iridescence' is open every day from 10-5pm and continues until 15th March. Introductory tours are offered on Saturdays 2.30-3.30pm. See for more information. And while you're at the museum, pop into the Museum Shop and treat yourself to one of the special iridescent treasures that they have on sale.

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Why? A stunning exhibition of shimmering colours in nature
When: 10-5pm daily
Phone: 08 8207 7500
Where: South Australian Museum
Cost: Adult $13. Concession $10. Child $7. Family $30 (2 adults 2 children).
Your Comment
This looks like a great museum. Iridescent colours are so beautiful. Although it is debatable when on a pair of Doc Martens.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|12626) 2237 days ago
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