International News: Artists shed light on Scientists’ work in "the Art and Light" exhibition at the Otago Museum
By Elsie Percival
I stood cloaked in a heavy jacket at Otago Museum’s Annexe gallery and watched the thunder erupt somewhere in Africa. I felt a sudden electric vibration in my right side. Another bolt exploded in north-eastern Australia. I lifted my arm and felt a gentle buzz on my elbow. Dancing thunderstorms crackled in front of me–I hugged the jacket close to my body to bring my tiny existence closer to these celestial forces. I felt the pulse of the Earth.
This installation was called “Embodied Earth” and was made by the artist David Green in collaboration with computer scientist Steven Mills and physicists Craig Rodger and James Brundell. It was designed by Brenda Brook, Peter Brook and Ben Watkins. David Green utilized structured light– a computer based technology that can register 3D surfaces of the Earth using 2D images.
The installation was setup with a screen that showed global lightning strikes in real time. As each electric current struck the Earth, you could feel it in a jacket that was connected to this information. Vibrating mechanisms were built into the jacket to mimic the strikes, and also respond to the wearer’s own movement in synchrony. The aim of this work was to “extend our nerve endings to include the larger environment.” Green’s work poses the question, “if we experienced our planet as an extension of our body, might we treat it differently?”
Green’s work was just one of many collaborations on view at The Art and Light exhibition. The event showcased a carefully considered collection by local Dunedin artists and scientists from the Otago University, who worked in pairs to communicate and express a body of scientific work through art. The pieces ranged from paintings, prints, and ceramics, to interactive installations and sculptures–bringing rich concepts to life, and shining a new light on scientists’ work.
The theme of the exhibition coincided with UNESCO’s International Year of Light. Artists responded to research from the physics, anatomy, physiology, computer science and botany departments–all weaving incredibly diverse stories around the concept of light.
I had the chance to speak with one of the artists, Lynn Taylor, who worked with her daughter, Petra Fersterer (a particle physicist), to create an artwork that extended beyond the exhibition. She spoke of the project, “I decided to be part of this exhibition to fully understand what my daughter is working on… I don’t ever want to drift away from her, and by understanding what she is passionate about, I feel we can be closer.”
Fersterer asks big questions about small things, like how to trap ultra-cold atoms. Atoms are constantly moving, which makes them difficult to observe. To even attempt to trap atoms, they must be slowed down by cooling (close to absolute zero). The next hurdle is to pinpoint them. Due to the bizarre workings of quantum mechanics, the act of observing atoms changes their appearance or nature. Fersterer is trying to find ways to overcome this problem by using lasers to manipulate the atoms under observation.
In a journey to understanding this complex research, Taylor created a series of prints using solar etching. She saw her technique of using light to etch out an image as the perfect way to mimic the act of ‘capturing’ atoms or light. When printing her plates onto paper, she arranged images, words and symbols to weave a story of altering vision as well as atom and laser structures. Eyes, smashed mirrors, doily patterns, brains and numbers reflected her thought process. Taylor then cut out these prints into hundreds of tiny circles, mounted them into metal plates, covered them in resin, and transformed them into pendants.
The final piece resulted in an array of dangling necklaces that hung in a lattice structure. The pendants reflected light on one another and visually changed at every angle. Taylor went on to speak of the work: “If the pendants are purchased after the exhibition they potentially create an effect a little like the probability of places where an atom could be–it is in all places, it is here, it is there.”
Fersterer said of the collaborative process: “Being part of the Art and Light project made me realize the broader context of my research and gave me a chance to see diagrams, which I usually only see on a computer screen, in a different way.”
Taylor and Fersterer’s artwork exemplified the human and emotional connection that was brought to the fascinating research of the the Otago University during Art and Light. The exhibition opened to the public on the 15th of August. On the night, the space was alive with chatter, movement and color, echoing the dynamism of the artwork, as well as the excitement felt by the scientists and artists who got the chance to celebrate the beauty of science beyond the lab.