Sculpting Space with Lisa Pettibone
By Carrie Klein, contributor
Carrie Klein: How did you first begin to combine scientific concepts with art?
Lisa Pettibone: My interest in working this way has been growing for years but I began to formally combine art and science during my MA at Central Saint Martins London in 2016. With a strong interest is physics and astronomy, I investigated the properties of gravity in both physics and neuroscience and developed a visual response through sculpture, installation, photography, and print. There is a collaboration with natural forces that occurs while making work, especially when using glass, by intervening in the stretch and fall of the material while in the kiln. However, one of the first things I did was an experimental paper sculpture called Temporal View 2 that used a photo I took in Iceland. Screen printed, cut and manipulated, it conveys the connection between gravity and time. A lava rock hangs from the end causing the form to expand - it won the U.K. National Open Art Prize installation category in 2017.
Also during my Masters, I visited CERN with colleagues, hosted by the CMS experiment, and later returned with a smaller group to do more research. In 2017, I led the group in mounting an exhibition in London responding to the visits. I produced screen prints related to the ethos of the place and a series of photos taken on site incorporating a large silicon wafer.
CK: What is your process like for learning about the scientific topics that inform your work?
LP: I like working directly with scientists as much as possible. Talking with them, and watching their work and processes in the lab, all help my understanding and add enormously to personal research online or in libraries. Although I read some scientific papers and abstracts, books intended for a general audience are often easier to digest. While I was artist in residence at Mullard Space Science Lab (MSSL), I spoke weekly with astrophysicist Tom Kitching and his colleagues about the instrument they were building for the Euclid Mission. I learned more and more about dark matter, gravitational lensing, and their aims for the mission. By interviewing about 13 members of the Euclid team, I built up an understanding of the many roles and elements of the project. The European Space Agency website has ample information on each of their missions. It was there that I found the Flagship Mock Galaxy Universe data - a huge file showing a synthetic universe complied by a supercomputer in Zurich. Curious about what it represented, I asked questions about the textural dot pattern (each dot is a galaxy) and learned it showed the evolution of structure in the universe since the Big Bang. This mysterious, organic pattern later appeared in two artworks created during the residency (Found Missing and Cosmic Landscape).
CK: Your art draws on philosophy as well as science. For your work Language of Light 1, you quote Philosopher Merleau-Ponty, who says, “science manipulates things and gives up living in them” but the artist “lends his body to the world.” In what ways has this been true for you? How do you view your role as an artist?
LP: I turned to philosophy as the abstract concepts around dark matter seemed to touch on questions about perception and the paradigms of science. Investigating the construction of perception itself became central to the work at hand. Merleau-Ponty, whose essay Eye in Mind I studied, emphasized "the body as the primary site of knowing the world" which couldn’t be separated from consciousness. We see before we analyze, we feel before we know. He was concerned about the detachment of science, a kind of hovering above the world that sets sensory experiences aside. Artists are capable of reconnecting scientists to the full range of sensory experiences that they use in their creative processes. About halfway through the residency at MSSL, I became acutely aware that this is what I was doing: by running workshops at the lab and sharing my impressions, they had space to approach their work another angle. For instance, I asked another artist to help me build a camera obscura in a meeting room as part of a pinhole camera workshop. While standing in the dark with a few scientists, waiting for our eyes to adjust, a heightened awareness of ‘seeing’ emerged. The light from a tiny hole in the blacked-out window, although flipped, had a filmic quality and seemed uncommonly intense. The scientist next to me was working on the CCD detectors in the Euclid Visible Light Spectrum instrument, the most powerful camera to be launched in space, but he delighted in the experience. Later he started making his own pinhole cameras - perhaps my role as an artist was to bridge experience and understanding.
CK: What draws you to glass as a medium?
LP: Glass is an extremely alluring medium and very versatile. I’ve been enamored by its optical qualities and plasticity for over 25 years. It can be cast and polished, blown or fused and bent but it takes years to acquire equipment and build up technical knowledge. My speciality is slumping, in which I manage its formation through sagging using handmade props in the kiln. For some of the residency work, I played with projecting light through folded glass to explore ideas about dark matter (Truth in Illusion installation). Glass has similar properties on one level: it has dense mass but it’s clear and we only see it because the way it interacts with light. Dark matter doesn’t reflect light but its gravity bends the light of galaxies as it travels to the earth creating illusive shapes called gravitational lensing. I used glass to capture distorted shadows, indicating evolving form through rear projection material. The effects were subtle and mesmerizing. I uncovered a novel use for my glass processes.
There are other reasons for my attraction to glass: it’s challenging and risky. On the one hand its flow appears to be gracefully easy and on the other it is technically restricting. One must keep detailed records of tests, problem solve, and continually experiment with its limits - not unlike the careful work of scientists.
CK: You have led various workshops that combine science and art. Can you describe the benefits, from the teacher’s perspective, which can come from intertwining these two subjects for workshop participants?
LP: There are two types of groups I teach, scientists and the public, and both have unique benefits. General audiences may be learning about a physics concept for the first time and the materials I choose are part of working through the understanding while making something aesthetically pleasing. The satisfaction is that a student will suddenly consider something new about the world they live in and openly enjoy being absorbed by the making process. In this case the ‘science bit’ piggy backs on creativity. When delivering workshops to scientists, I try to include elements that relate to their work in some way so they come armed with readymade visual ideas. For example, at MSSL I asked people to send me pieces of project data so I could prepare film acetates for creating cyanotype prints. We combined the data with images from nature and natural objects - the contrasts were fascinating. Striking blue images of cosmic jellyfish and astral light level numbers overlaid leaves and clouds. It was thrilling to see them play with the seriousness of their work and borrow each other’s images. In fact, perhaps the most unexpected benefit was that people from different parts of the lab got to know each other better and chatted about their work. It also gave me a chance to ask questions about their projects in a relaxed environment. I remember learning about solar physics during one of these sessions.
CK: Do you see science/technology and art as separate fields or interconnected? Where does one end and the other begin?
LP: It’s all part of the arc of human inquiry. Two sides of the same coin, this interconnected approach reveals aspects of reality through a combination of empirical fact and the elasticity of feeling. Both science and art reach into the the way we interact with our environment and give us the knowledge or expression we need to make our lives meaningful. I was reminded recently that the word technology comes from the Greek ‘techne’ meaning craftsmanship or art. It implies making and intention as opposed to disinterested understanding. I don’t agree with Aristotle’s interpretation that art making is best applied practically (such as grinding a lens). Artistic modes of thinking, realized through working with the hands (painting, sculpture, music etc), bring us a fuller understanding of our existence and they can include scientific concepts as part of an array of stimulus. I’ve come to believe that interdisciplinary practices of all kinds will provide us with solutions to our most urgent problems. Mankind can’t afford to silo expertise anymore.
CK: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
LP: At the moment I’m exploring a new approach to glass sculpture - exploiting tension, stretch and the construction of space. Holes play a part in opening the form, allowing the eye into and around the space formed through bending and folding. By adding tightly wound contrasting thread, lines emphasize tension points and act as a foil to curvaceous bends. I’m preparing a series of these for an exhibition in September at Porthminster Gallery in St. Ives, Cornwall.
I’ve continued to talk with neuroscientist Dr. Elisa Ferre at Royal Holloway London University, who is also interested in gravity. She studies the vestibular system with a particular focus on our aesthetic preference to the vertical. Some of her research is in my dissertation The Aesthetics of Gravity: How our relationship with gravity is revealed in art. We are planning an exhibition and symposium at the university around aspects of this elusive force that we hope will cut across several departments such as geology, physiology, and physics. I’m keen to get involved in more curation projects and see this as an opportunity to bring together a range of artists responding to the ubiquity of gravity. I imagine I’ll produce an experiential installation for this event. We also talked about including a dance commission – all very exciting possibilities.