A major exhibition in The Turner Contemporary Gallery, in which selected works by JMW Turner (about whose theories of colour I wrote, here) are set alongside work by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, runs until May 6th 2019. There is an excellent five-minute video introduction to the exhibition here. I should be honest from the start: it was a bit of a geek-fest for me. I liked some of the individual works simply as pieces of art, don’t misinterpret me, but fathoming out the many links to astronomy, planetary science and so on rapidly took on the nature of a mild obsession. However, I had an unusually specific reason for wanting to spend a few hours taking in this particular exhibition …
Way back in January 2013 a colleague and I were chatting with the head of Turner Contemporary’s Learning team when the conversation veered off at the sort of angle that sometimes leads to serendipity. We were engaged in an experiment to bring together scientists and artist to discuss an up-coming retrospective exhibition of sculptures by Carl André (here). Although there was a slew of interesting outcomes – including invitations to take part in future interdisciplinary projects with Turner Contemporary – one tangible output from this engaging exercise was the brief animation available here. This ‘side road’ within our conversation concerned a proposal to send a ‘meteorite’ into space. The artist, we were told, was seeking funding and facilities from the European Space Agency in order to send a chunk of re-caste meteoritic material back into space “in a celebration of science, art and human technology”. The artist in question was of course Katie Paterson – and her proposal to ESA resulted in a fist-sized chunk of meteorite being ferried to the International Space Station in May 2014. The ESA web site has a write-up here. I would have loved to have been involved in some way, but a chemical physicist/materials scientist like me could never have provided the sort of expertise she needed. Having now seen the exhibition of her work, including the piece associated with her ‘meteorite’ proposal, I am doubly disappointed because I suspect I’d have learned a lot from collaboration with her. (I was, it must be said, up to my neck in my ‘day job’ as an academic at the time so, in truth, it would have been a difficult project to fit in.) Thus, a fascinating conversation and follow-up email evaporated away … until the doors opened to this exhibition.
The obvious exhibit to focus on in this context is ‘Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky’ since that derives from her work with metallic meteoritic material. My photo of the piece (taken with permission, please note) is shown below. This piece derives, apparently, the largest of a set of five iron-based meteorites; it was the smallest meteorite that was used for the trip back into space aboard an unmanned supply shuttle to the International Space Station. The original meteorites were approximately 4.5 billion years old – as one might expect given that this is the age of the solar system and thus the bodies within it. In passing, the recent missions to comets and asteroids relate to bodies which are of comparable age; unlike the other rocky planetary bodies we’ve explored ‘up close’ – Earth, Moon, Mars, Venus – these smaller wanderers remain largely unchanged since the solar system was formed. Hence the scientific value of missions such as NASA's Stardust (here) and Japan’s Hayabusa (here) which were designed to collect pristine material and return it to Earth, and the expectations associated with the next generation of missions already underway. Katie Paterson’s idea, which is what I heard about way back in 2013, was to take a cast of these iron-based meteorites and then re-melt them into their casts. We therefore have a remnant from the early period of the solar system’s existence which has travelled to Earth and thereafter been transformed by the artist’s conscious intention into a version of itself before being sent back into space, albeit in near-Earth orbit.
|Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky by Katie Paterson (2012-14).|
Iron-based meteorites do in fact contain other metals, such as nickel (both metals are amongst my favoured elements – see here) and may well have minerals within them as well. They are mostly the remnants of ancient asteroids, the more volatile parts having melted away to leave only the densest material as a residual core. For an overview of these and other types of meteorites I recommend the Natural History Museum’s website, here. Melting an iron-based material requires a furnace capable to reaching temperatures in excess of 1538ºC; I’ve done it, using a home-made furnace during my PhD in the mid-70s; it’s not easy.
Three other pieces amongst a host of thought-provoking items in the exhibition particularly excited my inner scientist: two by Katie Paterson herself and a cabinet of work by Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel. The two contemporary pieces used sound and light to encourage a novel look at our relationship to the Sun and to the Moon. ‘Totality’ fills an otherwise gently-lit room with bright reflections from a rather special rotating mirror ball, illuminated by a couple of spotlights. Walking slowly through the moving 3-D pattern of reflections was quite disorienting – a fact which serves merely to pique my interest. Key to the piece is that the ‘mirrors’ on the ball are derived from images of solar eclipses, originally recorded over a span of time from the present day back through early nineteenth century photography to drawings made centuries ago. Using headphones, supplied by the ever-friendly gallery staff, one may augment the experience by listening to one of two audio pieces created by the artist to complement the piece. Then there’s the automated Steinway grand piano which sits – or perhaps that should be plays – at the heart of ‘Earth-Moon-Earth’, which is installed in the same room as the Totality mirror ball. The concept of piece is ostensibly fairly straightforward: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was turned into Morse code (- a process I would have liked to have had more information on) which was transmitted to the Moon. The reflected signal was turned back into a musical score and output via the piano. The surface of the Moon is such that the signal is altered on its return. Whole notes are missing, sometimes several in a row, and this creates an intriguing pseudo-new sonata in which the pause becomes integral to the whole. As a probe of the Moon’s cratered and mountainous surface, this artwork provides one of the most novel methods I’ve come across.
Finally, I couldn’t help but mention a cabinet containing a few opened books containing the original notes of observations made by the astronomer Caroline Herschel. These include the page shown below on which she records discovering her first comet (1st August 1786), and a corresponding letter to the secretary of The Royal Society containing the news. Alongside these sat examples of the enormous number of numerical calculations she undertook – published, it is sad to note, in her brother’s name because of The Royal Society’s rules as they were at the time. She was a contemporary of the talented mathematician Mary Somerville, some of whose work is also shown.
Who says art and science can’t communicate! Personally, much of the creative writing I’ve delved into since ‘retiring’ remains informed by my experiences as a scientist: like so many others, I write out of who I am, often to make sense of my own thoughts. Coincidentally, a longer piece I started a couple of months ago, currently set aside for a season, includes an astronomer looking back to the Earth from the Moon. She stands bathed in Earthshine.
(If you’re interested, there are several posts in this series in which I describe some of the opportunities I’ve had to explore the hinterland between these pursuits, unfortunately treated as disparate in recent decades.)