Art and Science?

Image Credit: Rain Rabbit (via Flickr)

Image Credit: Rain Rabbit (via Flickr)

Does art play a role in the communication of science? Alanna Orpen went to Mariko Mori’s ‘Rebirth’ exhibition in the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens to find out.

Standing within a white circular chamber, gazing upon a series of delicate glittering patterns that orbit a central shimmering orb, I feel as though I have ascended from the terrestrial plains of Earth into a serene world of celestial cosmology.

Contemporary Japanese artist Mariko Mori has constructed a thought-provoking exhibition entitled ‘Rebirth’, an effective amalgamation of science, philosophy and art, beginning and ending with the death and birth of a star. A mix of the ancient and the modern, Mori showcases her spiritual preoccupation with prehistoric cultures (particularly the Japanese Jomon era and European Celtic history) whilst simultaneously embracing astronomy and science.

In terms of science communication the role of visual arts is often overlooked, yet this exhibition shows art’s triumphant role in imaginatively engaging the public with science. An art gallery is a wonderful platform to engage the public in science. The narrative and the dynamics of the exhibition space transform the gallery, beyond simple representation, into a site of encounter. The immersive, three-dimensional environment invites visitors to explore actively with all their senses, as well as with their intellects.

‘Rebirth’ begins with a spectacular installation: a great glass monolith called ‘Tom Na H-iu II’. Named after a mythical Celtic realm, it is representative of special monuments created for spiritual transmigration to guide souls back to Earth. The five metre high monolith glows with constantly changing iridescent light patterns. This is a prime example of the artist’s use of state-of-the-art technology to create a mesmerising sculpture. LED lights are connected to a computer at the Kamioka Observatory in Japan, an underground cosmic ray research station, which records the energy emitted from the explosion of a star- a supernova. Thus, the mystical display of ethereal lights accurately reflects the different types of neutrinos within the Earth’s atmosphere. The rhythmic display of brightening and fading light patterns leaves the viewer entranced by the ‘magic of science’ and in effect the ‘magic of reality’.

The exhibition ends with ‘White Hole’, another ‘star’ installation that envisions new life released from a black hole at the centre of the universe. This brings us full circle and marks the end of the viewer’s journey. The viewer is forced through a dark curved walkway into a small low-ceilinged chamber. Seated in front of a tilted disc, the viewer is entranced by the light within that glows and drifts around the edge of the disc in slow motion. Consequently, the emphasis on the fluidity of the boundaries between science and art and the beauty of the technological display conveys an arresting sense of uniqueness and evokes an exalted attention.

Mori is an artist who is fascinated by science and technology. Her exhibition explores science through a predominantly ‘artistic’ style, experimenting with an innovative interdisciplinary approach. This aesthetically artistic dimension of engagement could be more compelling and more appropriate to the current age, working on an emotional and affective level, allowing the public to engage in critical reflection. Mori lets the art ‘speak for itself’ providing the bare minimum of adjunct elucidative material. This encourages contemplation of the work itself, where the visitor is obliged to take an active role in interpreting the artwork. This could have greater impact than the traditional overarching didactic strategy, typically found in science museums, that seeks to control and direct understanding of scientific principles.  Therefore, the extraordinary visual nature of the display stimulates scientific interest whilst evoking curiosity and wonder.

Mori succeeds in representing what is beyond representation. In this memorable exhibition, she brings forth the invisible world in a beautifully enchanting visual display. The viewer can witness events that would usually pass unnoticed, thus heightening their awareness of the life cycle of the universe. The brilliance of Mori’s work is her creativity and ability to seamlessly fuse science and art to produce impressive pieces that broaden our intellectual horizons. A level of scientific interest is stimulated by the deepening and enriching experience explored by art’s role in the presentation of science.

Mori has fully embraced the power of art to construct a scientifically astounding exhibition. This intriguing and publicly attractive exhibition, which presents science in a compelling and imaginative manner, shows that science and art collaborations should not be underestimated. Instead, the two cultures form a virtuous relationship generating wonder and magic about science.

Alanna Orpen is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.



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