The Art of Science: Two Ways of Looking at an Earthquake

Earthquakes are dramatic and frightening events. They literally shake our foundations, and large quakes can cause massive damage and disruption, revealing faults in societies, not just in the earth, as seen recently in China, Haiti and Japan. So it’s not surprising that artists are drawn to earthquakes as both an inspiration and a metaphor.

Luke Jerram, an English artist who mainly works in glass and often explores scientific themes in his work, made this Tohoku Earthquake Sculpture to commemorate the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

To create the sculpture, Jerram took a seismogram readout representing nine minutes of the earthquake.  (A seismogram is a graph of vertical lines made from the measurement of ground motion.) Jerram rotated this two-dimensional readout  into a 3D design using CAD and then fabricated the sculpture in resin using a 3D printer.  He also made a version in sandblasted glass.

The sculpture, which has been shown in New York and London galleries, is a lovely object. Contrast its compact size and beautiful contours with the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in response to the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Ai’s Snake Ceiling, currently on display at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington DC, is a gigantic serpent made of children’s backpacks. Ai uses these humble materials to create a symbol of evil, drawing attention to the fact that huge numbers of schoolchildren were victims of the quake, at least in part because of lax building standards that caused schools to collapse. Ai has said this piece refers to the piles of backpacks he saw left around flattened schools when he visited Sichuan after the disaster.

Another Ai Weiwei work at the Hirshhorn, Straight, consists of piles of rebar from buildings demolished in the quake. The bars, carefully straightened and stacked, show rust and use, and there is a chasm at the center evoking an open fault. The enormous size of this work, its shape and materials all point to the scale of destruction and the impossibility of putting things back as they once were.

Both Jerram’s work and Ai’s are fascinating and beautiful artistic reactions to natural disasters. Why then does Ai’s work feel so much more emotionally resonant? An old poem may hold a clue. John Donne’s A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning, written in 1611, contains these words:

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did and meant;

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

In other words, huge things that happen far away, as the Japanese earthquake did for Jerram,  may affect us, but when things are near us, we feel them so much more.

The Hirshhorn exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s work continues until February 24, 2013. More information is here.

More information on Luke Jerram’s work can be found at his website.

Author: michelebanks1

Artist and blogger

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