The Art of Science: Tamsin van Essen’s Charming Quarks

Tamsin Van Essen, Quarks (Back), 2008

Tamsin van Essen, Quarks (Black), 2008

Ceramic artist Tamsin van Essen uses a combination of novel and traditional techniques to produce thought-provoking pieces, including many drawn from science and medicine. For example, her Medical Heirlooms series comprised a series of vessels that seemed to have skin diseases, while the cups in her Contamination series appeared to have been colonized by various nasty bacteria.

I was particularly drawn to her Collection of Curious Objects, a series of less traditionally shaped objects inspired by theoretical physics.  On her website, Van Essen explains:

Physicists are busy developing sophisticated theories around the existence of things that are impossible for us to see, perfecting mathematical models of the ‘beyond-visible’ worlds of the very large and distant (using Einstein’s theory of relativity) and the very small (using quantum mechanics).

Focusing on this realm of the intangible, I wanted to explore how abstract theoretical ideas can be visually represented. I also wanted to play with the notion that today’s cutting-edge theories may one day be seen as quaint and curious museum pieces: theoretical antiques or abstract junk.

The objects might be found in someone’s dusty attic or perhaps turn up on Antiques Roadshow in the future: “Oh my! Look what they thought in 2008!”

Tamsin van Essen, “Curious Objects”

I love their simultaneous seriousness and playfulness – ceramic quarks and wormholes! – demonstrating van Essen’s willingness to engage with difficult and abstract ideas in an accessible but not dumbed-down way. And while I can admire the thought and craft that goes into a vase that appears to have syphilis, I’d much rather have a shiny quark.

If you’re in the UK, you can see some of van Essen’s work in the Subversive Design show at the Brighton Museum through March 2014.

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