The Art of Science: Simulating the Sun

John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada), 2014

John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada), 2014

I thought that John Gerrard’s Solar Reserve installation, currently on display on the plaza of New York’s Lincoln Center, was a sort of film, relaying images in real time from a solar power plant in Nevada. It is not.

Gerrard didn’t just set up cameras at the power plant. He sent someone to photograph every detail of it, from the thousands of mirrors to the scrubby little plants, and then he (and a team of programmers) recreated the whole thing as a computer simulation, using a game engine called Unigine. The artwork will play 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on an enormous LED wall until December 1.

The piece – its full name is Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) – simulates an actual power plant known as a solar thermal power tower, surrounded by 10,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight upon it to heat molten salts, essentially forming a thermal battery which is used to generate electricity. The work mimics the actual movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky, as they would appear at the Nevada site, with the thousands of mirrors adjusting their positions in real time according to the position of the sun.

It’s worth having a look at this short video, in which the artist explains how the piece unfolds, following the light as it travels among the mirrors, out into space and back to the landscape, and allows a brief look at the hypnotic effect of the artwork.

 

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