Art of Science: Joe Black’s Ways of Seeing

Joe Black, Ways of Seeing, 2013, hand-painted test tubes

UK-based artist Joe Black uses thousands of small objects – ranging from toy soldiers to plastic flowers to chess pieces – to create his large scale mosaic works. Black has made many portraits of famous people, including David Bowie and Barack Obama. But my favorite is Ways of Seeing, a huge eyeball made of 15,000 painted test tubes.

Black says that while he will use practically anything that is small enough to build large images and create vast tonal effects, he is careful to select a medium that not only meets those requirements but is also relevant to the subject he’s depicting.  The connections between the image of eye, the scientific connotations of the test tubes and the idea of art and science as ways of seeing are all fairly clear. His reasons for also building his portrait of Bowie out of test tubes remain slightly more obscure.

You can see more of Joe Black’s work at his website.

Detail view of Ways of Seeing


Art of Science: Time and Ice Melt Away at COP21


If you‘re hosting a big gathering, you can always count on Olafur Eliasson to bring the ice. Two years after he brought chunks of an Icelandic glacier to MoMA PS1 in New York, Danish-Icelandic artist Eliasson has trucked 80 tons of Greenland glacier to Paris, where the UN Climate Summit (COP21) is being held.

The installation, now melting slowly in front of the Panthéon , is called Ice Watch. The twelve boulders of ice are arranged like a watch, or clock face, to indicate the passing of time. Visitors can see the ice dwindle over the course of the summit, observing for themselves the disappearance of ice which has endured for centuries. You can see photos and video of the gradual melt on Studio Olafur Eliasson’s Instagram account. (So far they seem to be holding up pretty well.)

Eliasson, who created the work in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing, specifically chose calved chunks of icebergs made of compressed snow for the installation, to highlight the importance of ice in preserving history.  As Rosing explained to the New Yorker, “Inside the iceberg, you see snow layers in sequence as you go back in time. Because it is compressed, the air between the snowflakes that fell thousands of years ago is trapped in tiny bubbles.”

Besides watching the melting, visitors to Ice Watch can hear the ice cracking as it releases air that is thousands of years old. Says Eliasson, “It is a little pop that has travelled fifteen thousand years to meet you in Paris, and tell the story of climate change.”



Greetings from the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station

The Main Building of the Kilpisjarvi Biological Station
The Main Building of the Kilpisjarvi Biological Station

Regular readers of the Finch & Pea are aware that for the past few weeks, I’ve been doing an art residency at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, way above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. It’s quite an unusual place. Let me show you around.

The station, which belongs to the University of Helsinki, was founded in 1964 to promote biological and geographical research in the north. Conditions were quite primitive at first, with researchers renting rooms from some of the very few year-round inhabitants of the area. (There are still only about 100 full-time residents of Kilpisjarvi)  Twenty years later, the current building was built, and additional facilities have been added over the years.

No shoes!
No shoes!

The Station sits between Saana Fell and Kilpisjarvi Lake. An extremely clean, modern facility, it still has a few quirks. For starters, the station has a strict “no shoes” policy. You leave your boots at the entrance hall and pad around in your socks. If your city boots are not equal to the winter snow and ice or the spring and summer mud, there are dozens of pairs available to borrow, along with backpacks, bikes and cross-country skis. Alas, during my visit there was too much snow for bikes, but too little for skis. There are not one but two saunas. Hey, this is Finland.

The Library
The Library

The very nice little library is well-stocked with books and journals, mostly about science and nature, in Finnish, English and a few other languages. The nicely-equipped labs are filled with all the usual equipment and supplies, and lined with posters showing the projects that teams have undertaken here. They run the gamut of Arctic themes, from lake sediments and the size of fishes to birch tree growth patterns, bird populations and, of course, lots of work on lemmings. The station’s logo is this wonderful image of two lemmings in either a fight for dominance or a passionate embrace.

What are those lemmings doing?
What are those lemmings doing?

Although the station has hosted dozens of artists through the Ars Bioarctica residency program, there’s really no place to make art. I did some painting either in the lab or, on the weekends, in the residents’ kitchen. Most days, I would go for walks, take photos and pick up a few interesting samples of lichens or plants in the morning. Then, after lunch, I would go to the lab and look at my finds under the microscope. The first week, I drew pictures in pencil like a 19th century naturalist. After that, they set me up with a microscope and software so I could save images to use in my work after I get home.

Some finds from my walks
Some finds from my walks

At the end of my second week here, another short-term resident of the station made a stunning discovery: an entire room full of mounted rodent skins, including mice, rats, voles, moles, weasels, hedgehogs, squirrels and even bats. In addition, there were drawers and cases full of skins and bones, all carefully catalogued and dating back as far as the 1960s. Apparently this “Mouse Museum”, as it is known, was the work of a longtime lab assistant at the station.

The “Mouse Museum”

Altogether, it’s been a privilege to visit this utterly unique place. Kilpisjärvi is the quietest and most remote place I’ve ever been in my life, and it allowed me to observe in depth the sub-Arctic landscape as it moved from fall to winter. I look forward to reflecting more on this experience and incorporating it into my artwork in the months and years to come.

Art of Science: As Time Goes Bloop

Ferrolic by Zelf Koelman
Ferrolic by Zelf Koelman

Ferrolic can be filed under “so nice we blogged it twice”, because it is not only cool, but Michele did a much better job of explaining how this works than her erstwhile stand-in did.

From the department of supercool things that may or may not have a point: Ferrolic, a screen display that uses electromagnets and ferrofluid. Created by Dutch designer Zelf Koelman, Ferrolic consists of a sort of tank with a screen, behind which drops of ferrofluid (a compound containing iron and a surfactant) are moved by an array of electromagnets controlled by programmable software.

The software can be edited via the web, allowing users to direct the blobs of ferrofluid (which Koelman calles “creatures”) to display numbers, letters and other shapes. Ferrolic does not produce light and is completely silent, since it does not contain any mechanically moving elements.

So is Ferrolic a work of art, a technology of the future or just an expensive toy? Who knows? But it sure is mesmerizing to watch.

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Glittering, Radiant Soil

From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013
From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013

When artists depict soil, it is often as a dark, heavy, brown mass. Philip Beesley sees it differently. His 2013 installation, Radiant Soil, is full of light and movement, glittering with metal and glass. As Beesley describes it, “this contemporary soil seethes with a myriad of seeded viscera, miniscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come.”

Radiant Soil forms interlinking clouds of industrial design biomimetic components of polymer, metal and glass, arranged in suspended filter layers contain a near-living carbon-capture metabolism. Frond-clusters fitted with shape-memory alloy mechanisms react to viewers as they approach, flexing and setting off bursts of light that stimulate the protocells and trigger chains of motion that ripple throughout the environment. Scent-emitting glands attract viewers and encourage interaction with the system, providing stimulus that increases air circulation and protocell formation.” (source)

Is this really happening beneath your peaceful front lawn? Well, yes and no. Beesley is not trying to make an enormous, interactive scale model of actual soil. His goal is to make us rethink the boundaries of our environment. There may not be flashing lights in soil, but there are signals flying among plants, animals and microbes, there are minerals glinting and spores bursting. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet, and Beesley brings it to the surface with bravura.

In his ongoing Hylozoic Series of installations, which have been exhibited around the world, he and his team are “trying to provoke a reconception of architecture, not as a set of closed walls where you see your office as a fort, but rather to think of architectural walls and roofs as deeply layered zones for interchange.” (Wired)

Originally an architect working on much more conventional projects, Beesley changed direction in 2001 after meeting Mitchell Resnick, an MIT professor who introduced him to the possibilities of digital fabrication and low-cost sensors. Using what he calls the “little bits of intelligence and interactivity” the technology provided, he began to create interactive, immersive environments, evoking forests, jungles, plant cells, or in this case, soil. Beesley now works with a team of architects, mechanical engineers and chemists, who (among other things) create interactive features that move, “breathe”, and release scents when activated by visitors

The series title, Hylozoic, refers to the belief that all matter is alive. Looking at Beesley’s conception of soil as a light, airy, sparkling and motion-filled space (video), it’s hard to disagree.

Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013
Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013
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