Art takes a quantum leap

A depiction of Geneva's CERN facility with the mountains of the Jura by the artist Patrick Hughes forms part of the new exhibition [London Institute]

An unprecedented exhibition combining the talents of leading contemporary artists and particle physicists has opened in Geneva, its spiritual home.

This content was published on February 22, 2002 minutes

"Signatures of the Invisible", which will run at the city's Contemporary Art Centre until May 12, is the result of a joint project between CERN, the Geneva-based European Nuclear Research Centre, and the London Institute, the world's largest college of art and design.

During 1999 and 2000, some of the world's foremost physicists collaborated with leading contemporary artists to produce works of art that responded to the preoccupations of particle physics. These two apparently different fields have found a great deal of common ground. Both, after all, are concerned with uncovering the nature of being, and where we come from.


"For me it has been a revelation. It has opened up new conceptual areas that I never thought of approaching before. Things like chaos theory have helped to break down preconceptions," says Ken McMullen, the British artist and filmmaker.

High energy physics deals with events so small they are known only by their mathematical signatures. Although virtually invisible, they reveal a great deal about how the universe works. Theories like relativity and quantum mechanics have redefined the way we understand nature, and "Signatures of the Invisible" was a way of getting artists to respond to this new definition.

"The laws of nature are not going to go away," McMullen says. "They are real, and if artists are going to be relevant they have to respond to this research."

The reactions of the artists to the concerns of particle physics have been diverse. "It's an incredibly varied exhibition. We've been excited, amused and exhilarated by the sheer range of interpretations," says Michael Benson, of the London Institute.

"We hope it will help the public better understand two difficult subjects - contemporary art and particle physics," he told swissinfo at the launch of the exhibition in Geneva. "Signatures of the Invisible" has already been shown in London and Rome.

Gateway to nature

Some of the projects - engravings based on particle collisions, installations and metal sculptures - made use of materials and techniques employed in CERN's workshops. Others were a more emotional response to the work of the scientists.

Among the more eye-catching works is a sculpture by the Italian artist, Paola Pivi. It consists of vertical rows of needles that react to people passing by.

Elsewhere, Patrick Hughes's painting, "Culture and Nature", juxtaposes the doors of CERN's Large Electron-Positron accelerator with the beauty of the nearby Jura mountains. Particle physics, it seems to tell us, is opening a gateway to a better understanding of nature.

"This exhibition shows that particle physics exists, and it's not an egg-head activity that a few people do in isolation," says Maurice Jacob, the former head of CERN's theoretical physics division, who was one of the driving forces behind the exhibition. "It has a message for ordinary people."

The project's concept was the responsibility of Ken McMullen. The piece he has produced for the Geneva exhibition is a steel sculpture representing the traces left when a piece of paper is crumpled: "The appearance and the meaning of the object changes depending on the position of the observer," he explained. "This has a clear relation with quantum theory."

Fundamental questions

"I don't think about surface area or colour in the same way as I did three years ago," adds McMullen.

The Swedish installation artist, Monica Sand, has produced "Maxwell's Field", a collection of neat white boxes, each containing materials used at CERN - fibres, scintillators, black glass, air glass and so on - that react to light in different ways.

"My first impression of CERN was that it was like a collection of ugly, simple boxes. But inside these boxes, it was fascinating," reveals Sand.

As well as giving artists new techniques and materials, and a fresh insight into the world, "Signatures of the Invisible" has also made the scientists question the basic assumptions behind their research.

"The artists ask the 'silly' questions - the elementary, fundamental questions about the physical world," says John March Russell, one the CERN scientists involved in the project.

"That reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing," he says.

by Roy Probert

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