‘There is no natural reason to link science and the visual arts. There is also no reason why not’. Even Strange and Charmed, Siân Ede’s benchmark review of the field nearly twenty years ago which opened with these words, perhaps underestimated how collaboration between the two disciplines would later, in places, evolve into a distinct discipline in its own right.
The North East can boast many luminous examples, with Christine Borland, Rona Lee, Alan Smith and Fiona Crisp among others. It is fitting therefore that the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, after an eighteen-month closure for redevelopment and relocation to the National Glass Centre, has re-launched with an exhibition that looks into the world of particle physics.
Fiona Crisp has immersed herself in three of Europe’s most prestigious facilities for ‘fundamental science’ research – the vast Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso deep inside a hollowed-out mountain in Italy; the Boulby Underground Laboratory a kilometre down under Yorkshire, and the Institute for Computational Cosmology in Durham.
Her work explores the unfamiliar physical environments these places represent, rather than their equally unfamiliar cerebral environments. The exhibition is a ‘sculptural’ installation of large-scale photographs and videos of tunnels and laboratories, plus a ‘choreographed’ soundscape, combining into a tableau of the extraordinary everyday life of these places.
The unjudging and non-sensational method of presentation leaves us as viewers with a sense that we bear full responsibility for divining whatever big moral and poetic questions might be raised by this field of voyaging to the edges of knowledge. The roaring soundtrack, like blood in the head, makes this seem urgent. The subterranean settings suggest both womb-like security and the dread of underworlds and burials – both opposites held in clever balance here.
Everything is mounted on a scaffold, within and around which we promenade, to take it all in. Circulating like this, and away from the gallery’s solid walls, visitors almost become part of a meta-artwork, as particles performing an energy field (which the physicists may tell us is ultimately all there is).
Typically one might consider scientists as operating with that which is itemised and literal, while collaborating artists bring the metaphors, indirections and imaginings. Here, however, this is intriguingly reversed. In the cosmic and sub-atomic realms, it is the science that deals in ‘strangeness’, probability and metaphorical description; while Fiona Crisp’s artistry has concentrated on the graspable solidities involved.
The new NGCA space can itself be imagined as a subterranean vault, giving special conditions for aesthetic experience, and rather like the Boulby laboratory, insulated against interference from the ‘background radiation’ of outside thought.
Crisp’s photographs, no coincidence, are cousins to the high-tech media used for detecting the most elusive particles, and themselves perhaps are detecting some subtleties of the human investigative condition. As an exhibition too, Material Sight provides a kind of useful apparatus for registering our curiosity and imagination about the world around us.
24 March – 13 May 2018.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.