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Art, physics and performance painting

Photo of artwork created by Adrian Pritchard

Artist Adrian Pritchard is a “performance painter” who here has created a public artwork by allowing coloured streams of viscoelastic fluids to mix. (Courtesy: Adrian Pritchard)

By Matin Durrani

I was in London at the end of last week to attend a meeting on “Communicating physics through the arts” (PDF), which had been organized by the Physics Communicators Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

Held at the IOP’s headquarters in London, the idea of the meeting was to “ask artists to explore how they use their knowledge of physics during the development of their work” and to see “how physics could be communicated to the public through their work”.

The focus was mainly on the visual arts, which meant that other artistic formats, such as dance and music, were absent. The 50 or so attendees were, though, treated at the start of the meeting to an unusual live performance, in which Phil Furneaux – physics teacher, saxophonist and Lancaster University schools-outreach officer – sought to generate sound waves of the right frequencies from his saxophone to create ripples in a bowl of cornstarch paste. His performance – rather cumbersomely entitled “Sax excites non-Newtonian fluids” – worked, sort of.

After a whistle-stop tour of the myriad of existing physics–art collaborations from Pangratios Papacosta of Columbia College Chicago, we heard from artist Lyndall Phelps and Ben Still, a neutrino hunter at Queen Mary, University of London, who last year created a huge art work that was displayed in an underground Victorian ice well beneath the London Canal Museum. Entitled Covariance, it was inspired by the SuperKamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan.

From what I could gather, their partnership seemed a great way of actually getting physicists and artists working together to create something together, rather than just one side feeding off the other. That lack of partnership too often seems the problem with many art–science efforts – they’re not really collaborations at all.

Sadly, Phelps went on to reveal that the kaleidoscopic artwork, which consisted of 28,000 glass beads and 36,000 diamantés, has since been dismantled and is now sitting in a pile of crates in her garden shed. But perhaps – like all good particle-physics experiments – someone will stump up the cash for it to get an upgrade.

We also heard from three other artists – David Batchelor, Conrad Shawcross and Adrian Pritchard, with Pritchard’s work, for me at least, having the closest links to physics. Based in Blackpool, Pritchard does what he called “performance painting”, which basically involves creating runny polymer-based fluids of just the right viscoscity, adding lots of colour to them, and then pouring them into pots with pre-drilled holes so that the gloop falls under gravity and mixes to create wierd and wonderful displays. It reminded me a little of the pitch-drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin – except things happen a lot, lot faster.

Pritchard explained how he had spent a year hunting the Internet for the right material, trialling and testing lots of different stuff before getting his hands on something with just the right properties for what he was after.

And, like all good physics experiments, it sounded fun and slightly crazy, with the best thing surely being that you never quite know what you’ll end up creating. (For a sample of what you can end up with, do check out Pritchard’s online gallery.)

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  1. Julio Herrera

    Concerning painting and physics you may like to watch the following video:

    Sandra Zetina and Roberto Zenit explain in it how Rayleigh-Taylor instability contributes to the “accidental painting” technique used by David Alfaro Siqueiros in “Collective Suicide”, on display at the MOMA in New York.

  2. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | Art, physics and performance painting


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