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Once a physicist: Paul Friedlander

Paul Friedlander is a London-based light sculptor and scientific artist

Paul Friedlander

What sparked your interest in physics?
I was a child of the space age. Sputnik was launched when I was six years old, and it was the first major event on the news that I understood. My fascination with space travel and astronomy grew from there. Also, my father, F G Friedlander, was a mathematician at the University of Cambridge and he would come home and talk excitedly about hot new ideas. He was the one who first taught me about black holes and their paradoxical properties.

How did you become interested in sculpture?
My mother, Yolande, was an artist. Her work was contemporary and abstract. She regularly took me to exhibitions, and I remember as a child encountering kinetic art and optical art at a small gallery run by the Arts Council in Cambridge. I found these fascinating, but the real life-changing moment came when I attended a great exhibition of kinetics at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank in 1970. By then I was already an undergraduate studying mathematics and physics at Sussex University and from that day on I knew that my life's purpose would lie with kinetic art. The art I found most inspiring at that exhibition was by Nicolas Schoffer, the cybernetic artist.

Can you describe some of the science that goes into creating your light sculptures?
Right from the outset I considered art as an experimental process. Even without intending to, I found what I was doing paralleled developments in science. My early light shows created shortly after my "conversion" in the early 1970s showed a strong connection to catastrophe theory, which was then a lively branch of mathematics. Some 10 years later I discovered a fascinating way of spinning string to form complex blends of harmonic and chaotic behaviour that became the foundation of many of my later works. The discovery coincided with the emergence of string theory in physics and the first major flowering of my career as an artist came in 1990 at the point when chaos theory really made a strong impact on the general public.

More recently, I have intentionally sought to include science in my work. My major installation Timeless Universe, which I created in 2006, was inspired by the work of cosmologist Julian Barbour. He agreed to participate by writing an essay for the catalogue and giving a talk at a conference organized as part of the show.

What inspires your designs?
As a child I dreamed of inventing and building my own starship and setting off alone to explore distant planets. The search for the mysterious still drives me. I seek ways to transform the materials I work with into something that no longer feels like ordinary matter. I want my work to be luminous, weightless and unbounded.

What do you hope people who see your work will take away from the experience?
Each person will have their own experience and it will be personal to them. I do not see it as my purpose to plan or put any particular feeling in another person's mind. I pursue my fascination and leave it to others to take away from my sculptures whatever they may.

What are you working on now?
I have two projects that I am currently building and others waiting in the wings. I have one large piece I am building for Art Futura 2011 that will be on show in Bilbao throughout this summer. It will be a large spinning sculpture and I am tentatively planning to call it Persistence of Vision. It will incorporate the most sophisticated version yet of my invention, chromastrobic light – light that changes colour faster than the human eye can see. These colours can be revealed by synchronization with a suitable high-speed moving form. In this case, the sculpture itself will be the source of light.

I am also working on a commission for permanent display in the new science building at Latymer Upper School in West London. This takes inspiration from the little Perspex shapes used in school physics labs to teach geometrical optics. One of the more interesting ideas I have in waiting is a collaborative piece. The Russian linguist Alexander Lapitsky is finding the word "light" in 1000 languages, and I will use the words to create a light installation.

Do you still keep up to date with any physics?
Very much so. I read about science all the time. I am a lifelong subscriber to New Scientist and Scientific American, which I much prefer to reading a daily paper. In addition, I cruise the Web in search of interesting stories, and from now on I shall be keeping a much more careful eye on Physics World.

Visit Paul Friedlander's website

This article appears in the June 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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