Victorian ice well to be home for detector-inspired art

8 May 2013 | Source: Superposition blog

A Victorian ice well beneath the London Canal Museum is to become home to a subterranean physics-inspired art installation this summer.

The Victorian Ice Well

Commissioned by the Institute of Physics (IOP), the installation is the outcome of an exciting partnership between physicist Ben Still and artist Lyndall Phelps. They have been given the freedom to explore each other’s work, mindset and culture and this installation is the result of months of meetings and discussions. 

On their first meeting, Ben, a particle physicist at Queen Mary, University London, said, “As soon as I met Lyndall I knew it would be fun working with her. We immediately started chatting about the area of my research that I think has the most visual impact - the detectors.”

Lyndall, an installation artist with an interest in science, was quickly inspired by their conversations, particularly by Ben’s description of the work being undertaken at Super-Kamiokande, a detector and part of the T2K experiment in Japan.

Upon learning about the scale and intricacy of Super-Kamiokande, Lyndall explained, “My preconception that particle physics might be a tad dry and abstract was shattered, replaced by the promise of poetry and rich sensory experiences.”

On the choice of the ice well as a unique and unexpected location for her art installation Lyndall says, “As you descend the ladder, the environment changes – it’s darker, cooler, sounds are different; you do feel like you’re entering a true subterranean world.”

The former ice well provides a circular brick space – about 30 feet in diameter – that, Lyndall explains, will give the viewer a “magical and memorable journey.”

Creating the hand-made work will be a laborious task for the artist and the volume of materials required is monumental – almost 1.5 km of brass rods, more than 28,000 glass beads, hundreds of acrylic discs and 36,000 diamantes. This process will reflect the intense labour effort required to create a particle detector, along with the complex logistics involved in doing so.

The installation is also inspired by the way the data from the detectors is read by physicists – from the coloured dot diagrams that physicists like Ben use today to the female ‘computers’ employed yesteryear.

Lyndall adds, “Huge numbers of women (who were called computers) were employed to do this role. Many of my past works have dealt with the physical labour undertaken by women, especially the repetition of specific tasks. I was keen for the production of the work to encompass this work ethic and to use materials that reflected women’s craft, hence the use of glass beads and diamantes.”   

As well as the artwork itself, the meetings between Ben and Lyndall form an important part of the IOP’s project, with their discussions and thoughts being captured on a blog to expose the artistic processes and their interplay with the science.

You can read the blog at www.physics.org/superposition.

Caitlin Watson, Head of Public Engagement at IOP, said, “We’re delighted to be supporting this project because we want to highlight the beauty of physics to an artistic community that is not often exposed to the elegance and allure of physics.”



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