Physics inspires art to light up a dark place

22 August 2013

In the dark spaces several metres below the London Canal Museum, an art installation filled with light and colour has appeared.

Called Covariance, it is inspired by the processes and outcomes of research using particle detectors, and in particular the Super-Kamiokande underground neutrino observatory in Japan.

Covariance is the result of a collaboration between artist Lyndall Phelps and particle physicist Ben Still, and was commissioned by the IOP as the first project in its artists-in-residence programme, Superposition. The finished artwork is the result of months of discussion and experimentation with ideas between the two, followed by painstaking labour by Phelps and others to construct the individual components, assemble the piece and finally install it underground in two disused Victorian ice wells that form part of the museum.

The process echoes some of the intensive work and engineering challenges involved in building an underground detector, while other themes related to particle detectors have been incorporated into the piece. Like the huge detectors, the main piece has a circular shape, and the acrylic discs that spread out in concentric circles suspended from its frame are studded through with coloured glass beads and diamantes. In their arrangement from red at the centre moving through the colours of the spectrum to violet, surrounded by white, these recall the coloured dot diagrams used by physicists such as Still in recording and interpreting the data from detectors. Historically such data was manually processed by women known as "computers", and the role of females in early detector research is hinted at in the diamantes.

The overall effect is like a massive chandelier, but with a structure and intricacy that invites the viewer to look deeper into the patterns on display. As well as the subtle variations in colour, there is substantial variation between the patterns of beads on the acrylic discs, which to me suggested the large number of types of particles described in the Standard Model of particle physics.

Although the large structure is the most visually impressive part of the installation, it is approached via a chamber with a display of three light-boxes that is also part of Covariance. The upper surfaces of the blocks show photographs of coloured beads held in ice in various stages of melting, recalling the original purpose of the chambers in holding ice before it was distributed for sale.

The installation is reached by climbing down two steep ladders into the ice wells, for which hard hats are required, but the effort is well rewarded. In the semi-darkness the shimmering lights show up more clearly, and the circular space allows visitors to walk around the structures and view the subtle differences in its appearance from all sides.

Phelps said: "The beauty of particle physics is that you can see the visual representations of the research data, and they're aesthetically beautiful and quite mesmerising. In all the work that I do I try to create something that the audience can have an instant rapport with." As people spent longer with the work, she hoped that other layers of meaning would start to emerge, and attendants would be on hand to talk about the installation, she said. She would also love to be involved in further collaborations with scientists, she said. "I'm not a scientist but it gives me the privilege of spending time with scientists and learning about how they perceive the world."

Opening times
Covariance is open to the public on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 24 August to 20 October 2013. Visitors will need to pay an entrance fee to the London Canal Museum (£4 adults, £3 concessions, £2 children). Access to the artwork is included in the ticket price.

There are two special evening In Conversation events, on 19 September and 17 October, where visitors can join Lyndall as she describes the nine month collaboration and co-creation of Covariance. These events are free to attend, but booking is essential.

For details of tour times, restrictions for going into the ice well and to book your visit please see:  

The London Canal Museum
The London Canal Museum's main story is that of the waterways, but one unusual canal cargo - imported Norwegian ice - features strongly. The building is a uniquely preserved Victorian ice warehouse and two huge brick ice wells survive underground. The fascinating story of the ice trade that once kept London's food cool is the museum's second theme. 

Find out more about The London Canal Museum here -

Other IOP websites

Read about Superposition and find out more about the physics behind the artwork

Cookie Settings