Entangle: Physics and the Artistic Imagination, edited by Ariane Koek

Rivka Isaacson is thrilled by the bold work produced at the frontiers between art and science

February 27, 2020
Chalkboards with equations by contemporary physicists
Source: The exhibition Entangle: Physics and the Artistic Imagination, Bildmuseet, Sweden (October 2018-April 2019) curated by Ariane Koek
Chalkboards with equations by contemporary physicists

One of the most compelling things about exhibitions is the thought that they might be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to experience a unique combination of artworks assembled in one place. Entangle is both a catalogue and a legacy of a multimedia exhibition of the same name that was held in 2018-19 at the Bildmuseet, an enormous, interdisciplinary gallery at Umeå University in Sweden. Ariane Koek, the editor of the book and curator of the show, is also the founder of the Arts at Cern programme that established numerous creative interactions between physicists and artists, many of which underlie these exhibits. As she explains, “Both physics and the arts explore the fundamental questions about how we came into existence and try to make sense of how we came into the world.”

Not only does this book depict and describe physics-inspired artworks and their genesis/messages in thoughtful detail, it also includes a series of short, accessible essays by scientists, popular science writers and artists, some of whom have here helpfully conquered the impenetrability with which I have seen them write elsewhere. As such, it is bursting with conversation starters and makes the perfect coffee-table book through which one’s guests may leaf.

The centre pages are home to an intriguing experiment called Diptychs that plays with some of the pairing behind the art. It is creatively introduced by Koek in the form of a poem that begins “Matter Time Space Gravity Light Entropy”, all concepts at the heart of both physics and art. Each of these “natural world phenomena” was given to one physicist and one artist, who wrote a page or two on what it means to them. “By reading the reflections of the artists and the scientists, the reader discovers connections and the differences in their ways of looking at the world. It’s in this space that the imagination grows.” This sentiment – which, in a fragmented line form that is lost in this review, brings the aforementioned poem to an end – can be extrapolated to the whole book and to the plethora of alternative interdisciplinary creative projects that now exist worldwide in the form of books, performances, exhibitions and films.

My favourite of the featured artworks are two evening dresses by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. One consists of all-over gravity-defying glass bubbles inspired by “cymatics – the study of wave vibrations and frequencies”; the other sports “metal lace geodesic garlands” evoking “quantum foam…and tiny fluctuations in space-time”. Another stunningly intricate exhibit, Dark Matter, a small universe made from “the debris and detritus of life” by Sarah Sze, put me in mind of the title piece in Lionel Shriver’s novel The Standing Chandelier, both collagic microcosms of things that are important to the temporal and spatial lives of their makers. There are many other amazing things here: dance videos, crazy installations, chalkboards depicting the research of specific physicists, suspended furniture and an extraordinary array of interconnected severed bronze heads of thinkers who worked across subjects. The last of these is part of a project called International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation by Poland-born artist Goshka Macuga.

The only bad thing about this book is that it really makes you wish you hadn’t missed the exhibition, but Entangle is a great consolation prize.

Rivka Isaacson is reader in chemical biology at King’s College London.


Entangle: Physics and the Artistic Imagination
Edited by Ariane Koek
Hatje Cantz Verlag, 80pp, £22.99
ISBN 9783775745086
Published 19 September 2019

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