The Strange Alliance between Art and Science

Sunday, March 27, 2011 8:47 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)
Some time around the turn of the 20th century, Art and Physics began having a race to see which one was more bizarre. Up until then, those two never ran in the same neighborhood, much less on the same track. Weirder still is the fact that for the past few decades, they have been running neck and neck. Lucy Pullen, happily, is playing for both teams.

As any Weird Science and Art Project should do, Pullen’s show at the Henry Art Gallery takes place in two places at once, like a pair of parallel universes singing to each other across separate floors of the museum. The first one, "Spark Chamber," is just inside the front entrance in the small space on the right of the front desk. The other, "Cloud Chamber and Related Works," lives two floors below.

Cosmic rays are not simply Pullen's primary subject matter, they’re her collaborators as well. Just like ideas, cosmic rays are invisible. And they also have a tendency to go off in their own random directions, wherever they please, refusing to acknowledge what we consider impassable boundaries. But just as ideas reveal themselves in the works of art they inspire, the cosmic rays that visit Pullen’s cloud chamber reveal themselves in spectacular little contrails that appear out of nowhere and spiral off out of control, like tiny spaceships, unpiloted and perhaps disabled after an epic star battle. Or maybe they're just joyriding.

I vividly remember the first time I saw a cloud chamber, in a scratchy black and white movie in my fifth-grade science class. After first learning that the subatomic world was infinitely tiny and invisible I was delighted to discover that their movements could be detected in the contrails they made in the enclosed and frozen mists of a cloud chamber. That delight and euphoria returned in a great rush as I gazed down into her beautiful but slightly forbidding aluminum, steel, and glass polyhedron chamber, past the six-sided rings of eerily blue UFO-style lights into the bottomless and infinite darkness where the cosmic rays came to play. Wow. Like all consciousness-altering experiences, this one is really hard to quit. I’m not sure how long I stayed there lost in space, but in relative terms, it was a kind of eon.

When I finally did tear myself away, I spent some time in the so-called real world, looking at "Architecture of the Atmosphere," a series of prints done with non-reprographic blue pigment, that encircles the "Cloud Chamber." These many versions of the view outside Pullen's apartment are no less mysterious and strange than "Cloud Chamber," especially in the way they break down trees, sea, sky, clouds, rain, and the distant landscape into their component parts, revealing what was once invisible. I even spotted the Loch Ness monster, an invisible object that's exists somewhat more on the macro side of things. Go look yourself if you don’t believe me, but go look at it all in any case. Pullen's work is revealing and breathtaking on every level.

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain is a Seattle-based writer and bibliophile who follows art and routinely defies gravity.

"The Cloud Chamber and Related Works" by Lucy Pullen is on view through June 26 at the Henry Art Gallery, located at 15th Avenue NE & NE 41st Street in Seattle, Washington. For more information, please visit the website or call (206) 543-2280.

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