Photography: Rob Battersby

Broken Symmetries

Fact - until 03/03

Marrying science and art has its precedents. However, particle physics coupled with art may not seem like the most accessible subject matter for the casual gallery-goer. These seemingly unlikely bedfellows set up camp happily at FACT in its illuminating BROKEN SYMMETRIES exhibition, a collaboration between Arts at CERN and FACT. It attempts to blur the solid lines between the two practices. The partnership works.

The 10 works by international artists are commissions in this three-year collaboration and take over the galleries and foyer space. They inform, inspire and entertain, and use a range of artistic techniques – sculptural elements, documentary film of the work at CERN (the nuclear research laboratory in Geneva) and installations. As with all endeavours, some are more successful than others.

Gallery 1 greets visitors with Juan Cortes’ interactive Supralunar which “proposes a poetic approach to dark matter”. Visitors hover round waiting to place their eyes against a lens which “acts as an amplifier for the sound produced by the electromechanical gears inside” and watch optical fibres move round with hypnotic effect.

It makes sense to start with the adjacent exhibit, The View From Nowhere by artistic duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt. The video takes us through scenes at CERN with accounts from some of the scientists who explain with humility that not even they fully understand the complexities of the work they’re doing. The scientists state that these very complexities can be “explained with fairly well structured symmetries”. They go on to ponder that we have plenty of discoveries to look forward to in the next 50 years, before stating that “nature doesn’t care about our wishes”. It’s a haunting entry point, and it goes some way to underline the themes of the whole exhibition. It feels like the beginning of an adventure in to an unknown world of our own potential, one we are equally rubbing away from any possible imagination. The artists act as conduits between science and art, guiding visitors round the subject matter with reverence and humour.

“It feels like the beginning of an adventure in to an unknown world of our own potential, one we are equally rubbing away from any possible imagination”

Anything 3D is thrilling, especially when you get to sit down for a moment and find yourself zoomed across seemingly endless galaxies. Lea Porsager’s Cosmic Strike is a “superposition of hard science and loopy mysticism” which meets its aim to invoke a repetitive, occult and oddly interstellar scene. It’s hypnotic and highlights just how insignificant we are in the space of seconds.

For the uninitiated, Cascade by Yunchul Kim “explores matter by capturing the pattern of muons”. A little elaborate if you will, but nothing about this exhibition holds back in its levels of abstraction. The piece is comprised of wires and chambers holding a viscous fluid which is then pumped through transparent wires and in to different chambers. It’s a contraption from science-fiction which wouldn’t look out of place on an extra-terrestrial stage. Visitors are drawn to it, contorting themselves to examine it from various angles. It’s eerily beautiful.

We Aren’t Able To Prove That Just Yet, But We Know It’s Out There by Yu-Chen Wang traces scientific advances back in history through a poetic narrative. Photographs are projected from above on to delicate drawings on a flat screen tracing the experiments at Liverpool University in the 1960s. It brings romance and a human element to the scientific focus showing Liverpool’s place in all this progress.

Walking in to Gallery 2, you are met by two screens at right angles to each other upon which flash videos. Scalar Oscillation by Diann Bauer “explores the significance of the extremes of time and scale operating in much of modern physics”. It’s based on Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The only trajectory through to the next exhibit means people have to traipse past the screens, moving in front of those enjoying the films. It could be part of the experience or just down to logistics, but it’s quite off-putting.

Broken Symmetries Image 2

The next room along houses Suzanne Treister’s The Holographic Theory Of Art History. Sitting on the floor on large cushions in the dark, the visitor’s gaze is held by a screen onto which 25,000 images from the beginning of art to the present day appear at the rate of 25 per second (the rate at which the neutron travels around the Large Hadron Collider). Through headphones you can listen in to interviews with scientists at CERN. They give it a good go at explaining the intricacies of the holographic universe principle while art history counts down the minutes to the near future

The final exhibit in Gallery 2 is by artist studio hrm199. Entitled one1one, it questions how we use language to describe the world. This philosophical question is then transferred to the year 4250. This is an interesting concept which is much better on paper than real life: it’s uncomfortable the first visit and unbearable after that. It is comprised of a circular carpet surrounded by speakers, lights above and a screen on which there is an individual sporadically interjecting with spaced out aphorisms. What they term “sensorial stimuli” is a painful sound which, at eight and a half minutes, people do well to sit through.

Inside a cube placed in the foyer is Julieta Aranda’s Stealing One’s Own Corpse. This is the final part of a trilogy that has taken 10 years to create. In the cube is a screen showing footage from CERN, among other things, phrases painted on the wall which glow faintly in the dark such as “there is no way to predict how any of this will be read over time”, with models of bones on the floor, all of which encourage us to think about the planet’s “destruction and what a post-planetary future might look like”. Cheery stuff for a Saturday afternoon out. These are ideas, however, which have never been more pressing for us to consider.

The exhibition seems to suggest that scientists, artists and visitors have the same awe when approaching the subject and the same predicament – not fully comprehending how far there is still to go. It deals with a massive and demanding subject with creativity, flair and a keen eye for how to engage the visitor.

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