Neutrinos are small, flashy & impressive

Guided exhibition tour helps connect art and science

Rebecca Diederichs’s “Where Impact Occurs” is full of energy.
Rebecca Diederichs’s “Where Impact Occurs” is full of energy.
Gordon Hicks’s “Large Field” recalls The Strokes’s album cover for Is This It.
Gordon Hicks’s “Large Field” recalls The Strokes’s album cover for Is This It.
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You don’t have to be a subatomic physicist to enjoy Neutrinos They Are Very Small, a collection of works inspired by research into the mysterious titular particle. But luckily for those of us lacking advanced science degrees, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre is offering guided tours four times a week to give visitors a crash course on the neutrino, and just what exactly it has to do with art, anyway.

Rebecca Diederichs, Gordon Hicks and Sally McKay, the artists behind Neutrinos, use the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) as the launch pad and focal point for an exploration of the commonalities between art and science: both fields endeavor to study and represent the world within the constraint of certain rules. The works in the exhibit usually examine many different connections at once without being heavy-handed, allowing the thoughtful viewer numerous “a-ha!” moments. The tour guide’s explanations neatly complemented my own limited past experience with science, and for many of the pieces I could draw my own conclusions about what exactly a piece “meant” in relation to the science it evoked and drew upon.

The tour begins with Diederichs’s works. The multiple, large-scale photo manipulations entitled “Where Impact Occurs” find the artist hypothesizing about the collision between a neutrino and a molecule of heavy water, which releases energy in a flash of light. This collision enables scientists to observe the tiny neutrino. A chandelier and the side of a Kleenex box are the source photographs for increasingly magnified slices of colour and shape.

According to the exhibition’s tour guide, Diederichs intuitively sought the “high energy” sections of the photographs to continually zoom in on as she juxtaposed shapes, textures, and in two images, colour against grayscale. Her careful aesthetic experimentation acts as a parable for the scientific method, where hypotheses become increasingly specific, and the smallest detail is crucial.

In contrast to Diederichs and McKay, Gordon Hicks’s pieces—while all using light and line as primary elements—each stand as separate works exploring different ideas.

“Large Field,” by far the most visually commanding of his three works, is not about the intersection of science and art but rather the art to be discovered in science. Seven back-lit square panels are etched with graceful loops, swoops and curves, each of the design’s individual lines resembling a tight coil. The pattern, though compelling in and of itself, evokes nothing so much as the classic image of particle motion in a bubble chamber (made famous by high school physics textbooks and the cover of The Strokes’ debut album Is This It). In turn, the tilted-grid arrangement of the squares carries connotations of mathematical matrices, or a bird’s-eye view of an archaeological dig.

“Three Equations Describe the World” consists of three convoluted wire loops hung from the ceiling, their shadows projected onto the nearby wall by small, dim lights. Each loop represents an equation: self-contained and balanced on both sides. While the wire “equations” were quite aesthetically pleasing, the looping tangle reminded me of the way advanced physics equations look like gibberish to me; though, to be fair, I’m sure those equations are as elegant to physicists as I found the slowly spinning sculptures.

“Untitled (loop_01)” is the exhibit’s most baffling and opaque piece, in which a ring of light projected onto the wall slowly undulates like an amoeba. The ring constantly changes without taking the same shape twice over the duration of its cycle. While it was relaxing and almost meditative to watch the ring move around on the wall, the exact nature of the work’s connection to science eluded me.

Sally McKay’s “The Trouble with Oscillation” is a multimedia exploration of metaphor in science, comprised of two video installations. A large painting of McKay’s head has television screens for its eyes and brain, and a nearby metal cart holds three screens playing three films in synch. One of the latter screens shows McKay as a tourist to the SNO. According to the tour guide, her tourist role enables McKay’s highly descriptive approach to the remaining five screens. These other films make use of simple items—rocks, marbles, beads, paper cut-outs and brightly-coloured, child-like diagrams in marker—to represent the movement and collisions of neutrinos. The eye-screens and the brain-screen frequently show the shapes of their respective organs, often still as metaphors for the movement of neutrinos. Together, the films comment on the scientific tendency to use metaphor in models of complicated concepts, and playfully explore the role of art within these models.

The exhibit’s final work, “Black Box,” is a collaborative project between Diederichs, Hicks and McKay. Calling themselves by secret agent names, the three artists mailed items back and forth to each other. Inside the constraints of certain pre-determined rules, they modified these objects however they wanted, with the ultimate goal of seeing whether there would be any “art works” produced at the end. While the ultimate consensus was that none were produced, the collection of items, along with the meticulous notes kept at each stage, come together as the art of process, rather than output—much in the same way that a scientific experiment producing undesired or useless results is still, well, science.

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