Art and Physics Collide in Covariance under the London Canal Museum

By Sarah Jackson | 09 September 2013

Exhibition Review: Covariance, London Canal Museum, until 20 October

Visitors at Covariance, London Canal Museum
Beneath the London Canal Museum lies something quite unexpected. To get to it, visitors will need to don a hard hat, put on a sensible pair of shoes and descend two ladders into the cool, dark ice wells.

Once used as a warehouse to store ice shipped from Norway, they now contain Covariance, the first installation in Superposition, a programme of artists-in-residence commissioned by the Institute of Physics.

Developed in collaboration between artist Lyndall Phelps and physicist Dr Ben Still, Covariance explores the inherent beauty that can be found in particle physics and attempts to use art as a new way of sharing and exploring scientific data.

Although we still admire the polymaths of the past, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei, our educational institutions do little to encourage such cross-disciplinary study. Instead, we ask scholars to narrow their field of study until they are experts in one very particular subject only.

Blurring the boundary between art and science is key to Superposition’s philosophy, and Covariance does this marvellously. Just entering the space is quite unlike anything I have ever done before for an art exhibition – it’s more like entering a cave then anything else.

After descending into the space, visitors first see a series of light boxes helping to illuminate the first of the wells. A quick peek into the next room reveals a glimmer of multi-coloured and faceted discs, suspended silently in the air.

Each disc has been constructed by hand and carefully arranged to reflect the multi-coloured dot diagrams used by Dr Still in his work. The use of materials such as diamantes and glass bead links the installation to women’s craft as well – a reference to the women employed as "computers" to manually process data in the early days of particle physics work.

The overall effect of Covariance is almost magical – not an adjective one might expect to use in the context of a science based installation, but a fitting one.

The world of particle physics is a difficult and surreal concept for most of us to grasp. Covariance offers a different perspective, revealing that science can be art, and vice versa.

  • Superposition runs until October 20 2013. All tours must be booked in advance. Book online. Visit the project online to find out more.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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