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What lies beneath

Abigail Smith
An exciting arts-meets-science collaboration waits down a Victorian ice well, illuminating the relationship between particle physics and everything else

There is a moment in The Simpsons when Shackleton-esque explorers present shop owner Apu with an ice delivery: “You’ve gotta start paying more than a dollar a bag, we lost four more men on this expedition!” Apu’s retort is instant: “If you can think of a better way to get ice then I would love to hear about it.”

It seems like an absurd joke: the idea of anyone travelling across the globe with such an ephemeral cargo is Sisyphean. But in the days before our shops and homes were filled with freezers, entrepreneurs were actually doing this using only Victorian technology and storing ice in wells that still exist beneath our feet.

It is the hidden and almost mythical quality of these subterranean spaces that made them such a perfect location for Covariance, an interdisciplinary artwork commissioned by the Institute of Physics that was on show at the London Canal Museum in September 2013.

Glimpsing a particle chandelier

Inspired by Dr Ben Still’s work with neutrinos – the vital building blocks of our world that are notoriously difficult to observe – artist Lyndall Phelps created an installation. 

After the excitement of donning a hard hat, descending into the first well – it has to be said – is a little underwhelming. Three lonely lightboxes, created to the size that the ice blocks would have been, show images of colourfully embellished discs trapped in (you’ve guessed it) ice.

But turn around and you glimpse something magical: a shower of sparkling droplets seemingly frozen in time, cascading from floor to ceiling. Framed by the dark, dank doorway to the second well, it looks like an Aladdin’s cave and I could not wait for our guide to take us through.

As we ducked under the original beam, an audible ‘wow’ escapes the small group of well-goers. Beautifully lit in this cold, twilit chamber are hundreds of intricate clear discs, handmade and delicately ornamented with 36,000 diamanté and 28,000 glass beads.

Rich with symbolism

It is a piece rich with symbolism: the location evokes neutrino observatories, which are typically set underground and sometimes in disused industrial spaces; the material echoes the glass orbs that line such chambers to capture elusive neutrino activity; and Phelps’ dedicated crafting of the discs pays homage to the women once who toiled behind the scenes of scientific discovery.

As part of her research, Phelps was drawn to tales of ‘female computers’, who historically performed calculations to make sense of data from particle physics experiments. In another nod to the past, brass rods referencing the early scientific instruments are used to suspend the discs, while the colour scheme and dot form is inspired by present-day diagrams of the data.

The relationship between science and art runs more than just one way: in his poetic introduction to the work, Dr Ben Still describes the neutrino as “a quiet voice [among a] loud concert” of particle showers, whose “ghostly behaviour” renders them a relative mystery. When dealing with unseen forces, the language of art comes into its own.

Like the concentric circles that form one of its motifs, this installation is surrounded by waves of meaning too various to take in during the single 20-minute visit. Ranging beyond art and science to history and geography given its site-specific nature, it seems there is no facet of life that this beautiful piece does not obliquely allude to. Even, it transpires, The Simpsons.

Covariance is the first in a series of collaborative physics and art projects, known as Superposition.

Image credit: Richard Davies

When dealing with unseen forces, the language of art comes into its own



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