Crystal clear

Science and art meet for an all-round good time, writes Marcus James.

Did you know 2014 is the International Year of Crystallography?

Crystallography. For those ignorant like me, it’s the science examining the arrangement of atoms in solids. So when I saw that Verge Gallery (located across from Wentworth, above SciTech) was hosting an exhibition to celebrate the International Year of Crystallography I was very curious, if a little sceptical.

The exhibition, aptly named Crystallography, marks the convergence of science and art. Every detail stresses this point. The images and models of atom structures are placed on walls and plinths like paintings. The artists are scientists, named along with their institutions beside the works. Each piece is unnamed. Instead they are labelled numerically.

But unlike the awkward mix of boffins and arty-farties at the opening, art and science complement each other in the works. Some works are pretty while others, like the black and white prints from diffraction experiments, are more eerie.

A large colour print produced by neutron Laue diffraction dominates the wall opposite to the gallery entrance. Intense red streaks shoot towards a single black dot in the centre of the image, as clusters of the same red swirl around its periphery. Surrounded by all the energy and the light, the little black dot in the middle seems perfect to the point it is ominous. The print is reminiscent of Kubrick’s star-gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey: flashes of neon leading to one infinite centre point.

However this Kubrick-esque print was not inspired by the director. In fact, it is likely Kubrick was inspired by such images. The print is actually a pattern from a boule (lab-made crystal) of lithium iron phosphate – the key material in rechargeable lithium batteries. A placard in sci-fi font explains the process. A beam of neutrons from a nuclear reactor is shone through the crystal inside a cylindrical detector. What is projected onto the surface of that cylinder constitutes the final image.

The exhibition is fascinating, if a little tedious. One must read and reread the explanations on the walls to grasp even the most basic understanding of these images. But they should be read. The works are “aesthetically compelling” as the organisers claim (some more than others). Sculptures of atomic structures in white plastic are whimsical and look like delicate corals. Yet these sculptures also serve a practical purpose in mapping crystalline structures in real space and to perceivable scale.

Yes, some of the works are nice from an artistic standpoint. But the real awe of the exhibition comes from realising the scientific process and value behind these images and sculptures. Science and art converge when the appreciation of these works is underlined by the fact that these seemingly rational patterns and structures form the basis of absolutely everything.

The great writer and druggo Aldous Huxley once said that “science and art are only too often a superior kind of dope, possessing this advantage over booze and morphine: that they can be indulged in with a good conscience and with a conviction that, in the process of indulging, one is leading the higher life”. With Huxley’s reassurance of the long-fabled relationship between art and science, I encourage you to go check out Crystallography. The exhibition will show at Verge Gallery until Friday.

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