Monday, October 12, 2009

Chemistry made Art: Rebecca Kamen’s Elemental Garden

Posted by on 10/12 at 12:43 PM

All photos by Angie Seckinger

This is a Periodic Table. And here is its story.

CHF’s library is visited by researchers of all kinds. Mostly, they are historians of chemistry, yet sometimes an artist will get absorbed in our books and create something quite different from scholarly articles out of this experience. This happened to Rebecca Kamen, a sculptor based in the greater area around Washington, D.C. Inspired by her travels to Chile, India and Bhutan, combined with an unexpected recollection of the Periodic Table, she set out to research the history of visual representations in the history of chemistry.

Among the many books she consulted was Robert Fludd’s “The Mirror of the Whole of Nature and the Image of Art” (1617). Rebecca told me that she discovered “a profound relationship of the Periodic Table to the Buddhist mandala’s I had seen on my trip, both being cosmologies.  This was an epiphany in terms of thinking about the Periodic Table in a different way.”

Yet how did this translate into those ethereal, organic sculptures that are now on exhibit at the Greater Reston Arts Center? Some of the process can be explained with the help of the linked two web resources on formulations of the periodic table.; the latter contains a depiction of Boy Boer’s AtomFlowers, which refers to the electron orbital patterns as Atomic Flowers. Rebecca translated the 2-D depictions into 3-D sculptures, and thereby created a Periodic Table that engages its audiences in quite different and much more positive ways than its ubiquitous wall chart equivalent. I suppose that experiencing this exhibit is a bit like a trip down the rabbit hole.

Reston is not exactly in the greater Philadelphia area, and this blogger has not yet found a ride to go there for a field trip. If you are in the same position, fret not, but find out more about the exhibit and its history in the article recently published by C&E News. If you do go, however, give us a shout.

In any event, who knew that art and chemistry could be linked so closely? Here are a few factoids which will bring this point home: the sculptures are fabricated out of white frosted mylar and fiberglass rods, the number of holes and rods in each sculpture, representing the atomic number of the element. Each of the elements starting with Hydrogen gets larger in scale and elevation and more complex as it moves out into the space, reflecting the increase in atomic number. As Rebecca points out, the shapes created by electron orbital patterns are based on the same principals of Sacred Geometry that has inspired the Fibonacci spiral of the installation layout and is found in of all aspects of nature and art.

What is your favourite incarnation of the Periodic Table? Leave a comment or make your own - I, for one, did not expect to look at Periodic Tables after that last disastrous chemistry class ca. 1992. And to do it in awe, with an appreciation for the beauty that lies in things which may otherwise seem boring, is almost spooky…

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