Continuum: Artist’s Statement

Rebecca Kamen, Artist

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Albert Einstein

As a young girl, I fell in love with discovery. With awe and wonder, I spent my childhood investigating the world of elements with a simple chemistry set, and used that set to create elaborate science-fair projects. Insatiable curiosity and a deep love of learning created bridges between seemingly unrelated disciplines. As a result, I have devoted my life to an intuitive examination of properties that overlap from discipline to discipline. I remember the thrill when my first cardboard telescope magically connected me with the cosmos, and can still summon my feelings and fascination as I continue to explore its matter and meaning. These fond memories are the beginning of a journey dedicated to the pursuit of “knowing” that continues to inform and inspire my life and work as an artist.

My interest in the relationship of art and science developed in the mid-1980s, while collaborating on a project exploring Eastern and Western contributions to science and technology with Chinese sculptor Zhao Shu Tong. Further investigation of the intersections of art and science informed the creation of Matter, a series of complex wire sculptures. Created earlier in my career, these works planted the seeds for my initial discoveries and observations about the relationship between inner and outer space. The work was created for an exhibition in 2005 at the American Center for Physics, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of special relativity. In the exhibition essay, curator Sarah Tanguy describes the work:

With science as her inspiration, Kamen avidly probes the world around her to find a means to describe her research. Rich in associations, her work draws on intuition and the language of abstraction to convey individual ideas and emotions. And though not literally kinetic, her wired-based sculptures succeed in suggesting motion and change, while instilling an empathetic wonder in the viewer.

Research at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University and in the neuroscience division of National Institutes of Health has provided exciting insights into the relationship between inner and outer space, and has been the catalyst for the Portal Installation. Inspired by gravitational wave physics and the notion of Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment), the installation interprets the tracery patterns of the orbits of black holes, and celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of general relativity.

The Continuum exhibition is retrospective in nature. It also showcases two new multi-media installations: Portal and NeuroCantos, exploring the relationship and poetics of inner and outer space. The Portal installation, like many art/science projects, has been collaborative in nature. Dialogues with scientists at the Center for Astrophysics; with Scott Hughes, astrophysicist and professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and with Manuela Campanelli, Director of the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation at Rochester Institute of Technology, have been extremely informative, and inspired the concept for the installation.

Sound artist Susan Alexjander has created a haunting soundscape utilizing a variety of sounds originating from outer space, including sonic frequencies representing a binary pair of orbiting black holes, enhancing the experience of this installation for the viewer. More information about the sound component can be found in Susan’s artist statement in this catalogue.

NeuroCantos investigates how the brain creates a conduit between inner and outer space through its ability to perceive similar patterns of complexity at the micro and macro scale. The installation celebrates how art can form new bridges of understanding between the diverse fields of scientific research, astrophysics, and neuroscience. It explores insights gained by rare opportunities to research at the Center for Astrophysics, National Institutes of Health, and the Cajal Institute in Madrid, and celebrates art’s ability to re-image science.

The initial seeds for perceiving a relationship between inner and outer space were planted during my tenure as an artist-in-residence in the neuroscience program at NIH, researching the work of neuroanatomist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Trained as both an artist and scientist, Cajal won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his discovery of the relationship of neurons to the nervous system. Cajal’s use of metaphor in describing his research continues to be a muse in the development of my work.

The initial spark for NeuroCantos was and continues as an ongoing dialogue with British poet, Steven J. Fowler. This began when we met as fellows at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, in February of 2015, during a five-day seminar that explored “The Art of Neuroscience.” Our burgeoning friendship continues to serve as a catalyst for correspondence investigating the nature of the mind and the poetics of inner and outer space.

Within NeuroCantos, which translates loosely to “brain song,” the suspended, intricately cut cone-shaped sculptures represent the complexity of neuronal networks in the brain, and the ability of these networks to transform chemical and electrical signals into patterns of perception. Below the cones are circular, overlapping cutout shapes symbolizing the similarity of patterns at both the micro (inner – the brain) and the macro (outer space) level, creating a bridge through patterns between astrophysics and neuroscience. Placed in the center of the circular forms are rocks mimicking similar shapes, and representing a connection to nature. These patterns are similar to those found within inner and outer space.

The installation is further enhanced by Susan Alexjander’s spoken word soundscape that explores how the brain interprets fragments of information in creating new meaning and understanding.

Terry Lowenthal’s video projection of “Moving Poems” adds a kinetic element to the content of the installation. Utilizing a quote from Cajal, bookended by fragments of Steven Fowler’s poems, the video adds another level to the complex patterning inspired by the poetics of inner and outer space.

The Continuum exhibition provides an exciting opportunity to continue to foster an ongoing, multidisciplinary dialogue that offers new and innovative ways to understand the relationship between art and science.