Seeing Stardust

What happens when data from an astronomical observatory is mixed with eastern mythology by the hand of an artist known for dressing up as an alien creature? Some might say ‘an almighty mess’, and I probably would have been inclined to agree until I went to see the sparkling (literally) new show by Japanese artist Mariko Mori.

Rebirth, at the Royal Academy in London, elegantly demonstrates the subtle power that scientific data can have in the hands of an outstanding artist. I find it difficult to articulate exactly what this exhibition made me feel, but it felt like a glimpse of a dispassionate universe that doesn’t really need us humans. In Mori’s work, tides go up and down, planets move around the sun, and radiation created by supernovae gradually dissipates, whether or not we are there to observe them. Mori wants us to see the unseeable and to reconnect us with nature—whether it’s neutrinos, gravitation, or energy. Although often using scientific data as her medium she is not its slave, acknowledging the importance of cultural and spiritual practices — alongside the scientific — in making sense of the world.

Let me attempt to explain.

Mariko Mori, ‘Tom Na H-Iu II’, 2006.
Glass, stainless steel, LED, real time control system, 450 x 156.3 x 74.23 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori. Photo: Richard Learoyd.

Rebirth opens with Tom Na H-iu II, a tall LED monolith, reminiscent of a standing stone, constructed of glass and stainless steel and installed in a dark room. A collaboration with the Institute of Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo, the monolith lights up and fades as neutrinos, resulting from radioactive decay of unstable isotopes created in supernovae, are detected by the Super Kamiokande detector. It’s an incredibly subtle piece, and one that bears up to close scrutiny. I sat in the room for something like 10 minutes, barely noticing as people wandered in and out, and entranced by the monolith’s softly glowing patterns. I was reminded of that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the black monolith is discovered on the moon and, in a similar fashion (albeit minus a shrieking soundtrack) this piece draws the viewer steadily in. There was no discernable pattern to the lights—and I think that’s what I really loved about the piece—since it was the raw data that we were watching; it is neither more nor less than stardust hitting an atmospheric neutrino detector on the other side of the planet.

In Rebirth, Mori continues to touch on the theme of a culture deeply rooted in nature, particularly through rhythmic processes, such as the movements of the planets, tides, and the rotation of the Earth with what must be the world’s prettiest pendulum. The artist’s work also borrows from Celtic traditions, using astronomical alignments and, of course, forms reminiscent of standing stones.  There is a strong aesthetic component to her work, and a deep desire to reconcile natural processes with her Buddhist beliefs in cycles of death and rebirth; these are explored through her use of the mandala, a patterned circular form that is a kind of microcosm of the universe as seen from the human perspective. We don’t quite know what Mori’s mandalas are—they might be things seen under a microscope, or they might be completely imaginary.  However, like traditional mandalas that represent both the tangible and intangible aspects of our world,  these images too play with worlds both observable and imperceptable.

Mariko Mori, ‘White Hole’, 2008-10.
Acrylic, LED lights, 345.7 x 262.6 cm. Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc. © Mariko Mori, Photo: Geraint Lewis

Some might take issue with this mixing of science and spirituality. Indeed, some critics have lambasted the exhibition as ‘new age’, but I think that this is a superficial reading of much of her work. That said, although I conceptually ‘got’ her Transcircle 1.1 piece, it pushed a few too many “aaah, new age, must flee!” buttons for me to take it as seriously as I think it might have deserved. Without wanting to get into a debate about science and religion, I think that Einstein’s suggestion that “…all religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree” is rather apt in this case. These branches encompass the many ways that humans try to make sense of the world, and for all that science helps us to understand its mechanics, it does not do a particularly good job of helping us to be reconciled to our place in a forever-expanding universe.

These ‘meaning’ questions are not something that scientific data can tackle directly; however, in Mori’s pieces Tom Na H-iu II and White Hole—hypothesising the birth of a star—I would suggest that art can succeed where mere data cannot. In my post, Data as Culture, I started to examine the possibilities made possible by data-driven art and I stand by my premise that merely visualising data isn’t sufficient to create affective art. But in this exhibition, Mariko Mori transforms data into something ethereal and magical, connecting us with the beauty and majesty of the universe.

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