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Gravity Rides Everything
Luke Jerram’s artwork tethers us to moon, sand and stars
by Angus Leech

“Newton did not ‘discover’ a law long hidden like the answer to a rebus,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), “Newton carried out a creative operation. He founded a human language which could express simultaneously the falling of an apple in a meadow and the rising of the sun.” One might add to this list the phenomena of the tides - that thin and bulging meniscus which daily circumnavigates the globe; that groaning complaint of matter squeezed and shifting deep within the semifluid Earth. And if gravity is an invisible language that binds us to both the planet and the cosmos, then Luke Jerram has become its translator.

Jerram, a young new media artist based in Bristol, UK, recently exhibited his installation artwork TIDE (2001) at the Royal Ontario Museum as part of Toronto’s 2002 iMAGES festival. His intention: to make the imperceptible perceptible, and to reveal certain celestial relationships more clearly. As Peter Ride, Artistic Director of the UK’s Digital Arts Development Agency, explains in his introduction to TIDE: “There are many experiences we cannot easily communicate. Gravity is one of those. Our relationship to the Earth’s gravity seems straightforward, but in comparison, our comprehension of the way we experience the gravitational pull of the Moon is much more complex.

” TIDE is Jerram’s attempt to create an intense immersive space that evokes, palpably, a phenomenon that surrounds us constantly, but that we don’t normally experience physically: those oscillations in gravity brought about by the changing orientations of the Moon and the Earth. The piece is intended to be a true representation of this physical relationship, a “kinetic sound installation controlled by the Moon”, as Jerram explained when we spoke together recently in an interview at The Banff Centre.

A gravity meter is used to pick up the gravitational pull of the Moon (known as “earth-tide”) on the gallery space itself, effectively measuring the distance to lunar centre at any given moment. As the earth-tide reading varies with the Earth’s rotation over a period of twenty-four hours, from high tide to low tide to high again, the measurement is video-projected onto the gallery wall as a slowly snaking graph resembling a sine curve. But it’s the other conversions that Jerram applies to his data that turn a simple exercise in scientific measurement into a compelling immersive space.

“The varying gravity meter reading controls water levels in three rotating glass bowls set on tripods of polished aluminum,” explains Jerram in a softly spoken accent. “The bowls are spinning, and there’s a friction device attached to the top of each that makes them sing like a finger on a wine glass. There are three of these glass bowls singing in harmony with one another. And, as the water levels rise and fall, the pitches change. It works as an astronomical clock: The experience changes for the viewer according to where the Moon is in relation to the artwork.”

As the Moon whirls and the Earth spins, the fluctuating tones drift gradually in and out of tune with one another: At high and low earthtides (when the gallery is closest to the Moon and farthest away) the humming spheres all sing at the same frequency. Then, with time, they dissolve back into dissonance, the disharmony of clashing waveforms. At such moments, the gallery-goer moves between the spinning sculptures as if navigating an ocean swirling with currents of auditory interference. TIDE’s elements of sight and sound are meant to communicate a sense of invisible attractions and external cosmic influences - a tether of gravitational energy tying the site, and viewer, to the Moon. Sensitive instrumentation assures that the experience is dynamic, ever-changing, even if the spectacle itself progresses with all the slow patience of the planets.

The Harmony of the World
Of course, speaking of cosmic influences, TIDE is obviously more than just an audiovisual transcription of unseen forces. Jerram’s ambient Newtonian drone machine also toys with Western historical notions of the celestial sublime. Here is Jerram’s take on the Music of the Spheres: that ancient cosmological tradition that informed the theories of astronomers and mathematicians from Pythagoras and Plato upto the Seventeenth Century’s Iohannes Kepler. Early Western stargazers believed that the principle heavenly bodies (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Sun) moved about a stationary Earth. Each of these luminous objects was embedded in a solid and transparent crystalline sphere that sang with an inaudible (to all but the intellect) musical vibration, caused by friction as the nested spheres rubbed against one another. Numerical patterns underlying these vibrations were believed to form the basis of all physical substance, and even transmit divine planetary communiques to Earth and its inhabitants.

This notion of a universal mathematical order expressed via musical patterns and progressions lingered on to influence later astronomers, especially the German scientist-mystic Kepler. Following the lead of the ancients, who assigned specific chords and scales to individual planets (much as Jerram has done with TIDE), Kepler envisioned a solar system wherein the physical interrelationships of the planets, if measured accurately, would reveal hidden glissandos, scales and polyphonic chords all singing in a vast celestial harmony, much like a musical score made up of complementary themes. Seeking astronomical data to back up his postulations, Kepler gathered the observations that eventually led to his three Laws of Planetary Motion - the first to accurately describe and predict elliptical planetary orbits. Later, these laws provided the foundation for Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Art Borrows From Science
Jerram clearly put a lot of effort into getting both the science and mythology right while developing TIDE. He consulted with Musicologist Bob Evans for historical wisdom concerning the Music of the Spheres, called on vulcanologists for assistance with the gravity meter, and invited engineers and glass specialists to help design sculptural components that would respond with micro-precision to tiny fluctuations in data. Jerram also drew liberally upon the advice of University of Bristol astrophysicist Mark Birkinshaw while trying to create an artwork that would function as an accurate astronomical clock.

Still, despite the expertise of his mentors, Jerram is quick to point out that he isn’t trying to practice experimental science through his art. If TIDE has a return contribution to make to astronomy or physics, it is to enthuse and educate the public (at natural history museums and science centres, for example), rather than to gather data or test new theories. “A lot of talk goes on about art and science collaborations,” notes the artist, “I’m interested in the history of science, and how we think about it. But I don’t realistically think that my work is going to have a big influence on science itself.” In Jerram’s case, then, art borrows from physics - not the other way around.

Sublime Atmospheres
Jerram doesn’t seem terribly concerned about this one way street, however - probably because his mission as an artist leans more toward invoking a sense of the sublime than replicating scientific method. In fact, he doesn’t mention physics at all when asked what first inspired him to work with immersive installations. TIDE, it turns out, emerged predominantly from Jerram’s desire to engineer phenomenological experiences that border on the transcendent - a wish first kindled by the medieval religious art and architecture of Notre-Dame. “I hitchhiked around France while I was still at art college,” explains Jerram, “And I found myself entering Chartres, a medieval Gothic cathedral. It has the best medieval stained glass in Europe, and it’s an incredibly intense and powerful place. Everything about it is symbolic.

There’s this fusion of art within the space, between the architecture, music, stained glass, sculpture and painting. It’s quite a dark and intense space. I wanted to recreate some of that kind of atmosphere; I wanted to create sublime atmospheres and intense experiences for people. That’s how I began working with installations, and thinking about the experience of the viewer, rather than just creating objects in their own right.

TIDE, typically erected by Jerram in an empty gallery or converted warehouse space, definitely communicates a certain intensity. It also benefits from a remarkable simplicity, which may further explain its power to coax the mind into visualizations of orbital velocities and unseen attractions. In fact, the haunting austerity of the installation space recalls Jerram’s account of a recent trip into the Sahara, where he journeyed to pursue new interests in the study of perception and space. “There is very little to see there other than sand,” he explains of the desert. “At night you’re just left with the stars. And you get a very strong idea of why astronomy started in Persia, or at least why it was very advanced there. Because there’s nothing else to look at at night. You quickly start to study the sky. We watched the Sun set, and then a few hours later we watched the Moon rise. And then we watched the Moon set, and the Sun rose again. You got a sense of the Earth turning. You felt like you were actually on this physical sphere. And this is what I live for, these moments of sublime, sudden realization.”

It’s interesting that this moment in the desert came so long after the creation of TIDE, because Jerram’s installation has roughly the same impact on the viewer (at least, on this viewer). Contemplating it without undue visual distraction, hearing its oscillations of sound as transposed extensions of Newton’s law, visualizing a connecting line of force between gallery and cratered sphere, a person can drift toward tiny sublime revelations: the abrupt sensation that one is standing upside-down on a swiftly tilting planet, for example. Or fleeting notions of the Moon tugging perceptibly at the body: tidal swellings in the Atlantic brine of the blood. Above all, a knowledge never quite grasped so consciously before: that gravity rides everything, including us.

“We are living on a wandering planet,” wrote a much more concise Saint-Exupéry, pilot of a thousand mailbag missions over the Sahara, who, inspired by the haunting austerity of desert flight, was also a student of gravity and perception, and shared Jerram’s penchant for sudden sublime recognitions. For him, the aeroplane functioned as an “analytical instrument” for recalibrating our perceptions of the physical universe, because the view from an open cockpit “revealed to us the true face of the Earth”, and brought one “face to face with all the old problems” - like the vertiginous whirling of the solar system, or the way that gravity “seemed as sovereign as love”. And if there appear to be a strange lot of synchronicities between Saint-Ex and Jerram (who is now even learning to fly gliders in the desert), then it is the tendency to perceive technology and art as tools for refocusing our attention on the simple wonders of the physical universe that ties them together most closely.

Each artist has been a translator of these wonders, mythology and all. Each translation possesses the gravity to capture our wandering consciousness, pull us toward the desire to observe and know more. That acceleration transforms us, as Saint-Ex exhalted from his airborne perch: “Thus are we changed into physicists…Thus are we reading our history anew.”

Angus Leech is English Editor of HorizonZero. The phrase “Gravity Rides Everything” is borrowed from a song by Modest Mouse. It can be heard on their exquisite album The Moon and Antarctica. Luke Jerram was interviewed by Kurtis Lesick and Angus Leech at The Banff Centre in September, 2002.

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