Artist Lyndall Phelps Creates Installation Exploring Particle Physics

Superposition is a project in which art, physics, and heritage come together in a unique set of collaborative relationships to create underground drama on a big scale. In the eastern ice well beneath the London Canal Museum, an amazing piece of beautiful art, inspired by advanced science, will inspire visitors who book the opportunity to climb down into the well to see it for themselves. For those unable to climb the climb in person, a camera will relay pictures to the museum’s normal visiting area and to the world wide web. Artist Lyndall Phelps has been commissioned to create this work by the Institute of Physics.

Through her discussions and meetings with Physicist Ben Still, Lyndall Phelps Creates an installation exploring particle physics, Lyndall became fascinated with particle detectors for several reasons. She was drawn to their inherent beauty, the sense of awe they inspire and how they are complete, immersive environments in themselves. Lyndall was also interested in the almost mythical or magical nature of their subterranean locations; hidden under the ground, under the sea or beneath ice. That these are dark spaces where light is used to detect the particles, inspired Lyndall to play with light and dark.

The stories and history surrounding the detectors and those that work with them, also stimulated ideas for her: Super-Kamioande is located under a mountain in Japan, for which glass domes are hand blown by men in the Japanese mountains where the air is most pure. These men are not allowed to smoke or drink to ensure their breadth is devoid of toxins.

Lyndall also became interested in the way data from the detectors is visualised and analysed by physicists, from the digital coloured dot diagrams that Ben uses, to the huge number of women employed in the past to manually process the information (these female employees were called “computers”). The latter struck a chord with the artist, whose past works have often explored with the physical labour undertaken by women, especially the repetition of specific tasks.

Artist: Lyndall Phelps is an installation artist whose work is often site/context specific and strongly process based, relying on research and collaboration with a range of individuals and organisations, whose interest reflect her own. She is drawn to an eclectic mix of subjects including history, flora, fauna, the military, flight horticulture and architecture. Even though many of these are strongly embedded in the scientific, she aims to uncover the highly personal and emotive within their academic framework.

Physicist Ben Still is a research associate at Queen Mary, University of London working on the international T2K experiment. He is interested in taking nature apart and stripping it down to its indivisible components, the fundamental particles, to figure out how our Universe today was created and what it is made from. He was awarded the IOP Physics Communications Group’s 2012 Physics Communicators Award and the IOP’s High Energy Particle Physics Group’s 2012 Science in Society Award. These outreach prizes were for a wide range for projects engaging a wide range of audience; from school students with LEGO Physics through to adults and art enthusiasts with Jiggling Atoms and Super-K Sonic Booooum! As part of the T2K experiment on which he works, he has a management role in the experiment’s computing and data distribution, while also using various statistical techniques to develop new analysis methods for squeezing more physics out of the experiment’s data.

The ice wells were built in approximately 1857 and 1862 for Carlo Gatti, an immigrant from Switzerland, who came to London to make his fortune, and did so. Gatti was in the catering business and he realised that there was money to be made by supplying ice. In the days before artificial refrigeration, ice was in demand for food preservation, for chilling the drinks of the wealthy, and for relieving sprains and inflammation in hospitals. Before anesthetics, ice was even used to dull the pain of amputations! The main demand came from merchants dealing in meat, fish, and dairy products. Ordinary people did not have ice at home, as it was too expensive. Ice had been imported from the United States in the earlier years of the 19th century but Gatti used ice from Norway, where it was formed by nature in the mountain lakes of that cold country. The ice was brought by ship to London and from the docks travelled by horse-drawn canal barge to be stored underground and overground in the building that is now the  London Canal Museum. Two huge brick-lined wells were constructed, thirty feet in diameter, and around 42 feet deep. Ice was packed into these wells in large quantities and could be stored for months, losing only about a quarter of its weight between Norway and the customer in London whose supply was delivered from this building by horse and cart.

The wells were used for storage of natural ice until 1904. By then, ice could be made in London, due to advances in technology. So the natural ice trade declined swiftly and Gatti’s company converted the building into a horse and cart depot, installing new floors and making extensive alterations. The man himself was by this time back in Switzerland, resting in his grave. The ice wells beneath the museum are not the only such wells to have survived but they are believed to be the only commercial-scale ice wells in Europe that you can see today. Other wells are buried and inaccessible.

One of the wells at the museum may be seen from above through an opening. This well is lit. The other well cannot be seen from the museum galleries and this well is where Superposition will be installed. Special lighting will be provided for Superposition.

Superposition is the must-see exhibition of 2013 for anyone whose interests span art, physics and heritage. It is a pilot artist-in residency programme that aims to engage adult audiences with contemporary physics. Visits will be possible on selected dates 24th August to 20th October 2013. Wells The Canal Museum New Wharf Road N1 9RT London

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