It was with a mixture of anticipation, curiosity and anxiety that I recently went to see Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire.
Periodic Tales explores science and art through a collection of over 70 artworks relating to some of the elements from the periodic table. The elements are all around us, from precious metals such as gold and silver, to those that are essential to human life like carbon and iron. As the curator of the exhibition, Hugh Aldersey-Williams, says we don’t often get a chance to look at great chunks of them outside of a laboratory.
Why my anxiety? Well, I’m currently working on my own artistic interpretation of the periodic table. I’m creating a series of 92 paintings, each inspired by one of the naturally occurring elements. So when I heard about the exhibition I was intrigued, but also worried that my concept wasn’t original and that I’d been beaten to it.
After some introductory explanations, one of the first things you encounter is a wall taken up with Quattro Formaggi II. Simon Patterson’s portrayal of the periodic table in white ceramic tiles playfully associates each chemical symbol with a famous person. For instance, Kr is Stanley Kubrick, Lu is Lulu and Cu is John Thaw - you work out why. We revisited this concept later on in the lab handling area where we made confectionery associations with the chemical symbols including: chocolate limes (Cl), crème eggs (Ce), fruit salad (Fr), parma violets (Pm), rhubarb and custard (Rb).
Cornelia Parker has more than her fair share of the exhibits. Her intriguing 30 pieces of silver consists of mechanically flatten silver plated tableware, hung from the ceiling they take on the appearance of shiny, suspended silver puddles. I liked her Explosion drawing, a three-layered composition made from the ingredients of gunpowder (charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre). However, I was decidedly unimpressed by Stolen thunder, which amounted to little more than a series of framed dirty handkerchiefs.
|Chlorine by Cherrie Mansfield|
Photo credit: Jade Edwards
My friend and I stopped to admire John Newling’s wall-mounted Value; Coin, Note and Eclipse. This narrative series of 27 pieces made from well-preserved, pressed kale leaves and gold leaf, progresses from organic forms of kale through to more manipulated varieties and then manufactured notes and coins. I know I’ll reflect on this work again when I come to create my own take on gold.
I found Marc Quinn’s depiction of mercury in The Etymology of morphology was beguiling and disturbing, taking the form of beautiful, large silver droplets as though a human figure had been spilled onto the gallery floor. This contrasted with Antony Gormley’s more angular Fuse, a multi-facetted cast iron figure prostrate on the wooden floor symbolising rust and decay.
|Iodine by Cherrie Mansfield|
Photo credit: Jade Edwards
My own artwork usually features strong colours, so it’s no surprise that I was attracted to some of the more vibrant works. My eyes feasted on Roger Hirons’ Nunhead, a mass of vivid blue copper sulphate crystals encrusting an old engine. I think my own interpretation of copper will be a little less flamboyant. One of the oldest exhibits, a cobalt blue glass Roman model of a cargo boat dates back to AD1-50, when glass was traded as a valuable commodity. Its more contemporary neighbour, Blue Moon, is a small lake of deep saturated blue glass in a rather ugly plaster cast.
Things took a more sinister turn in a darkened room containing three models of nuclear power stations and an antique chandelier, both made with uranium glass. Ostentatiously titled Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations, the latter was conceived by Ken + Julia Yonetani in response to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. Lit with ultra-violet light the glass beads glowed a fluorescent green, providing a haunting reminder of the destructive nature of some of the elements.
My favourite piece is more down to earth. The name of Annie Cattrell’s carbon sculpture, 18%, is derived from the proportion of the human body that is composed of carbon. It’s a perspex column filled with striking, undulating layers of black, grey, brown, ochre and white sand-like material. I loved its abstract forms and discovering that it has been created from dust collected from Compon Verney’s grounds and the homes of some of its staff – including house dust, pencil shavings, burnt wood, coal ash and pet hair.
|Samarium by Cherrie Mansfield|
The Periodic Tales exhibition is accessible, engaging and educational, without being overwhelming. There’s a diverse variety of work well laid out in several galleries allowing viewers space to contemplate each piece before moving onto the next. I think it does achieve its aim of bringing the elements out of the classroom or chemistry lab and showing how they are part of all of our lives.
As for my anxiety, it is gone. There are only a handful of paintings in the exhibition and less than 20 elements featured. There were no attempts to tackle the less well-known elements, like dysprosium, hafnium or promethium, so I guess that’s down to me. I came away with a few ideas and a renewed motivation to crack on with The 92.
The exhibition runs until 13 December. You can find further details and watch a short film about it here.
Written by Cherrie Mansfield, Origin Arts Artist