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The Earth Dome, Ahmedabad, India

Constructing Science

Eleanor Heartney
Throughout much of human history, science and art were often inseparable, offering tools for understanding and acting upon the world. Alchemy, for instance was regarded as both an art and a science, while the science of optics owes much to artists’ desire to render the world “truthfully”. Today, by contrast, science and art are often regarded as polar opposites – one is seen as the bastion of objectivity and truth while the other is the domain of subjective feeling and personal perception; one, we believe, emerges from the facts of the world and the other from the free play of the imagination.

Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon reject this separation. Instead, they prefer to work in the interstices between these two grand domains. They historicize and contextualize science using the medium of photography, itself another format that has an ambiguous relationship to truth. By focusing on the spaces where science is carried out and popularized, they reveal its contingent, subjective side.
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Mount Abu, Day, 2012. Wenyon & Gamble.
The duo’s work takes the form of panoramic views of observatories, weather stations, auditoriums and halls of science, including the one that currently houses this exhibition. The panoramic format is both up-to-the-minute, available to anyone with the right app on their camera, and historical, conjuring the efforts of 18th and 19th century painters to express the world in the round. Panoramic paintings were a popular way to recreate the experience of being in the midst of natural wonders or dramatic cityscapes. But whereas immersive panorama paintings placed audiences in the center of a cylindrical space, the flattened panorama of photography stretches and distorts the 360-degree view, so that two points that meet in reality appear to be at opposite ends of a horizontal scroll. As a result, the photographic panorama removes the viewer from the center, replacing the traditional one-point perspective that has been with us since the Renaissance with multiple perspectives and vanishing points. This creates a sense of space that literally unfolds in time across the horizontal surface and challenges ordinary perception in a way analogous to the conceptual challenge presented by Einsteinian notions of spacetime. And thus, it seems the ideal format for presenting the spaces of contemporary science.

Wenyon & Gamble create these images using a digital camera whose rotating lens creates both video streams and sequences of single images that must be digitally stitched together into a seamless whole. The high resolution of the images allows for a high degree of detail, creating compositions whose subtle narratives and metaphors unfold the longer one regards them.

The results of the artists’ labors are a set of remarkable documentations of the public face of science. Panoramic distortions make for a riveting sense of unreality that coexists strangely with the exactitude of detail embedded in each image. The effect is often simultaneously futuristic and archaic.
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The Great Hall, New York Hall of Science, 2004. Wenyon & Gamble.
Often they blur the lines between science, art and religion. Take, for instance, the artists’ depiction of the New York Hall of Science. Here the interior view of the Great Hall’s undulating glass and concrete walls become an impossibly curving space, in which the upper and lower registers appear to billow subtly away from the level horizon line that anchors the image in space. Wenyon & Gamble shot from an elevated scissor lift looking down on a lone figure and a set of benches snaking across the floor. The image reinforces the intentions of the original architect, who designed the building for the 1965 Worlds Fair and wanted to give the space a cathedral like quality. The glowing panels of cobalt blue glass and suspended circular lighting fixtures suggest a sparking night sky and contribute to a hushed, almost sacramental ambiance, melding the awe of religion with the wonder of science.
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The Auditorium: National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC, 2005. Wenyon & Gamble.
The artists evoke a similarly mystical environment in their representation of the Auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. The space, designed by mathematicians, offers a semicircular stage surrounded by a dome incorporating a set of interlocked diamond shaped projections installed to augment the room’s acoustics. Stretched out into a panoramic image, these diamonds seem to bend toward and away from the glowing orange light that bathes the empty stage like a extra-terrestrial presence. In the photograph, this sense of otherworldliness is augmented by the presence of a small open exit door that provides a transition between the radiant interior and the mundane reality outside.
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The Haystack Radome Mapped with Its Own Telescope, 2000. Wenyon & Gamble.
Even more abstract is their depiction of the Haystack Observatory in Westford Massachusetts. Turning the telescope usually employed to scan the night sky inward toward the interior of the globe that houses it, they transformed the geodesic dome into an abstract Penrose pattern whose aperiodicity evokes the complex configurations of medieval Islamic tiling.

Other images present the artists’ exploration of science spaces outside the U. S. Wenyon & Gamble traveled to Havana to photograph a construction site in which an old cinema building was being repurposed as a planetarium. Their image captures a state of disarray as rubble, scaffolding and piles of building material provide a frame for a geodesic dome that seems to have been dropped into the site like an alien space ship. Again, an open door provides a portal to the outside world, where we glimpse the elegantly decaying colonial buildings across the street.
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The Planetarium, Havana, Cuba, 2009. Wenyon & Gamble.
In Ahmedabad, India, the duo photographed the Earth Dome, a planet earth focused planetarium that appears to be rising out of the parched ground like a primeval creature. One can glimpse on the surface of the dome a partially completed mosaic representation of the globe, as well as women workers with baskets of tiles on their heads, making a curious juxtaposition of ancient labor practices and contemporary science.

Also in India, they photographed a science school where children with poor literacy skills are taught mathematics by means of orange wooden models of the Platonic solids. They also traveled to Mount Abu, a sacred mountain whose two peaks contain a telescope and a Hindu temple. Their view from inside the telescope seems to elide the two, as the bright blue telescope housing appears to levitate against the sky like a futuristic deity.

With these panoramas, Wenyon & Gamble embed science and its spaces within specific human cultures, histories and mythologies. They remind us that science is a human construction as well a set of impartial observations, and that its intermingling of subjectivity and objectivity underscore the long and productive relationship of science and art.

Eleanor Heartney is an art critic and author and has written extensively on contemporary art issues for many publications.
Heartney, Eleanor, Constructing Science, text for an exhibition of photographs by Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon at the New York Hall of Science, June 18 – September 11, 2016
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The Platonic Solids, Ahmedabad, India, 2008. Wenyon & Gamble.