Shedding Light: Art Explores Science

An Exhibition at the Phipps Center for the Arts, May 7 - June 6, 2010


Installation by Susan Armington:

In The Life Story of Petroleum  I look at the origins of petroleum from teeny plankton in the ancient seas up to the present;  where we pop it in our cars and drive off.  

My art was inspired by life cycle analysis used by physicists trying to figure out the costs to the environment of any product, from its origin till it is used up – so  from “cradle to grave.”  I got interested in this approach when I did a 5-day studio collaboration with Professor Valerie Thomas from Georgia Tech, exploring how we could make 3-D objects to give visual shape to concepts in energy use and analysis.  We worked on filling a suitcase with objects that represent a life cycle inventory for sugar.



But I was personally stunned when I realized that petroleum, which is the foundation for so much of our every day stuff – plastics, gasoline, glue, paints, - comes from the residue of plankton from prehistory that was cooked and processed in the earth for 400 million years.  I could hardly fathom it –the scale of time that passed and the tininess of the plankton creating this stuff that we use routinely and throw away.  It reminded me of Pascal’s describing man as midway between nothingness and infinity (Un néant à l'égard de l'infini, un tout à l'égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout...).  Here we are, ourselves just a dot in the timeline of the earth, and we are busily using up the residue of life forms from millions and millions of years ago.  Through the timeline I attempt to show this connection of humans to the ancient past, and the lifetime of the earth as well as to these miniscule creatures whose lives lasted less than a day 400,000,000 years ago.



What does your art offer the viewer in terms of a way of seeing or experiencing that might be different from our ordinary approaches to science?

My artist’s view of the Life Story of Plankton is told with a couple of narrative voices.  Instead of an authoritative scientist who offers fact after fact, the story is told as a fairy tale, beginning, Once upon a time 400 million years ago.  Along the way, the painter and dramatist illuminate the gallery with images of plankton - first lively and full of vitality and light; next, shimmering in the ocean currents, and finally falling one by one into the dirt where they lay and decay over millions of years.  In this way the viewer is invited  to enter into an evocative story space of imagination and feeling.  At the same time, a scientistic voice accompanies the drama, framing events with facts and footnotes and labeling and boxing them in as species and types.  The timeline belongs very much to the scientific realm, but the expansion of it into the halls so that the viewers can experience it with their bodies and through time and space is meant to carry the viewer into the terrain of visceral and felt experience.  The use of tape to create the final images moves the viewer up into the present world of oil;  offering a contemporary view of where we are now.


Did you have any discoveries while making your work?

I fell under the spell of plankton doing this work.  There is such an array of these creatures, and even now, tiny as they are ( a million can fit in a teaspoon) they are responsible for creating more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe.  There are so many types and kinds – the word “plankton” just means “wanderer, drifter” – a veritable deluge of animals, plants, and creatures in between.   I started to see them as a metaphor for people….as we wander and drift through our lives, until we too fall to the dirt, and decay.

You can read and hear MPR's Art Hound segment on this show