Turn of the Imagination

Artist Demetrius Oliver comments on whether science trumps art as striking visual imagery

This article is one in a series linking art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

Demetrius Oliver is one of several STEM-minded visual artists invited by IRAAA+ to comment on assertions made in an article in the art and design section of the U.K.’s Guardian.  "Science is more beautiful than art,” headlines the piece. Astonishingly artful images of natural phenomena are being captured by astronomers, particle physicists, biologists, oceanographers and other scientists.  How does the aesthetic power of this imagery compare with the visual art created by men and women who are inspired by the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math)?

 The Soul Nebula (a.k.a. the Embryo Nebula, IC 1848, or W5). It is an open cluster of stars surrounded by a cloud of dust and gas over 150 light-years across and located about 6,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia, near the Heart Nebula. Courtesy of JPL/NASA.Oliver's Umbrella installation was part of the Affinity Atlas show at Hamilton College's Wellin Museum of Art (October 25, 2012-April 7, 2013).

The room-sized cluster of umbrellas was suspended in space to create what is known as an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system that is used to represent the relative positions and motions of the sun, moon and planets.

So, is science more beautiful than art?  Here’s Demetrius Oliver’s reply:

Antiquated theories that have been largely dismissed have been a source of inspiration for what I make. Consider how ether was once believed to permeate all of space, or how Pythagoras thought planets created inaudible sounds as they rotated. Although these ideas are no longer accepted, they exhibit a turn of the imagination that abandons the rational in favor of the intuitive and uncertain. Even if the solution is wrong, the answer to the mysterious becomes as interesting as the question itself. In trying to reveal the laws of nature, the scientist invents a new thought the same way an artist transforms matter.  Both are artistic creations.

Oliver’s Jupitor and Penumbra installations were covered in “Nature's Transcendental Image: Demetrius Oliver and the Art (and Technology) of Self Realization”  by Lori Salmon in the INNOVATION  print issue of the International Review of African Art in 2011. That special IRAAA edition explored the connections between the visual arts and science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

In fall 2011, Oliver's second solo gallery exhibition in New York, Orrery, was presented by the D'Amelio Terras Gallery.  “Oliver's radial sculptures are suspended in space, free from a sequence or narrative structure,” explained the exhibition announcement.  “The spokes of each umbrella carry various materials collected by the artist from his studio and home. The planetary, star-like shape of his sculptures instills an ethereality, allowing the everyday to veer towards the transcendental. With materials levitating in space, a centralized light bulb captures the orrery's circular motion through cast shadows projected on the ceiling."

Demetrius Oliver’s career was launched from his 2006 – 2007 artist residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem.