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Catalyst Conversations

It’s Physical: Kim Bernard and Jacob Barandes

September 28, 2015

This past Monday, Kim Bernard, artist in residence at Harvard, visited the MIT List Visual Arts Center to speak on her sculpture, which had been inspired by the “predictable patterns in matter and motion.” Jacob Barandes, a physics lecturer from Harvard, accompanied Bernard to provide a physicist’s perspective on her artwork. Bernard and Barandes presented as part of the Catalyst Conversations lecture series, which hosts speakers who explore the intersection of visual art with science and technology.

More a dialogue than a lecture, their presentation came off as polished yet natural and conversational. Bernard and Barandes alternated speaking, where Kim described the artistic process behind her projects, while Barandes related each piece to the field of physics.

Some of Bernard’s pieces borrowed directly from classic classroom models, such as a ball-and-spring model made from actual rubber balls and springs. “The Dance of Shive,” a hanging wave machine constructed from nylon and bright red bouncy balls, would not look out of place in the Museum of Science. Most of her sculptures invite participation from the viewer. For example, one installation, “Bardo State,” was composed of 49 fist-sized balls of concrete, hung from the ceiling by 3-foot-long springs. Taking its name from the Buddhist time between death and rebirth, the 49 hand-formed concrete spheres bob in tranquil disunion, set in motion by gallery visitors.

Throughout the talk, Barandes connected physics and math to Bernard’s work in subtle ways that related beyond the immediate appearance of the sculptures. For instance, a spinning bicycle wheel with colored balls attached to the rim allowed Barandes to begin a discussion on chaotic systems. As the wheel turns, each ball on the rim alters the motion of the whole system, which in turn adjusts the path of each ball. “Quantum Revival,” 15 plastic balls hanging from pendulums of increasing length, served as a launching point for Barandes’ crash course on the phenomena of Poincaré recurrences, in which a system’s trajectory will return to its initial state.

The sculptures and paintings share somber gray, black, and white colors, which Bernard intentionally uses to inform the viewer of the work’s serious nature. She emphasizes the motion and interactivity of her sculptures without employing whimsy.

One of the central themes of the conversation focused on the distinction between science and scientific art. One audience member questioned the artistic nature of Bernard’s pieces, likening the sculptures to uninspired classroom demonstrations. Bernard defended her work, explaining that her art had been foremost inspired by the beauty of motion. According to Bernard, each project’s aesthetics and viewer impact were taken into greater consideration than the piece’s relationship with physics. Barandes described Bernard’s work as making “the patterns and rules of physics accessible” to non-specialists. However, Barandes and Bernard both see artistic value in this type of artwork beyond its relationship with science. Barandes provided his own answer to the question. From his view, the physical principles which Bernard utilizes in her work are simply a novel medium of expression, no different than paint on a painting.

For me, this argument held the most personal appeal. I can still appreciate the artwork, even without a deep understanding of physics. More importantly, Bernard’s art has substance outside of it’s connection to physics. Her show at the University of Suffolk proves that she can build a body of art around themes of similar color and material — most of the pieces include bicycle tire tubing in some form, either wound into balls or crocheted into skirt-like sheets.The physical concepts covered in that show are disparate and unrelated to each other. Meanwhile, the pieces’ aesthetic qualities work together to form a cohesive unit. The crocheted inner tube skirts hold visual interest, even without scientific explanation. In the hands of Barandes, Bernard’s kinetic sculptures connect particularly well with the field of physics. However, I am sure that an experienced dancer could equally as well convince me of the deep connections between Bernard’s art and ballet.