the sun, reconsidered

emma mcrae: rafael lozano-hemmer, solar equation

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

“EVERY CULTURE HAS A UNIQUE SET OF SOLAR MYTHOLOGIES AND THIS PROJECT SEEKS TO BE A PLATFORM FOR BOTH THE EXPRESSION OF TRADITIONAL SYMBOLISM AND THE EMERGENCE OF NEW STORIES.” — RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER

Commissioned for Federation Square’s Light in Winter Festival, which celebrates the cultural, communal and physical qualities of light, Solar Equation offers us an opportunity to engage in a new way with the most powerful light in our lives. This scale-model of the sun brings together both the personal and social aspects of spiritual beliefs and practices the sun has inspired throughout time.

As the life-source of our planet, the sun’s majesty and mystery make it challenging to represent. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall successfully illuminated an interior space to recreate the effect of the sun’s presence in our lives. With Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has brought the sun closer so that we might see the complex behaviours occurring on its surface. In doing so, he has created a work that establishes an entirely different relationship between us and the sun. Experiencing this first iteration of the work, I was struck initially by how tame the sun appeared at this scale in the Melbourne sky. Viewed from a distance, the appearance of this burning sphere against the night sky was however impressive and brought to mind any number of apocalyptic visions. But up close I was also moved by the questions the work raises about the role science plays in our relationship with nature.

The sun in Solar Equation is created by five projections onto a 14 metre diameter balloon. It’s the largest spherical balloon in the world yet is still 100 million times smaller than the actual sun. At 18 metres above the ground in the middle of Federation Square and at relatively human scale, not only is the size of the sun reduced. For millennia, the astronomical wonder of the sun has been looked upon from Earth with awe, worshipped and feared; scaled down, visible only to a small number of people in one city far down in the Southern Hemisphere, this sun suddenly appears manageable and, therefore, controllable.

Seemingly inverting this notion of control, the visual content of the work is produced by a series of dynamic equations that are uncontrollable. The use of generative visual simulation to create emergent behaviour patterns implies that the visual imagery in the work shows us what the sun’s surface actually looks like. Yet this representation is heavily mediated and relies on a belief that mathematical equations are able to faithfully replicate natural phenomena. The work’s fusion of science and nature—of science as nature—is what, for me, makes Solar Equation an intriguing and inspiring artwork. It presents a visual representation of the latest solar observations by NASA and the European Space Agency to give us a close up, dynamic view of our sun and in doing so reduces this powerful mass of nuclear explosions to something constructed, interpreted and contained by humans.

While the violence of the sun’s nuclear fusion appears as beautiful, mesmerising visual patterns in the work, the representation of such immense power in this way questions how far science can or will go in the desire to tame nature. The possibility, then, of interacting with the work (through an iPhone app) further enhances this problematic human-nature relationship. By selecting various options that apply, for example, particle effects or perlin noise, you can ‘disturb’ the turbulence, flares and sunspots on the surface. The sense of engagement is quite immediate; watching the different effects each equation has on the imagery creates a more personal connection that makes this sun seem alive.

Yet this sense of control and the idea that you might be able to affect the behaviour of the sun (even in this scale model version) harks back to those apocalyptic visions to remind us that our own capacity to influence our environment should perhaps also be approached with a degree of awe and fear. In this way, Solar Equation achieves the artist’s desire to evoke both past and future solar stories: it reminds us of the wonder of being confronted with natural phenomena we may never understand, while simultaneously questioning whether our present and future attempts towards such understanding might dispel the sense of magic that so ignited our collective imagination in the first place.

Scott McQuire’s interviews with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer about Solar Equation appeared in RT97, and in RT89.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Solar Equation, The Light in Winter, Federation Square, Melbourne, June 4-July 4

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 24

© Emma McRae; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 October 2010