Issue Date: July 13, 2009
Periodic Table Settings
It's coming on four years since C&EN first wrote about the collaboration of former organic chemist turned multimedia artist Langley Spurlock and former ad writer turned poet John M. Tarrat. These longtime friends and artists in the Washington, D.C., area got it into their heads a few years back that they would recast the entire periodic table of chemical elements with the bold, interpretive license that makes artists so amusing and so valuable to society (C&EN, Oct. 3, 2005, page 60). They have been making progress.
Back in the fall of 2005, Spurlock and Tarrat unveiled at the Studio Gallery in Washington their art-and-poetry hybrids for 17 main-group elements, as well as the 15 elements of the lanthanide series. The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, provided some modest backing for the show and for the production of a companion CD. Spurlock and Tarrat considered that show to be their first installment on the complete artwork. Titled "Secrets of the Elements," the project ultimately will portray all of the naturally occurring and atom-accelerator-made elements on that iconic periodic table that readers of C&EN know and love. The two artists are now at about the halfway mark in the project. This affection for the elements, Spurlock and Tarrat noted recently in a café conversation with C&EN, is not universally shared by the general public, and they would like to change that.
When it comes to ACS's chief executive officer, Madeleine Jacobs, no arm twisting is required. She likes the series so much that she bought three elements: bromine, which hangs outside her office in Washington; thorium, which hangs in her living room; and antimony, her "all-time favorite," which also hangs in her home. "I love their work because I am a chemist at heart," Jacobs says of Spurlock and Tarrat's collaboration.
The overall response of the nearly 400 people who viewed the first show, most of them nonchemists, provide validation to the artists. "Based on responses—people tended to stay in the gallery for extended periods of time to view and learn—we became convinced that we weren't delusional about the show's value," Spurlock says.
"The story of the elements is the story of the known universe," Spurlock and Tarrat wrote in a joint statement about their work. "From actinium and arsenic to zinc and zirconium, the elements are the building blocks of nature. The stuff of life. The stuff of stuff."
The stories of the elements and their discoveries have been told and retold enough times to make library shelves buckle, but Spurlock and Tarrat have managed to offer a new take and a new voice on the matter.
Like the elements themselves, the pieces display an astounding diversity. Not one to lock himself into a single medium, Spurlock summons techniques that include painting, engraving, image transfer, collage, assemblage, photography, and encaustic sculpture; materials that include charcoal, paper, beeswax, acrylics, sand, gypsum board, pigments, wood, aluminum, galvanized steel, and silk; and a motivation to call upon whatever means will help him create the visual message that reflects the personality of the element that a piece is depicting.
In each case, Tarrat composes some variation of haiku or other short form of poetry, the words of which then become both a visual and textual component of the artwork. "We wanted to avoid the image-and-caption format," Tarrat tells C&EN. "So the words are part of the artwork."
For element 90, thorium, a geothermal heat-generating radioactive element named after the Norse god of thunder, Tarrat writes: "Thorium reveals/what lies hidden at the core/a magma ocean of hot rocks hammered by elves/from the darkness of matter." For the man-made, flash-in-the-pan element 118, ununoctium, Tarrat's element poem, titled "Jackflash," goes like this: "An element I/am a noble gas they say/Ununoctium/here there come gone in a flash/the whole three atoms of me."
Last October, the two had a follow-on exhibit of their project, again at the Studio Gallery. Called "Secrets of the Elements 2: The Unfinished Universe," the show displayed many of the 50 or so pieces that Spurlock and Tarrat had completed. Studio Gallery's director, Marina Reiter, promoted the show as "the second chapter of an ongoing collaboration in which chemist-artist Langley Spurlock and poet John Martin Tarrat tell a story as old as hydrogen."
Tarrat says he's amazed by how much he has learned and how much he has enjoyed the project. "There was nothing I wanted to do less than spend the rest of my life in a chemistry lesson," he recalls thinking when Spurlock first approached him with the idea. "But I did not want to be rude," Tarrat says, and he agreed to coinvent a new periodic table with Spurlock.
The first element the two worked into a piece was promethium, named after the mythic Greek character Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, thereby providing mankind with a transformative, double-edged tool and attracting the gods' ire: Prometheus ended up chained to a rock where an eagle would peck at his liver for eternity. On the blue background of the piece are bright splotches made, Spurlock says, by letting fireflies walk on photopaper. In an unfamiliar but strong and attractive font, in all caps, are Tarrat's words that combine gravity with levity: "Unearthly metal/blue-green nightlight of heaven/Promethium steals/Restores to Andromeda/his liver eagle peckled."
The next showing of Spurlock and Tarrat's "Secrets of the Elements," will be on Aug. 17 during the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C. The event will take place at a Science Café, from 6:30 to 8 PM, at Clyde's of Gallery Place. The artists will be on hand to explain how they arrived at each composition of image and words from their studies and interpretation of each of the elements.
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