Into the Unknown: darkmatter

18 January 2012 by Philip James Ma...

"Be prepared to be catapulted through space-time," writes progressive artist Marion Yorston, "and navigated over the threshold from the known into the unknown." At Stargazing Oxford we are hosting an exhibition of Marion's installation artwork - and it's piqued a bit of curiosity around the sub-department. We caught up with her in the middle of her preparations and asked her a few questions. Welcome to the enigmatic world of darkmatter.

Marion, you're an artist, but your artwork seems to all be science-related. What got you started in this direction?

I have had many experiences throughout my life that have always made me ask, "Why are we here? How did the Universe begin? What happens after we die?" Very heavy topics to contemplate at any time in our lives. I really wanted to understand, why do I exist, why is the grass green, why does the sky become ribbons of colour when it rains and so on. I was born in Orkney, and then grew up in very remote parts of Scotland and Canada. This terrain embedded in me a love for nature which has remained with me throughout my life.

The hidden processes of how things work have always fascinated me. My first sketchbook documented the life-cycle of water fleas from pupation to "flyhood," painstakingly drawn in every detail using a magnifying glass and microscope. I realised when we zoom into anything we can see how things actually work. I soon realised the underpinning structures in order for life to exist are both beautiful and amazing. As an artist I hope to share the beauty of science in a very visual way. From a very early age I had a strong sense that somehow everything in the Universe was interconnected and there must be something that holds "everything" together. My quest in life has been to try and find out what that something is and through this exploration I thought I might be able to share my findings with others.

As an artist who has synaesthesia, where I experience sounds to have shape, and numbers are colours, and so on, I can only emphasise that I feel that our Universe functions in the same way: where it is multi-layered, where colours overlap and move with a beautiful fluidity. This cross-talk of the senses has helped me in both the way I experience the world and how I want to share my experiences with others.

When you make your artwork, who are you speaking to? Who do you hope will see your pieces, and what do you hope they will get out of them?

When I make a piece of work it usually arises directly out of my passions and questions about life. The evolution of an idea may take months or years, until its ready to show to the public. I keep a detailed diary, which is a very personal space where I can document my ideas. I explore ideas in many ways: drawings, poetry, lists of questions etc. By engaging with this daily process, ideas evolve and finally a work emerges through this creative synthesis. I produce work because I simply feel a strong desire to share the wonder of our Universe with others. I want to help open up spaces where science can be discussed and experienced by everyone. Often people are too frightened to discuss scientific topics in fear of being ridiculed. I just want to somehow break down some of those barriers, to make science feel accessible to all.

I am a bit of a literal-minded scientist. Do those turquoise blobs of yours represent galaxies? And the wires, are they supposed to be the filaments inbetween? More generally, do you imagine the various layers of meaning one could ascribe to your work, or is the process of creating your art different from this?

A great deal of agonising goes into every element of my work before its implementation. I don't want to transmit this internal agony to the audience though my work. It just means that every detail in a piece of work has been considered, and resolved with a detailed clarity. I prefer to leave the interpretation of my work to the viewer. I have learnt this over a period of time. If a work has been resolved by me, the artist, I feel happy to leave people to make up their own minds, through their own personal engagement with my work. I am always amazed by peoples comments, and it makes me feel very privileged to be able to share my passions with others.

I am having fun collaborating on the festival, and our poster, but what are you getting out of all this? Might you use what you learn on Saturday to make more art? What do you hope for the future?

I remember the day I first came into the Physics department and met you, Roger Davies and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and I can truly say I was so excited, that here I was an artist talking to such amazing scientists - and then realising that this passion I felt was also shared by you as well! They weren't all a mad bunch, after all, with wild hair (I better watch what I'm saying as my partner is a physicist), but instead were a group of people excited about their subject, but who also loved poetry! I have made many pieces of work that engage with the eclipsing of energy, for example the smashing of protons, and I hope that in the future this meeting of science and art can continue to create exciting collaborations. I really hope so as I have really loved being part of the Stargazing Oxford preparations.

Well, we're interested to talking to everyone about astrophysics - and if your art helps us start a new conversation, we're happy! Final question: we know why we study dark matter, but why did you choose it as your subject?

I have an enquiring mind and it won't rest until I know why something works or doesn't work. I have to read everything on that particular topic, both past and present, in order for me to personally engage with the subject. I want to know, why is 80% of all the mass in the Universe made up of some sort of cosmic glue, that holds all our galaxies together but is nevertheless invisible? So many topics rise from discussions on Dark Matter, and Dark Energy as well: What is true infinity? Was it just the Big Bang that kick-started everything? What is the ultimate future of the Universe? I can't sleep at night thinking about all this stuff. I hope you scientists can come up with some answers soon.

darkmatter, by Marion Yorston, will be on display in the Denys Wilkinson Building for one day only, at Stargazing Oxford, a Space Science Festival hosted by the University of Oxford's Department of Physics.

Categories: bell-burnell | marshall | dark matter | marion yorston | davies