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Alistair McClymont, Creator of Artificial Tornado Machine, Captures the Beauty of Science

This beautiful and scary art what happens when an artist studies scientists at work.

by Johnny Magdaleno
Feb 16 2016, 4:35pm

The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty

It's impossible not to feel like you're surveying some experimental physicist's lab history when browsing the works of Alistair McClymont. See, for example, a wind-tunnel like machine that's designed to hold a single drop of water sustained in mid-air.

Raindrop

Or inflated sheets of steel which stretch and shine like metallic balloons.

Inflated Steel Form

Or an installation which artificially creates rainbows via water misters and high power spotlights.

Everything We Are Capable of Seeing

Everything in his catalogue is fascinating and worth admiration, for sure. But it demands an observation - and it's probably an observation you don't often make when viewing a portfolio. Where exactly does McClymont's "art" begin, and his "science" end? Is science just his medium, or his entire method? And here's the big, overarching one: is McClymont actually an artist, or just a labcoat whose work happens to be featured by galleries and museums?

McClymont's response, when approached with these curiosities, is a dismissive shrug. To him, there's little to no distinction between artistic practice and scientific methodology. At the very foundation of both, creativity is the catalyst. Innovation leads to breakthroughs. Experimentation prologues any and all successful results. And with these results come new, illuminated articulations of life and its many facets.

Path from Limitations' tornado, torn into paper and colored.

One of his most well known (and indicative of the science-or-art discussion surrounding his work) pieces is The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty. Although equipped with a heady title, it's actually a simple machine with natural results. By incorporating fans, humidifiers, lights and scaffolding into a 10 foot by 8 foot construction, Limitations turns its immediate environment into a whirling channel of air and heat. In other words, it's an artificial tornado machine.

Right now, Limitations is on display at Ars Electronica's museum in Linz, Austria, where it'll stay until this December. But as for McClymont's next project, earlier this year he was chosen out of more than 60 qualified applicants to be Artquest's Beam Time resident, which placed him alongside practicing scientists at the Central Laser Facility in Oxfordshire, England. Some of the media he's uploaded to his blog show he's up to some pretty next-level stuff.

Producing the Astra Gemini laser

We reached out for a brief questionnaire to see what exactly he has planned for the residency, but instead got a glimpse into his mentality when approaching any new project, and why he thinks its dangerous to have a clear ending in mind at the start of a residency.

The Creators Project: What's the end goal of this residency? What kind of art are you aiming to produce?

Alistair McClymont: My proposal when applying for the residency was that I didn't want to set out a specific plan or artwork that I would try and make. The most important thing was to spend time with scientists and see what excited them, to try and understand what they were doing and let that lead to an artistic outcome.

The ideal of having an end goal is a dangerous one I think, because it presupposes that you have a better idea as an artist than the experts who are working in that field. A place like the CLF has such incredible creative thinking, which I wanted to let lead the process. As with previous projects I would bring my method of working to the residency, because I'm a conceptual artist who often makes physical things. So I would like to find an idea which is exciting for both the scientists, myself and a greater audience and share it. With previous work this has often involved breaking a concept down into fundamental things that can be understood, and always trying to look for the beauty and sublime within the idea behind the work.

Laser alignment within the Gemini Target Chamber

Astra Gemini Laser burns a hole through a thick piece of glass

How do you fit the role as "artist" alongside the scientists and engineers at CLF? What are you doing that separates you from being simply, say, an assistant engineer?

So far I'm doing two things at the CLF. Firstly I'm being shown some pretty amazing equipment and experiments. Secondly, I'm trying to talk to people. My goal is to interpret and represent the beauty of the science here in some way. There is a perceived gulf between scientists and artists which is completely false. In many ways they are very similar kinds of people. We both question the world around us and interpret it and present our results. The paradigms are normally quite different.

Astra Gemini Laser chamber

Obviously, your work is fields away from the traditional. How do you rationalize your work as "art"?

I think there is quite a traditional core to my work. It's impossible to define art, or beauty and the sublime for that matter, but at least talking about beauty and the sublime you can take an angle and have some agreement. I am interested in the Sublime that relates to reason and the feeling of awe when confronted by nature (nature in the grand scientific sense). Scientists often talk of beauty when describing concepts or solutions, and I think this relates to that definition of the sublime, but there is an overlying idea contained within beauty and sublime that ties together the process of artists, scientists and a more general human perception. This is what I'm seeking. Everyone has a feeling they might describe as sublime when seeing and comprehending something great - perhaps seeing and understanding the milky way on a dark night for the first time, for example. It is that moment of comprehension that I am after with my work: suddenly understanding that you're looking at huge distances and a pattern of billions of stars, rather than just a few twinkling lights.

Stay up-to-date with McClymont during his Beam Time residency over at his blog and website.

All photos courtesy the artist.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno