Wysing Arts Centre

Constable saw painting as a science, ‘an enquiry into the laws of nature’ of which the pictures are the experiments. This is exemplified by his systematic study of clouds. In more recent times the two disciplines moved apart culminating in C P Snow’s attack, in his 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, on the way the established artistic community had turned its back on science. It is perhaps therefore fitting that the near by Wysing Arts Centre has been encouraging artists to rediscover the fertile common ground between arts and science in a series of residencies.

In the current show Renny Nisbet has, like Constable, tapped into the latest scientific thinking to explore an atmospheric phenomenon. Radio signals emitted by lightning discharges in thunderstorms around the world are picked up and transmitted via the internet to Nisbet’s installation at Wysing. However, walking into the gallery one might more readily make connections with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than with Constable. Quasi-scientific apparatus hang from the roof in which acoustic waves are used to create motion in suspended tanks of water. A cold blue light ripples in the darkness as a low sound, that you can feel as much as hear, resonates round the room.

This is an art work to experience not simply to view, but the experience is not intimidating as the reference to Frankenstein might suggest, it is engaging. On the opening night whilst adults stood absorbing the atmosphere, trying to work out the nature of the apparatus, or lost in class room nostalgia for the ripple tanks of school physics lessons, kids were dancing round stamping in ripples of reflected light.

Nisbet’s installation uses sound, light and movement to make apparent an aspect of the natural world that would normally go unnoticed. It encourages curiosity as the apparatus reward those who look by slowly giving up their secrets. Yet, almost inevitably with anything dependent on today’s technology they rely on input from the internet; a black box locked in a cupboard, its function opaque to the viewer. This is a weak link, as although it is plugged into a global phenomenon the work fails to make the connection visible. The viewer must take this on trust, but perhaps this is appropriate in today’s networked world. Whilst Constable’s audience would have been only too familiar with looking directly at the clouds to make their own judgement on the weather, we depend on reports and forecasts from remote experts. Here Nisbet lets us experience the distant weather for ourselves in a unique and revealing manner, bridging the divide between science and contemporary art.