Lucy Pullen situates her work in the unexpected terrain opened up when the disciplines of visual art, philosophy and physical science meet. In recent years, the artist's inquiries have explored invisible things, like a thought or an atomic particle, and the human drive to directly observe these intangibles. Pullen intentionally shifts her work between the everyday and the esoteric as she pursues projects that give structure to the esential uncertainty and randomness of the universe. Drawn to quantum theory as a discipline that embraces these notions, Pullen collaborated with engineers and astrophysicists to create sculptures to house devices that detect cosmic rays as they pass through our earthly environments. The results - Cloud Chamber and Spark chamber - were on view at the Henry Art Gallery from March 5 to June 26, 2011 and later installed in the Elliot Building lecture wing on the University of Victoria campus.


The Spark Chamber (2011)

15 x 18 x 18 inches

steel, acrylic, apparatus

partner: UVic Detector Lab, RFK Fabrications, Laura Anderson



Cosmic rays are invisible, omnipresent, energetic phenomena that originate in outer space. In order to see them, specific environmental conditions must be established and maintained; this analog technology of the physics lab from the mid0twentith century reset inside Pullen's sculptures. In the Cloud Chamber, a sealed, windowed compartment contains warm isopropyl alcohol that evaporates above a cold plate refrigerated at -96 degrees farenheit. When a cosmic ray passes through this super-cooled mist a contrail is formed. In the Spark Chamber, argon and helium gas circulate inside a multi-tier, conductive structure. The comingled gases ignite in blue sparks as the cosmic rays pass through the specially-generated electric fields.












Aspects of mathematics also interest Pullen as a means of grappling with unknowns. For example, the sculptures are specific geometric forms: the Spark Chamber is a regular octahedron; the Cloud Chamber is a space-filling polyhedron. Here geometry demonstrates various theoretical and physical orderings of space and energy, from perfect Platonic symmetry to mathematical tesselation into multiple dimensions. The truly random nature of the cosmic ray, made visible inside, contrasts spectacularly with the rationalized forms of the sculptures.










Alongside the works that hold the cosmic ray detetectors, sculpture doubles populate each exhibition space. If the Cloud Chamber hosts events on a micro level, its double proposes a different, macro-oriented, view. A polished aluminum shell echoes the Cloud Chamber in size and shape; reflective material was applied to its base and interior proffer a dazzling optical experience at the moment we stem infromt of the light source above the sculpture. Duplicate forms of the Spark Chamber also propose alternative optical and physical experiences. An octahedron made of MDF suggests a solid to be penetrated but its surface is covered in non-reprographic blue pasted, a pigment that resists photo-mechanical reproduction and references another form of invisibility. A steel and Plexiglas version mimics the layers found in the functioning chamber. As we shift our body in relation to the sculpture, we see the playful shimmer of daylight (another form of invisible-to-the-human-eye energy) as it refracts off the planes.


Spark Chamber (2011)

steel and acrylic

18 x 18 x 18 inches

partners: RFK Fabrications, Laura Anderson




To explore the properties of light and vision further, Pullen made a set of drawings with an intentionally limited pallette. Divided evenly between the two exhibition galleries, the drawings depict shifting shadows and light-play in order to give form to the constantly changing view out her apartment window. Again the artist uses non-reprographic blue pigment to reinforce the notion that we only fully experience the image when we are present in front of it. the pairing of scientific and artistic material allows Pullen to 'make analogies' as she says, between artistic and quantum events, and aesthetic and cosmic marks. Another analogy arises with the term 'event'. According to the theory of relativity, an event is the fundamental entity of observed physical reality represented by a point designated by three coordinates of place and one of time in the time-space continuum. Physicists study "events". Notably, the philosopher Alain Badiou (a key indluence on Pullen's thinking) also speaks of "events" in his discussion of the nature of reality. He defines an event as a significant turning point or a moment of rupture in space and time, which brings something new into the world. According to Badiou, events happen for the world but not in the world; they reveal a truth, leave a trace, and influence a subject. The two senses of this word converge in Pullen's detector-sculptures. The sculptures offer a direct experience of a typically unseen phenomenon and in so doing provide a fleeting glimpse of reality. We become aware of this energy's omnipresence through the constantly forming and dissolving traces in the chambers. Ultimately with these works, Pullen invites us to think expansively about the cosmos and our place within it.





Badiou's notion of split subjectivity is also a touchstone for her. Pullen asks us to contemplate why we tolearate splits between the disciplines of art and science; between the hand, the mind, and dark matter; between drawing, sculpture and conceptual art; between a concept and the actualization of an idea; between ephemerality and permanence. Badiou recognizes a split within art itself, between a materialist paradigm on the one hand and an idealist paradigm on the other. As an alternative, he proposes that the result of an artistic event - as it changes the fabric of the world - brings about a subjective paradigm. There, an artistic creation induces an experience that encompases sensibility, form, and chaos. Pullen's chambers advance a situation where our eyes, intellect, and sense of wokder confront mystery, the unknown, and objective truth - or as close as we can get to it.


In a notebook ideas are like dry tinder, according to anthropoligist Michael Taussig, 'that in the right hands at the right moment will burst into flame.'







The cloud and spark chambers are the products of a collaboration developed between Victoria, British Columbia and New York. The team includes artist Lucy Pullen; Justin Albert, Assistant Professor in the department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Victoria (UVic); Mark Lenkowski, TRIUMF engineer for UVic; Chris Secord, machinist and Neil Honkanen, electrical engineer for the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UVic; Andy Baker of Kontraptioneering in Brooklyn; Robert Kuta of RK Fabrications in Beechlake, PA; and Tom Butter, a sculptor in New York City. The Henry would like to thank the University of Washington's Department of Physics, especially Professor R. Jeffrey Wilkes and Research Engineer Hans-Gerd Berns, for technical support. Henry preparators Dan Gurner, Michael Alm, and Max Pethe were also instrumental in the installation and upkeep of these works.



Sara Krajewski, 2011

Marks and Angles, Publication Studios: Portland, Oregon

ISBN 978-1-9356626-8-6