Art & Science and the beauty of the pendulum

Imagine stepping into an immersive alien environment, your senses heightened, flipping through your mental memory-files trying to make sense of the space and time to which you have been transported…. a vast, dark arc curving away into the distance, animated only by inexplicable pools of light dancing in sequence in a serried row, accompanied by abstract sounds that could be cosmic radio-waves or some futuristic industrial machinery. You are alone with your thoughts. There are other people, but they are like dream- shadows appearing and disappearing in the haze ….This is Momentum’, a major installation by United Visual Artists at The Curve in the Barbican Centre, which you can experience until the 1st June 2014.

United Visual Artists: Momentum at The Curve, Barbican Centre. © James Medcraft Courtesy Barbican Art Gallery

United Visual Artists: Momentum at The Curve, Barbican Centre, 13 Feb – 1 June 2014 © James Medcraft
Courtesy Barbican Art Gallery

Momentum is powerful, meditative, intriguing and satisfying on many levels. Above all it is polished in its conception and execution, underpinned by the technical rigour that distinguishes the best artistic practices. United Visual Artists (or UVA for short) was founded in 2003 by Matthew Clark, Chris Bird and Ash Nehru, and comprises a team of technical experts covering a wide range of disciplines including architecture, light and sound engineering and  computational development. In the words of Matthew Clark, Momentum is an installation that we have designed to mess with your perception of both time and physical space..”

The most interesting features in the installation are the twelve apparently identical kinetic units, set up to work in sequence with one another to produce an overall choreography of light, movement and sound. The  units are based on the  pendulum, their movements programmed to simulate the natural trajectories of the classic analogue model. If you focus on the pattern of movement of an individual unit, you might notice that it describes a kind of arc that gradually evolves and changes orientation.

Paul Wainright Photography, 'Pendulum Project' image 129i © 2013 Paul Wainwright

Paul Wainwright Photography, ‘Pendulum Project’ image 129i © 2013 Paul Wainwright

Innovative photographer Paul Wainwright has exploited this natural pendulum trajectory to create beautiful light-based images for his ‘Pendulum Project’. In a video explaining the process,Wainwright demonstrates a pendulum similar to those in ‘Momentum’, which he has set up to create these exquisite  photo-images – you can see a whole gallery of them here. These are the kind of shapes that are being invisibly traced by the units in UVA’s Momentum.  You can even watch such images being created before your eyes when the pendulums are set up to make drawings as they move, as in my Iron Genie harmonograph.

Detail of illustration from Horologium Oscillatorium (1658), by Huygens, Wikimedia Commons

Detail of illustration from Horologium Oscillatorium (1658), by Huygens, Wikimedia Commons

The first systematic study of the properties of the pendulum was undertaken during the late Renaissance by the Italian natural philosopher Galileo Galilei. One of Galileo’s observations was that the interval of each swing of the pendulum remains the same regardless of the amplitude of the swing, and that this period varies according to the length of the pendulum – i.e. the distance between the pivot from which it swings and the weight or bob at the bottom. Galileo began to consider its possible application to accurate timekeeping, and based on his notes, the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens developed the first pendulum clock.

The aesthetic potential of pendulum motions began to be explored in the nineteenth century;  Professor of mathematics Hugh Blackburn at the University of Glasgow is credited with inventing the Harmonograph drawing machine in the 1844, and the pendulum makes a powerful literary appearance in Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic short story The Pit and the Pendulum in 1842.

In experiencing UVA’s Momentum  one feels more than a hint of the menacing quality of Poe’s pendulum. I was compelled to linger and meditate, totally immersed in the strange beauty and complex poetry of this vast installation….

United Visual Artists: Momentum, The Curve, Barbican Centre, 13 Feb - 1 June 2014,

United Visual Artists: Momentum, The Curve, Barbican Centre, 13 Feb – 1 June 2014, © Bethany Clark/ Getty Images, Courtesy Barbican Art Gallery