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If one doesn’t recognize the initials in ET Modern gallery as belonging to the famed analytic designer and artist Edward Tufte, the artwork inside could be anything. With his abstract 3-D sculptures, the artist could have been expressing a deep-seated emotion or announcing to the world how he likes his eggs.
But since they belong to Tufte and his namesake gallery, the works are simplified representations of something much more complicated — in this case the behaviors of subatomic particles as dictated by the diagrams of renowned physicist Richard Feynman.
In All Possible Photons, Tufte brings Feynman’s diagrams into the 3-D realm, where they belong. He recreates them as stainless steel structures that dust the walls of ET Modern like snowflakes, no two alike. The diagrams come in a variety of sizes, the smallest of which (approximately two spread out hands) is used to display all 120 of them on one wall like an extraterrestrial alphabet. The larger sculptures look like children’s drawings, ranging from rockets to creatures to kites. As the light changes and the shadows move, the sculptures turn into amoebae and monsters.
The whole exhibition is a study of abstraction: complex calculations turned simplified visualizations turned art without notation.
It is obvious why Tufte would be attracted to Feynman’s work. The theoretical physicist explained quantum electrodynamics with a series of squiggly (photons) and straight (electrons) lines, making difficult and abstract formulas into simplified, clear visualizations (at least to fellow physicists). Tufte, who has praised how scientists have explored the world, has made a career out of explaining the truths they discovered, through streamlined data visualizations.
Feynman’s diagrams also touch on major tenets of Tufte’s work — truth, beauty (truth’s byproduct), universality and “forever knowledge” — which he has expounded on his many books, most recently Beautiful Evidence. The diagrams explain the complicated inner workings of our world with elegant simplicity. Like Tufte’s best work, they are inarguable and lasting.
Indeed, when Tufte worked previously with Feynman’s diagrams, he attached them to the “Airstream Interplanetary Explorer,” an RV set to launch into space. There, he has stated that the symbols, with their universal truths, would communicate more than any flag could.
This exhibition illustrates the simple joy known to data visualizers everywhere, when a discovery of fact aligns with aesthetics (for example: a scatterplot with perfect inverse correlation, or clear clustering can be illuminating and beautiful).
Stumbling into the Chelsea gallery, one doesn’t need to know the facts or significance of the equations to appreciate the complexity of their aesthetics—but knowing adds another dimension to the 3D art.
All Possible Photons
Through Spring 2013
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.