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REVIEW: Periodic Tales at Compton Verney

Wellesbourne Airfield
Wellesbourne Airfield

THE periodic table doesn’t sound like the sexiest subject for an art exhibition, but in the hands of the Compton Verney curators it turns out to be sexy, flirty, thought-provoking and a whole lot of fun to boot.

Developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev more than 100 years ago, the periodic table categorises the elements, showing how 100 very different substances can be constructed out of the same elementary particles, and groups them together based on their atomic weights.

Since then, it has largely been used by swotty kids to prove their boffin credentials. One particular favourite show-off is to recite the elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major General song.

“There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminium, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium…” they warble to the delight of their proud parents.

Fast forward to 2011, when science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams publishes his best-selling book, Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements.

In the book, Hugh relates amazing facts and tales about the more culturally significant elements — from phosphorus to gold and more. His starting point is a recollection of the periodic table hanging in a classroom — from there he takes the reader on a fascinating, personal and leftfield consideration of the elements that even sees him extracting phosphorus from his own wee.

Back to the present day and the exhibition at Compton Verney where Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements, is based on Hugh’s book. Together with curator Penelope Sexton, he has worked with the gallery to put on this new show. I went along to the press launch ahead of its official opening last Saturday (3rd October), and was totally dazzled by it.

Apparently it’s the first large-scale exhibition of its kind to explore the key chemical elements in the periodic table through a series of works. The exhibition includes captivating contemporary pieces and historic objects.

Both bring you into contact with the chemical elements in a uniquely poetic way.

The first thing that hits you (just metaphorically, thank goodness) is a giant charred tree stump occupying much of the gallery’s entrance hall. Once a redwood, it has been de-barked, carved and burnt by renowned sculptor of trees David Nash. Called Big Black, it is the first time it has been shown. At around 15ft high, immense of girth and a deadly shade of black — it’s marvellously intimidating. Ladies and gentleman, we have our first element: carbon.

More chunky wonders follow. With Fused, Antony Gormley (he of Angel of the North fame) has created a life-size geometricized figure of a man made out of rusty iron and lying on the ground, pictured above.

Blue Moon is a giant disc of cobalt glass set in a plaster mould by Danny Lane — the piercing blue looks like an impossibly beautiful pond out of which some Greek siren might emerge at any moment.

With Nunhead, artist Roger Hirons has taken two old car engines and encrusted them with copper sulphate crystals. The mechanical hulks are transformed into dazzling, blinging bright blue objets d’art, but upon a closer look ooze gurgles from various tubes and orifices — the chemical reaction ever ongoing.

What these pieces have in common is that their solidity and their oddness really fires the imagination and makes you ask questions about the materials used and the artistic process. As we ponder the Gormley piece, for example, Hugh points out Victorian critic John Ruskin’s musings on the charms of rusty iron — what he called the ‘ochreous stain’. Ruskin noted that iron is naturally rusty, as it interacts with air and water, and so is more ‘alive’ then when it is highly-polished by human hand, and put to industrial use. And so in thinking about the art, the materials used, we find ourselves thinking about nature, the cosmos and the very elements of life.

Other striking pieces include Cornelia Parker’s flattened silverware, Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exhaled). Using a 250-ton press, Parker has compressed the Victorian cups, sugar bowl, jug and teapot so that they are no longer useable. As the beautiful, once desirable, silver objects hover above the gallery floor, magically suspended by invisible strings, one thinks of the slightly ridiculous uses mankind has put these elements, in this case silver, to — the pomp and class-aware ritual of the taking of tea.

A perhaps bolder statement yet is made by John Newling’s piece Mine. It is a gilded fatted calf embossed with the word ‘mine’ on its side, which brings into question our relationship to gold, possession and the distribution of wealth.

Yet more disturbing still are the artworks which employ uranium — yes, the radioactive substance. Using uranium glass, which glows a lurid, alien green when shone with UV lights, Julia+Ken Yonetani have created designer-looking chandeliers, while Kate Williams has made scaled-down models of nuclear power stations. These include Dounreay and the mythical Springfield one from The Simpsons, which are both comical and worrying at the same time.

Two of the most fun exhibits are Simon Patterson’s reworkings of the periodic table. Quattro Formaggi II is made from white tiles and takes up one of the gallery walls. Instead of the chemical name beneath each symbol, there is the name of a famous person or character. My favourite was John Thaw beneath ‘CU’ (as in copper — get it?!). A sort of logic prevails in the choice of names in his other table, Rhodes Reason: the gases are figures from Greek myth or history, while the yellow synthetic elements are given their proper names. However, Patterson plays around with red herrings and riddles, which maddeningly test your knowledge and expose the inherent human desire to establish order and meaning.

Fittingly, it’s very much a ‘season of chemists and much thoughtfulness’ at Compton Verney (with apologies to Keats) this autumn.

Explore, learn new things, have fun and resist the urge to sing Gilbert and Sullivan.

Periodic Tales is on at Compton Verney until Sunday, 13th December. There is a comprehensive range of learning and family activities to accompany the exhibition. Visit www.comptonverney.org.uk, or call 01926 645500.

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