When you look at a Van Gogh painting, your eyes never settle like they do when seeing a Classical painting. It’s the opposite of focus – it’s the rapid eye movement; and like light, everything moves – photons move, our receptive sensors are active, and as Richard Feynman would say, everything is jiggling…
Starry Night, Van Gogh, MoMA (image: Anesta Iwan)
The blend between space, science, and poetry is quite fascinating.
The landscape of Saint-Rémy, where he was kept as an asylum, was not particularly exciting per se – an open landscape draped with a field of lavender. This was the setting at which his famous “Starry Night” was painted. But in the midst serenity and tranquility, like Feynman, Van Gogh saw energy – energy in light and in air. Inspired by the landscape paintings of Monet, he continued to see landscape through the lens of light, (or more so) multiple lights. No object has just a single identity – everything depends on the context in that instantaneous of time.
“The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things if you look at it right… everything is jiggling in its own pattern”
– Richard Feynman
When you see the Starry Night, it’s almost like looking at a diagram in a chemistry textbook – the confinement of the frame is that beaker and all the “jiggling” paint strokes (up to the very edges of the painting) are those gas molecules colliding against the glass container. And as Natalya St. Clair had cleverly pointed out, the swirls moving about on the skies of Starry Night depict something close to how scientists define the pattern of “turbulence.”
For many early artists, painting was a science. As Georges Seurat had said,
“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.”
Color was and is science. Back in Vermeer’s day, paint did not come in a tube. Mixing different natural pigments and the binder agent was an experiment. While many artists would blend different powdered pigments together to form a third or fourth color, Seurat saw this “mixing of color” through the eye. For Seurat, the binding agent was not the oil, but rather the mind. He learned that the brain reads purple when red and blue are put side by side.
Van Gogh embraced this collision of colors. With every blue stroke, there is an accompanying white that always catches the eye. It is dynamic. Like light, it is fleeting and always relative to the viewer’s eye.
When we had experimented with the lights for 27 Steps, each strand of fishing line (which is a fiber option by nature) became like each of Van Gogh’s paint strokes. The strands overlap and therefore, catch the light. As you walk through the piece –the purple lights rain along the strands relative to your movement. It’s just how light refracts and how the eye receives those sensorial cues. It’s science, poetry, and space.
27 Steps (Nish Kothari + Anesta Iwan)
A few years ago I had visited one of the artists who opened her doors as part of the Open Studios event in San Francisco. From the depiction of the Earthquake-ridden coast to the mixing formula of jell-o powder to water, perhaps the artist Liz Hickok has also captured this essence in her jiggling jell-o sculptures of San Francisco!
San Francisco in Jell-O, Liz Hickok
“Remade in an unexpected material, seemingly permanent architectural structures are transformed into something precarious and ephemeral. Their fragility quickly becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of human artifacts.”
– Liz Hickok
As an architect, I ask, can architecture also achieve this turbulence, this collision of colors, this constant change in spatial perception, just as Van Gogh was able to portray? Can architecture dissolve and reform as quickly as the eye can perceive change? Instead of mechanical units and building systems, can material literally form and disperse to satisfy the needs of a space? After all, materials are made of atoms that through
“a perpetual pounding pounding pounding, and these atoms that gets these chains to hold it, trying to keep them and keep them, year after year (well, rubber bands don’t last that long, but, anyhow… a long time), trying to hold this whole thing together.”
– Richard Feynman