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Sculpting… air

"-Icare, I care…", silica aerogel 
aer( )sculpture, 7.5’’x4.5’’x4’’, California, 2002

photo: MICHALOU(di)S
© MICHALOU(di)S, 2002

Aerogels are remarkable materials with unprecedented physical properties that fascinate researchers and space engineers. They have incredible insulating properties with regard to thermal, electrical and acoustic energy transfers. After  being used by NASA in various space experiments to capture cosmic dust, aerogels became, for the first time, the object of sculptural research. Dr. Iannis MICHALOU(di)S, Research Affiliate at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT tells us the story.

SG: When was this project started ?
MICHALOU(di)S : Three years after completing my doctorate in Visual Arts, in 2001, I was invited by the founder of "Sky Art", artist Otto Piene and the Director of the MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies physicist Steve Benton, to conduct post-doctorate, artistic research with the title (Nephele)3, Nephele to the third power. In Greek
 (nephele) means "cloud", and the objective of this project is to realize what seems unrealistic and crazy: a cubic cloud, a cloud which is delimited in space by six square immaterial planes.

SG: Aerogels are exciting materials for physicists and researchers but how does an artist get in contact with it? How was the idea of using aerogels as a sculptural medium born in your mind ?
MICHALOU(di)S : In my collaboration with scientists and engineers at MIT, I had a very interesting discussion with the researcher Adam Whiton, when he showed me a small piece of Silica Aerogel... I stood in awe!!!…
It was Thursday, October 11, 2001 exactly one month after the disaster in New York and only nineteen days after my arriving at the Center...
That was it! Looking for clouds I had found Aerogel! Immediately, I thought of creating immaterial, ethereal sculptures with it. I knew nothing about this material and the difficulties of its expensive fabrication, but I was certain that I would have something to do with it. I was so surprised by the appearance of something that you’re not quite sure is there! To believe your eyes, you need your hand and not only to touch, but also to handle, to move around, to press the material...Thus you discover that it is so lightweight and fragile...

SG: What makes aerogels so different in your perspective?
MICHALOU(di)S : Silica Aerogel has no definite geometrical form! When you look at a piece of this substance, it’s up to you to decide where to focus your eyes. We can say that the space of Silica Aerogel is a personification of what Henri Poincaré named a "representative space"1, a space that you cannot measure, you just live in with all your senses. This vaporous and fragile substance breaks the conventional boundaries of the euclidean space…The first time you look at sculpture made of this extraordinary material you think that it is not a 3-D object, you think that it is a gas, a projection, a hologram. However, this
nebulous mass -that is also an optical, a tactile and a kinetic space- is there, like a memory, like a dream. It’s like all the veils of the bride are there without loosing its mysterious and indefinite character.

The aer( )sculpture looks like a ghost image, like a 3-D X-ray

You believe that it’s an illusion, but the sculpture is there, waiting for you’re the tips of your fingers; After seeing this ghost image, the first thing you want to do is to touch it! It’s hard to believe it’s a solid! And it is indeed the lightest solid in the world because 99% of it is just pure air! Therefore, the title of this research has the name of aer( )sculpture.

SG: How long does it take to materialize…the immaterial aerogel sculpture?
MICHALOU(di)S : The first time I saw the cloudy and dreamy Silica aerogel, I was working also on the theater project (Nob)Odyssey, so I started seriously to work on the aer( )sculptures in the middle of January 2002, when I found a photo of Dr.Peter Tsou at NASA's J.P.L with a cube of Silica Aerogel. I had also a contact with Dr.Arlon Hunt at Berkeley Lab who gave me the name of Dr. Larry Hrubesh at L.L.L and through him I found Dr. Michael Droege at "Ocellus Technologies" in Livermore CA. I visited him at the end of May 2002. After our meeting and receiving the info I needed for the casting of Silica, I returned to Europe, where, in Paris and Athens, I produced the molds for the first aer( )sculpture. The molds were sent to California, and in September I traveled there for the second time in order to work on the last details of the first Silica Aerogel sculpture ever made!

SG: As far as we know this is, indeed, the first attempt to use aerogels in art. Did you already exhibit some of your realizations?
MICHALOU(di)S : The 15th of October, at the "Sky Art Conference 2002" I exposed and presented the first aer( )sculpture "-Icare I care..." at the European Cultural Center of Delphi in Greece. Scientists and Artists were surprised by the originality and the visual qualities of this work.

SG: Have you have frozen the blue sky by using aerogels? Did you finally obtain your goal?
MICHALOU(di)S : The objective of this project is to have these lightweight sculptures hanging in the air with the help of magnetic fields. Imagine an “Aphrodite” out of Aerogel free of its pedestal, suspended in the air…
Concerning its color, it's blue for the same reasons that sky is blue, so if you keep a piece of native silica in your hand, is like you have a piece of sky between your fingers!…
Nevertheless, when this diaphanous cyan is placed on the same line between your eye and the light, then a complementary orange color replaces the color of the sky, as Icarus it has also an orange-gold substance…
Its’ sky now, is a sunset sky…

1cf. Arthur Miller, Einstein-Picasso: Space,Time and the Beauty that causes Havoc, (2001), transl. in Greek S.Pierris, edit.P.Travlos, Athens 2002, pp.175-234.

About the Artist

Dr. Iannis MICHALOU(di)S was born in Greece in 1965. He holds a diploma in Fashion Design from the Ecole Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (Arts Decos) in Paris, and a Master of Visual Arts from the University of Paris I (Sorbonne). He received his Ph.D. in Visual Arts in 1998 from the same University. Michalous is currently a Research Affiliate at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. His research (Nephele)3 focuses on the creation of immaterial, ethereal works of arts using the sculptural media of controlled steam and aerogels. This research is funded by the IKY Foundation, the William Fulbright Foundation, the Associate Provost for the Arts at MIT, the Council for the Arts at MIT and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

Contact info:
Dr. Iannis MICHALOU(di)S
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Center for Advanced Visual Studies, N52-373A
265, Mass, Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, U.S.A.
phone: + 1 617 258 6941, fax: + 1 617 253 1660
web: http://web.mit.edu/cavs/people.html
e-mail: I.MICHALOUDIS@fulbrightweb.org

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