A rolling series of snaps and pops drifts through the narrow opening of the contemporary project space in the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It is the sound of Geiger counters measuring background radiation in Phillip David Stearns’ captivating new installation “A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends” and it fills the nearby halls with its idiosyncratic voice.
Inside the project space hangs a collection of 92 light elements suspended from the ceiling. The elements contain a strip of LEDs in frosted sleeves and look like long fluorescent bulbs, which are fashioned into rhombus-shaped structures in pairs and triplets, with the 45-degree angles pointing up and down. Connected to a Geiger counter, the strips light up each time a radioactive event happens.
The lights and the sounds of the sculpture are constantly firing, like flashes of lightning, and keeping an insectlike chirp in the circulating but warm air of the project space. Stearns elegantly illustrates the plethora of radioactive events taking place unnoticed at every moment.
Walking into the dark room is like stepping into an active thunderstorm cloud, with rain falling on a distant invisible roof. It is almost magical, though Stearns is uneasy with that description.
“The only magic is that it makes the unseen visible,” he said.
Stearns is best known for his glitch textiles, which visualize computer data and even the DNA sequences of viruses, on scarves and blankets. Using Kickstarter and building on his growing audience with his Year of the Glitch blog on Tumblr, he funded the production of these blankets, and soon a few other art projects as well.
Since he was a child, he has been probing and dissecting tools he finds around him, television aerials, microscopes, tape recorders, electronic instruments and most recently digital cameras and computers.
“I’m interested in the inherent voices these things have, that also carry, in some ways more political aspects,” Stearns explained.
His work tends to explore how to extend the operations of technology, like putting the output of an otherwise silent sound mixer back into itself to give the tool its own voice. The process is analogous to purposely using light leaks in analog film to create chaotic abstract images, though his work explores what the internal processes of these tools can literally say. In the mixer’s case, it is a loud, harsh scream in which Stearns finds the opportunities for broader questions.
“When you have a piece of technology, or a tool, it embodies the ideology of the society that creates it,” he said. “Is that [scream] a reflection of the society that produces the mixer?”
He also investigates the media used with these tools, reducing it to the basic elements of sound and light. Most recently Stearns exhibited “Evident Material” in Brooklyn’s Transfer gallery, where he subjected film to household cleaners and then 15,000 volts of electricity, simulating the way human eyes send impulses with 300,000 times the magnification.
“A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends” was inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. Stearns was interested in drawing attention to the monumental radioactive cataclysm and day-to-day radiation, which drives vital forces like evolution and the churning molten core of the earth.
The sculpture successfully brings those concepts to light. However, standing in the room to contemplate them is challenging. The viewing solution is as elegant and simple as the rhombus structure of the chandelier: Lie down under the sculpture.
Viewing from below slows down just the barrage enough to see the concentric rings of the structure. Stearns notes that if he was to install this again – the installation at the Burchfield is the first for the sculpture – he would hang it higher. He does, however, seem comfortable with how visitors have approached his piece.
“I asked if we could get some bean bag pillows,” he said with a laugh.