Aesthetica Alumni:
Meet Alexandra Carr

High above our heads, mirrored panels slowly spread out to reveal rows of amber fragments layered beneath. We watch as the whole installation blooms like a flower; the motion then reverses, forming a metallic bud once more. This repeats in a continuous cycle, like a steady breath in and out. Titled Only Breath, this kinetic sculpture was commissioned by Science Museum, London, and is at the centre of its permanent display: Energy Revolution: The Adani Green Energy Gallery. The artwork serves as a metaphor for humanity’s responsibility to face the climate emergency by building a sustainable future. It’s a call to action, urging visitors to reflect on our individual and collective role in achieving balance within the global carbon cycle. This impressive feat of art and engineering was brought to life by Torus Torus Studio, a collaborative practice comprising visual artists Alexandra Carr and Colin Rennie. The former is an Aesthetica Art Prize alumnus, who has been longlisted for the 2017, 2019 and 2020 awards. She is a shining example of how successful participants have gone on to achieve stellar commissions, exhibitions and international acclaim. We caught up with Carr to learn more about how this project came about, the origins of Torus Torus Studios and the technical process of creating art that “breathes and blooms.”

A: It’s exciting to see Only Breath is the centerpiece of The Science Museum’s new Energy Revolution gallery. Could you tell us how this project came to be?
Cherie, the Director of Aesthetica, recommended me to the Science Museum and initial plans were proposed at the open call stage. The proposal was for a 5 meter wide kinetic sculpture that would “bloom” and retract over the visitors heads, providing a central focus to the gallery. Colin Rennie and I had been working together unofficially for years, helping each other on projects, with Colin’s CAD, engineering skills and previous experience on public art projects being invaluable. We had been wanting to formalise that collaborative process to combine our skillsets into a more structured mode of working. Since this project required a true blend of our skills, we decided to set up Torus Torus Studios. We proposed this change to the Science Museum and they were happy to proceed with the studio as the author of the work.

A: How did you approach the task of designing something for this kind of space?
AC: The brief for the gallery was: to provide a centrepiece to the radial design; to create a space for visitors to pause to reflect on the exhibit; and to incorporate an element of motion. We wanted the sculpture to resonate conceptually and to be in dialogue with the other exhibits. Therefore, it was important for us to reference the technological energy revolution concerning biomimetic forms, ranging in scale from large solar array placements to the microscopic scale of carbon sequestering or fuel producing phytoplankton. The radial and circular design of the gallery suggested a roughly circular form to the work but we wanted to activate the radial lines of the space by creating an outward and inward motion to the sculpture. This, alongside my fascination for the symbolism of geometry, meant that the spiral became the formal and conceptual starting point of the piece.

A: Could you tell us more about the symbolism of spirals?
Spiral structures are seen in nature and the form is significant across many cultures throughout history. Often referred to as the pattern of existence, they suggest an introspective spiritual journey whilst their unfolding, unfurling, emerging and blooming nature speaks to an outward connection with the macrocosm. The work has a phyllotaxis spiral combined with a voronoi algorithm that can be seen in tesselating soap bubbles or plant cell cross sections. We wanted to mimic this form from nature but in a constructed sculptural object – a technological mimicry. The radial outward and inward motion needed an origin or focus point from which the movement could emanate.  Conceptually, this origin point or the Aristotelian “prime mover” / “the unmoved mover” echoes some of the semantic references that we wanted to make in the work. However, the title of the piece contrasts this western view and poses questions around our homocentricity to say that we are part of a larger system, a larger universe. Here, we are “only breath” within one cycle. We incorporated 50% “one way” mirrored panels into the work in reference to light and solar reflective arrays as our (the planet’s) main source of energy, so the end panels were made from repurposed materials that were surplus from a previous project. In the closed position, these concave mirrors reflect the viewer. This creates is a moment for us to think on our own roles and responsibilities in the energy revolution. 

A: The installation is described as “a sculpture that breathes and blooms.” Can you tell us a bit more about how it works, and the overall experience it creates? 
The earth’s cycles – the sun, the moon and the earth itself – operate on a sinusoidal motion, and we wanted to echo this cycle. The speed at which the sculpture starts and ends was critical to our thinking. We didn’t want any abrupt starts or stops, both conceptually and technically, because these would jar the audience and the structure equally. At an early stage in the project, the Science Museum requested a proof of concept model that would demonstrate how the motion would operate so we worked on a 1:5 scale model of the work in steel. The motion for the model was powered by 2 linear actuators and an arduino microcontroller provided the motion control.  It was successful and then we moved into the technical design phase where Hepco Motion and Automation were commissioned to provide expertise in making the sculpture operate. 

A: What happened during the next stage?
The team at Hepco provided immense expertise and skill in creating a system that would be reliable and maintainable. We designed the solution for the final sculpture in collaboration with Hepco, utilising servo controllers and Zimm Screwjacks to lift and lower the articulating elements of the sculpture. The motion control elements and the fixed static elements are attached to the central steel beam of the gallery. As the motors direct the travel, the node at which all of the steel frames come together, slowly descends. Each of the steel frames are guided through bespoke gimbal hinges attached to the voronoi frame. It is this combination of linear motion and precise pivot points that form the resulting blooming motion. The results were tremendous, the motion control system is so accurate and has such a high degree of resolution that, when the motion cycle starts, it builds speed at such an imperceptibly slow rate that there is a period of perhaps 10 seconds where your mind is not sure if you are moving or the sculpture is moving. It is a little like sitting on a train where the one next to you starts moving; our relative motion is perceptible before our brains have caught up to identify if it is us or the surroundings that are moving. When the sculpture is in full stroke, it moves in a gentle compound arc, expanding out in all directions from itself, blooming and revealing its interior as it moves. The coloured windblown wooden panels that graduate from a natural sycamore to a rich red at the centre slowly become more visible as the sculpture opens. It then pauses for  a minute to reverse the cycle, closing again to an almost imperceptible stop at its resting point. The motion of the sculpture is so smooth and quiet that it can sometimes creep up on you; it has an elegance of coming into being, much like the gradual changing of the seasons.

A: The title, Only Breath, takes inspiration from the 13th century poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi. When did you first encounter this poem, and how does it resonate with your installation?
The piece was originally called Bloom but surprisingly there was already a piece in the Science Museum with this title, so we had to rethink it. We continued to work on the design and fabrication of the piece, trusting that its name would become clear to us. The piece’s movement already implies a blooming process but we wanted to suggest a greater sense of vitality and universality to the piece and instinctively felt that breathing or breath should be included in the title. After researching the etymology of breath and mythologies from various cultures, we were reminded of the Rumi poem Only Breath, which embodies everything we wanted to communicate in the work. At that point, it just felt right. The name echoes so many conceptual elements of the piece and resonates differently with each person.

A: What do you want visitors to take away after seeing the piece in-situ?
AC: First and foremost we aim to make beautiful, complex work with many layers of meaning and an attention to craftsmanship. Moreover, making evident the engineering of the work is also important to us. We worked in tandem with Buro Happold to develop the piece since engineering was a fundamental element to the work. This is not separate to the work but intrinsically woven into the fabric of the concept because engineering is a key part of the solutions to climate change. We needed to spotlight this in order to bring all the elements of the gallery together and draw attention to the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary way. Artists are not often seen as technically minded but it is becoming increasingly so as technology advances. It is this blend of innovative thinking and mastery of skills where progress can be made. The energy revolution requires society to come from all walks of life and come together with a collective solution. The solution to the energy crisis is multifaceted and nuanced so needs to be approached holistically, with the realistic expectation that it will take time to resolve and may not be plain sailing. With the engineering and kinetic element of the piece being as prominent as it is, it is our hope that we will inspire engineers as well as artists and everyone in between to think outside of the box and work in innovative ways. The piece aims not only to inspire bold thinking but to be mindful of our individual place and responsibility within a complex system. Within a more individual context, the piece provides a quiet moment of reflection and contemplation to connect with that universal breath.

A: Can you share with us the impact being longlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize has had on your career?
I was longlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize in 2017, 2019, 2020 and attended the Future Now Symposium in 2017. Being longlisted not only gave me an enormous boost to my confidence but it offered me exposure of my work of a scale I hadn’t anticipated. I have since met artists I have long admired from afar who have told me that they know of and respect my work – I put a large proportion of that recognition down to Aesthetica. Having the chance to have my work seen by their esteemed judges has opened up opportunities for me that have led to commissions, new projects and even this piece and my joint practice with Colin, Torus Torus Studios. By attending the Future Now Symposium, I gained useful insights into the industry as well as making some enduring connections with other artists; being part of a community of artists that help and support each other is so vital in this field. I also met Cherie at the Symposium and have had a warm relationship with her ever since. She is such a genuine person who supports artists and has a real passion for developing talent.

A: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Torus Torus Studios have a new kinetic piece opening in an experimental space in Sunderland this July, alongside individual works from myself and Colin. We have a number of public art projects we are in the development stage of which we can’t say too much about at the moment. We also have a number of self-directed kinetic pieces, both wall-based and tabletop that we are developing for a gallery setting. I am working on geometric pieces that explore light and colour perception which appears to transform as the viewer’s perspective changes. The works have a sense of space-filling with a lightness of form. Here, I use minimal and sensitive materials to give an overall ephemeral and elusive impression. I am continuing to explore the geometry and architecture of nature, crystalline forms, repetitive structures and origami techniques which regularly inform the larger scale pieces, as well as directing some of the kinetic mechanisms employed. Colin will be exhibiting a number of his glass and metal works as well as completing We are almost certainly wrong, a piece made in response to conversations with volcanologists. It explores how concepts of human understanding and our conceptual understanding of natural phenomena is a postulate rather than a perception of fact. He is also venturing into a more performance-based work with a mobile backpack-mounted piece that allows volcanic materials to be melted in a charcoal-fuelled mini furnace. Colin and I have our own distinct practices but there is a significant overlap where our interests in complexity, engineering, geometry and science come together in the ambitious pieces that Torus Torus Studios produces. I’m looking forward to what’s around the corner.

Science Museum London, Energy Revolution: The Adani Green Energy Gallery

The Aesthetica Art Prize spotlights trailblazers in contemporary art. Participants have gone on to win prestigious awards, such as the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and Prix Elysée, as well as exhibit at stellar international galleries, including Centre PompidouGuggenheimTate Modern and Serpentine Gallery.

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Image Credits:

  1. © Images courtesy of Torus Torus Studios.