Periodic Tales: The Art of the Elements

My book Periodic Tales begins with a discussion of why we value gold, centred on an astonishing sculpture of the supermodel Kate Moss by the artist Marc Quinn. Reputedly the largest gold sculpture since ancient Egyptian times, the work is life-size and equals the body weight of its subject.

In the course of chapters on elements from iron to lead to neon, I found myself referring similarly to the work of many artists, both old and contemporary, from Michelangelo, who sought out the whitest, most calcareous marble, to Rodin (whose Thinker has a lead counterweight), and from Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North.

It was a natural wish, then, to revisit the elements in the form of an exhibition. I have long admired the house and galleries at Compton Verney, and I was thrilled when they agreed to take it on. Curator Penny Sexton and I began a fascinating search for artists using the elements. Our rule was that the work had both to make conspicuous material use of a particular element and to illuminate or comment upon that element’s cultural history.

Periodic Tales brought some 20 of the elements before the public in a context that was entirely new for scientists and artists alike. Most of all, perhaps, it brought great splashes of elemental colour to an exceptionally grey autumn.

‘I loved this. It did feel magical ... transformative. At school, you put two or three things in a test tube and they explode or turn blue. You start thinking of art that way. There’s a showmanship here. ... beautiful, surprising objects.’ Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
‘accessible, broadly ranging ... an enjoyable romp ... The show interrogates the cultural meaning we invest in elements [and] skilfully unpacks the mysteries of contemporary art.’ Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times
‘stunning successes ... [Periodic Tales] has brought us right to the edge of what art can do to communicate science.’ New Scientist
Photos: Jamie Woodley