When art meets science, the dialogue between the two disciplines can be unpredictable, unconventional and inspiring — definitely worthy of conversation, whether you’re an art aficionado or team STEM.
“Object Permanence,” a collaboration between Seattle ceramic artists Timea Tihanyi and Sylwia Tur, is a new site-specific installation of porcelain sculptures and video works contained within a unique scaffolding of wooden crates at the Bellevue Arts Museum. The exhibit explores the confluence of science, memory, and the material world that both women brought with them when they immigrated to the United States. Tihanyi is a medical doctor from Hungary specializing in neuropsychology, Tur is a linguist from Poland who focuses on artificial intelligence systems.
Tihanyi and Tur’s first-ever artistic collaboration was curated by Bellevue Arts Museum Associate Curator Lane Eagles. It explores the tension between permanence and impermanence; absence and presence; and personal and professional identities through the lens of the psychological concept of object permanence — that is, an object continues to exist even if it can no longer be sensed.
For Tihanyi — who grew up in a working-class family in Budapest and is now the founder and director of a technoceramics studio as well as a professor in the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Visual Art program — her conception of object permanence grew out of the scarcity of her childhood and the do-it-yourself ethos encouraged by life within an authoritarian political system. To her, ceramics are both art and blue collar labor, which she has married with science through the use of 3D printer technology, specialized scanners and coding.
Her work is both abstract and autobiographical, drawing upon relics from Hungarian culture including folklore, embroidery and textiles, theater and the architecture and interior design of Eastern Bloc apartments. The result is a collection of small sculptures that highlight the essential “stuffness” of stuff: the momentary shape of cloth as it billows, actors’ hands frozen in mid-gesture, a piece of porcelain shattering. It is nostalgia made tangible, memories molded into solid shapes.
For Tur, using clay to capture and materialize the fleeting experience of communication is both an artistic outlet and an intellectual challenge. As a linguist, she was inspired by the idea of presenting language in a new and unexpected way: not as an audio, literary or nonverbal human-to-human exchange, but through objects. To that end, she merged art with the concepts of constructed language to create a three-dimensional alphabet system. The letter “A” is represented by a pyramid, the letter “B” by a bowl, and so on. Within the confines of the crates, Tur spells out phrases that have personal meaning to her, such as “Space is information,” “Loving what is” and “The moment is the teacher.” The sculptural letters are arranged in a nonlinear manner — nested within one another, scattered across the floor of the crates, clinging to the sides like barnacles — allowing them to interact in an idiosyncratic way to create meaning that the patient observer can translate.
The crates that contain Tihanyi and Tur’s work are staged to encourage interaction. Stacked atop one another, they meander through the gallery space seemingly at random, like a Brutalist building that’s gained sentience. The viewer must crouch down or stand on tiptoe to experience each diorama-like vignette. Like the scientific disciplines that have informed Tihanyi and Tur’s careers, the exhibit encourages a spirit of investigation and discovery. And as any artist will tell you, that spirit is where inspiration comes from.
“Object Permanence” is on display at Bellevue Arts Museum through May 29. More information is available at bellevuearts.org.
Read more of the Feb. 9-15, 2022 issue.