Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Small wonders

It is no great challenge to describe what can be seen. You see a skyscraper and you say “tall.” You see an ocean and you say “vast.” You see Carrot Top and you say “not funny.” It can be a more difficult assignment to describe those things which we cannot see. How do you describe hate or love or boredom? What does pain look like? How do you describe despair or ennui or an upset stomach? How do we see their shapes and movements and colors? We can try to wrap a few words around them, or act them out on stage and screen, or throw a glob of red gesso against a wall and call it “ The Angry Syntax of the Leotard.” It can be a daunting and frustrating assignment to articulate and conjure those things which we cannot truly “see” with words or pictures. Industrial designer and University of Michigan faculty member Jan-Henrick Andersen has taken a fascinating stab at it with his show Perception of the Extreme Unseen.

With the collaboration of University of Michigan physics professors Gordon Kane and David Gerdes and art and design professors Sherri Smith and Dennis Miller, Andersen has created a family of images whose purpose is to reveal to the eye something which our eyes are wholly incapable of beholding without the exacting tools of a lexicon of physics and computer technology. Andersen’s mission is to “lift the veil on the optically impossible task of visually observing subatomic particles by translating their properties and behavior, known as the Standard Mode of subatomic physics, into a coherent visual three-dimensional language.” We’re talking protons, quarks, gluons, muons and neutrinos. Created in the blast furnace of the Big Bang, these smallest bits of matter and energy are the building blocks of everything we see around us. Theoretical physicists predict them, experimental physicists collide them, and Jan-Henrick Andersen paints them in ink on paper and canvas and sculpts them in bronze and cornstarch and wax with the help of digital printers and Z-corp powder RD technology — whatever that is, but doesn’t it sound good and scientificky?

So what does a subatomic particle look like? Well, which subatomic particle do you want to talk about? The “up” quark or the “down” quark? Do you want to see the supersymmetric up quark anti-red with no spin, or do you want to see the red one with no spin? Well, here goes. They look like big, beautiful pieces of candy floating against a sad, gray background. They look like noodles and bubbles and children’s toys. They are basic and bold and stark. They are bright red and dark blue and deep green. Some seem to be unfurling. Some of them seem transparent where others are stocky and smooth and solid. There are helixes and cylinders and ovals, most donning a primary color paint job. Set against the blinding white walls of the gallery, they float serenely and stoically around your head, disarming you with their quiet and simple geometry.

Andersen says that he wants to “use logic to explain form” with the various prints and sculptures in this show, the result of almost three years of research and study. He utilizes advanced computer software and hardware in this endeavor. He uses NURBS (Nonuniform Rational B-Splines) modeling software to generate the various visual models of the quarks and leptons and bosons.

“This is a quest to spur people’s interest. These are images to help us learn,” he explains.

“There are existential questions at work here. What are we? What are we made from?”

There is no way to determine if Andersen’s images are correct or accurate. He explains that one cannot say with certainty that there is only one visual solution to how one represents properties like spin, mass, charge or color. He worked very closely with his physicist collaborators to “keep what he was doing in keeping with reality” as Professor Gordon Kane puts it.

Even though the visual representation may not be the last word on how these various particles truly “look,” physics professor Kane explains that “This all has a foundation. These images are all true.” What Andersen does is assign certain aesthetic properties to data collected by physicists and a particle collider called Fermilab. These visual representations take theory, formula and mathematics and make them tangible and accessible to those of us whose eyes bleed when attempting to solve a basic algebra problem. You may not fully understand the science behind all of this, but you will appreciate the elegance and beauty that is the result.


See Perception of the Extreme Unseen: Visual Representation of Subatomic Particle Energy and Matter at the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery (U-M Art & Architecture Building, 2000 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor). Call 734-936-2082. Runs through March 13.

E-mail Dan DeMaggio at