Cosmic scale

Tom Shannon: Universe in the Mind | Mind in the Universe inspires existential questions.

Cosmic scale
“Atom Compass Array” comprising hundreds of magnetic spheres, hangs in the lobby at Science Museum Oklahoma as part of Tom Shannon: Universe in the Mind | Mind in the Universe.
Tom Shannon: Universe in the Mind | Mind in the Universe

through Oct. 25, 2020

Science Museum Oklahoma
2020 Remington Place

A current art exhibit has been changing the way visitors walk into a museum.

“The first thing they do is look up,” said Scott Henderson, director of smART Space galleries at Science Museum Oklahoma, who often watches from the second floor as visitors notice “Atom Compass Array” currently hanging in the museum’s lobby. “They walk around with their heads up in a circular formation to try to understand what they’re looking at. Underneath, there’s a sign that explains the installation, so you’re actually in it while you’re reading the description.”

The large-scale installation, which is comprised of hundreds of magnetic spheres suspended from the museum’s glass ceiling, makes its U.S. debut as part of Tom Shannon: Universe in the Mind | Mind in the Universe, on display through Oct. 25, 2020 at Science Museum Oklahoma, 2020 Remington Place. The white halves of the black-and-white spheres face magnetic north, but the installation represents more than a standard compass could tell you.

“If you walk around it, you see the phases of the moon shifting, but it also represents a large molecule in the way that the balls react to each other and vibrate and move around,” Henderson said. “You really get a sense of large, small, macro- and microcosmic.”

Shannon — a Manhattan-based sculptor, artist and inventor — has had works displayed in Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but this exhibition is his first in Oklahoma. Henderson said he began talking with Shannon about two years ago and became “intrigued by his thought process.”

“Atom Compass Array” alone took at least six months to plan and build and about four days to install, Henderson said.

“It had many phases, many plans, many renderings,” Henderson said. “Our lobby is fairly new, and it’s sort of unique. It also has a slight slant to it, so we had to figure out how many balls we could hang in the array, how far they had to be distanced apart. They’re all magnetic, so that’s another challenge that we had to face. That took some time, but he kept coming back with new renderings, new plans. I would send back specs, and we’d just go back and forth until eventually we came to an agreement.”

The exhibit also includes a 6-foot version of Shannon’s “Synchronous World Clock,” which, according to the patent Shannon filed in 1984 “allows a user to determine the exact time at any location on earth” by rotating a two-dimensional map of the earth once every 24 hours. Architect, engineer and theorist Buckminster Fuller — whose lectures Shannon attended as a master’s student at the Art Institute of Chicago — designed the map, which, according to the clock’s patent “includes an accurate north polar projection of all the earth’s inhabited continents.” A full rotation of the map, like a full rotation of the earth, takes 1,440 minutes, or 24 hours.

“It turns very slowly,” Henderson said, “but you’ll get a sense the real timing of earth’s rotation.”

Many of the pieces in the exhibit were created specifically for — and in many cases by — the museum.

“We had to manufacture a lot of the pieces in the exhibit,” Henderson said. “They were based off of his drawings and his specs, but we actually had to manufacture them. Not everything, but a lot of it.”

Visitors can also view a never-before-displayed collection of Shannon’s sketches and notes.

“Tom writes down all of his ideas,” Henderson said. “Any concept he sketches and keeps records of, and it’s good to show the audience how important that is to develop ideas. Some of them are realized; some are unrealized, but it goes all the way back to 1968 to the present so you really get a sense of his thinking process.”

One interactive sculpture visualizes the scale of the earth, sun and moon and the distances between them, and another 25-foot sculpture is being installed in front of the museum next year.

“There’s five different pieces, each 5 feet in height, that symbolize the essential elements that make up the universe — fire, air, earth, water and the cosmos — and they’re all based on shapes — the tetrahedron, the octahedron, the cube, the icosahedron and the dodecahedron,” Henderson said. “They all stack upon each other, and when you move the bottom shape, they all move with it in a way that defies gravity. It looks like it might tumble on top of you, but it won’t.”

In a press release from the museum, Shannon said the works in the exhibition “express some of the entwined characteristics of the world we live in: time, space, relativity, the invisible forces of electromagnetic and gravitational fields, atomic through astronomic proportions, the geometry of perspective and weightless equilibrium — all in relation to human scale.”

Henderson said Shannon’s work fulfills smART Space’s stated mission to provide “a combination of art and science that isn’t found anywhere else.”

“It’s an integration of art, scientific research, advanced knowledge,” Henderson said. “It gives our visitors things they don’t see very often. It’s got some exact science and the knowledge of nature and existential questions almost, seen from a factual side portrayed through very minimalist fine art.”

Shannon’s work is based on scientific concepts, but it can inspire philosophical inquiries.

“It puts you in the scale of everything,” Henderson said. “What is the universe? How expansive is it? The planet that we live on, how minute it is compared to the rest of the universe — even to our small star the sun. It just really kind of expands your mind.”

Admission to the museum is free-$16.95. Call 405-602-6664 or visit