A Swiss artist, scientist and engineer, Fabian Oefner explores the invisible effects of the natural sciences to turn them into art. Photographs, videos and kinematic installations are his instruments, natural reactions caused by science his subjects. Invited both as a speaker and an artist exhibited during the KIKK festival, Oefner shared with us his conception of art and his colorful universe, full of motion and emotions.
Your work is at the cross-roads of art and science. What led you to these fields?
Fabian Oefner: There’s a famous quote by the brilliant scientist Nikola Tesla that says: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” That’s what I do. And art is the medium to convey my findings. I come from a background in both art (painting, photography, typography and art history) and product design. Three years ago, I founded a studio in Switzerland, in order to work on projects that are combining art and science and to look for the magic that is happening when combining these two opposite fields together. It’s mostly about taking pictures or videos or building installations or whatever media is fitting to convey my messages.
You are talking about reuniting science and art, do you consider them like two sides of the same coin?
FO : Exactly, because when you think about it, whether you’re working as a scientist or an artist, you are looking at the same thing, you are trying to understand your environment. With science, it is a rather rational approach. When you think of maths, it has to be rational in order to understand it. On the other hand, art has a rather emotional approach to understanding the world. And I think it’s precisely that combination, and opposing approaches that I find so interesting. When you combine those two together, it gives you something that touches both the brain and the heart.
In the pictures you are exhibiting at the KIKK exhibition; you are exposing your work with sound. Can you tell us about it?
FO: I worked on two projects trying to turn sound into art. The first one is some kind of game, or installation I have made which I called The field of sound. The installation looks very much like a field of barley or wheat, in which the wind passes through. In the case of The field of sound, it’s a digital field made of thousands of illuminated acrylic stems. And as you play music, it sets the field in motion, capturing the ephemeral sound waves created by the piano to turn them tangible. The stems move differently based on pitch and intensity of the music, and it results in a poetic interpretation of sound. You can basically see the waves of sound.
I also wanted to work on the shape of sound: how does sound look like? And how to make it visible? I built a very basic setup made of colorful salt crystals placed on a speaker. So, every time I play a sound through the speaker, it vibrates and the crystals start jumping up and down. The installation itself is so simple, and yet it gives you these beautiful shapes and structures of salt being formed by sound.
A completely different aspect of your work is what you made with light, with the soap bubbles.
FO: Exactly, I’ve been researching about soap and the irises formed on bubbles. It’s always about interference, I’m looking at the light in a different way. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Olafur Eliasson, a Danish artist. He looks at various phenomenons in a very different way. He also tries to split the light, and that’s what interference is all about, splitting up the light and transforming it into these beautiful rainbow colors. If you think about soap bubbles and all these things that I work with, they are very basic phenomenons, we all know them. We all have seen petrol being spilled in the street. But if you look very closely and you try to capture it and to see the magic behind it, it’s incredible. You just need to look a little bit closer at these things to see it.
You showed another piece of work, a bit more tied to science, using bismuth crystals. What was it about?
FO: So, when you heat up bismuth and let it cool again, it forms perfectly rectangular rectangles, shaped by natural laws. But that’s entire the scientific aspect of it, I’m just fascinated by its properties and I play around with it. Actually, a lot of what I do is just playing around. There is a famous quote by the artist Yves Klein, who said that the pictures he takes, the paintings he makes are only the ashes of his creative process, like leftovers. Sometimes I feel a bit the same when I present those images. For me, all the creative process happens before, I just make those images to have something to share with an audience. But for me, as an artist, I benefit mostly from the creative process that is happening before.
So what comes first? Do you start with a science phenomenon that you want to explore?
FO: It’s always a good question when you ask an artist how he comes up with his ideas. There is no direct structure to it. In the case of the oil spill series, I just saw a bottle of petrol in the street and I thought “let’s start playing with that”. And with bismuth, I’m trained as an industrial designer, and during my studies I came across a lot of materials, and I obviously have a faible for materials and I just tried to discover new ones. So most of the time it’s just a process of “oh that’s nice, let’s see what we can do, play around with it”. I use art like a vessel to investigate science. Foremost I’m an artist, I just use these techniques, photographs or medias to explore the scientific world. It’s a treat to be able to work like that, and just enjoy yourself while creating those things and having people admiring your work. Obviously, I feel very privileged.
So, do you work only in your own studio or do you work with external labs?
FO: Sometimes I work alone and sometimes I work with a team of specialists, depending on the projects. I don’t always have all the knowledge to program all of these things I get excited about. But it’s mostly just playing around and having fun…
And sharing it with a public of non scientists.
FO: Exactly. That’s what’s beautiful. I come from a rather naive background in terms of science, which sometimes is a good thing. I mean, I’m not a trained physicist, I’m not a trained mathematician, but still I love those things and I share them. Even if you don’t have the training for a specific subject, it shouldn’t keep you from exploring it, you shouldn’t be afraid of it, just go for it. As I see it, my work helps removing the barrier to science; it shows to the public how fun and easy it is to understand science.
And how beautiful the nature is. Last question, where can we see your work right now?.
FO: There’s currently an exhibition at the M.A.D. Gallery in Geneva called “Disintegrating Series”. It’s a suite of photographs of high performance cars that appear to have blown apart. They are quite famous, but they didn’t fit into the talk for the KIKK festival. I have quite a diverse work and it doesn’t always make sense to just drop names of your projects. But you can see them in Geneva. And other exhibitions are coming up across the globe.
Check out Oefner’s work at fabianoefner.com.