Ekaterina Smirnova: Rendezvous with a Comet

“Each of us is just a little part of the Universe, so versatile and limitless.  I would like to understand our place in it, our triviality in the universal and our significance in the planetary scale”                                                                                                                                                   – Ekaterina Smirnova

Ekaterina Smirnova is a New York based artist.  She is highly inspired by science, particularly the realms of astronomy, physics and chemistry.  Smirnova collaborates with scientists from around the world, interpreting their research into art.  She works in multi-media formats including; large-scale watercolor paintings, ceramic sculptures, musical collaborations and interactive electronics.  She spoke with Wavelength from Hokkaido, Japan where she is presently researching new projects.


WL:  Your work has been recently featured on the Discovery Channel, in addition to numerous publications and gallery exhibitions.  Your practice revolves around the subject matter of space exploration and technology.  What is about space exploration that captures the human imagination?

ES:  We are all dreamers, we like to look at the stars. But some of us go beyond appreciating the beauty of the night sky. I am talking about scientists, people who dedicate their life to exploring the unknown. Their work is very important and isn’t easy, especially when they work on something that is not even proven to be true yet and many doubt the outcome of this work (for example scientists of the European Space Agency for many years has been working on the project called LISA Pathfinder, which is designed to explore gravitational waves, but the proof of gravitational waves just happened last year in 2016.)  As an artist I have a personal goal, I would like to make the scientific work more visible to every-day observers, to highlight the efforts of a large group of scientists

WL:  How and when did your interest in space develop?

ES:  I was born in USSR, the country which sent the first man to space. Yuri Gagarin was a big hero, every child knew his name and wanted to become him too. I would say that between this fact and that my father is an engineer and I was very interested in technology and space, I grew to appreciate everything related to space.

WL:  Your reference is space imagery created by dynamic painting techniques.  What do you wish to impart to the viewer with your representations of your subject matter and what are the impacts for viewers with regard to your unique processes?

ES:  I often use photo references created during various space missions, sometimes I use my own photography of the night sky. But my focus is not to be an illustrator and represent something precisely, I try to give my paintings freedom and looseness. Watercolor is a perfect medium for that. I love the way water is hard to control and the textures it creates by moving the pigment. I approach my painting techniques scientifically.  For example, I do experiments with self-mixed paints, I explore various waters and their behavior on paper, I sometimes even grow crystals on my paintings. All of it hopefully will attract my viewers to explore my paintings closer, discover new patterns, notice water marks, study how gravity plays a big role in my creation process. To me the creative process is as important as the subject matter

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67P III and 67P II, watermedia on paper, 70″ x 52″ each, 2015

WL:  In making the watercolor painting series project 67P, based on the Rosetta mission, you incorporate experimental techniques that replicate the conditions of the comet.  Can you briefly explain to our readers what the Rosetta mission is and describe why the mission is of such importance to you presently?

ES:  Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (http://rosetta.esa.int) is a very unique one, because for the first time we not only explored a comet (67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) so close, but also landed a robotic probe on it. Questions like how did water come to planet Earth and how does life travel through the universe are beginning to be answered because of this mission. One of my main focuses of this art project is the water on the comet. Water on 67P was discovered to be different from Earth, that’s why I thought it would be great if I could re-create this water and use it to paint my comet views.

WL:  Can you describe the phenomenon of heavy water in general and how you create and use it in your paintings?

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Process of electrolysis, enriching New York tap water with heavy water.

ES:  Rosetta discovered that water on the comet has the highest level of heavy water ever found in nature. Heavy water (deuterium oxide, 2H2O) is a form of water that contains larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium (2H or D), rather than the common hydrogen. On Earth, deuterated water occurs naturally in normal water at a proportion of about 1 molecule in 3,200. On the comet 67P it is 3 times higher. The HDO may be separated from normal water by distillation or electrolysis

WL:  How did you learn to create heavy water?  Did you research this independently or did you speak with scientists?

ES:  When I decided that it was important to use heavy water, I needed to figure out where to get it. So I started doing research. I realized that it is actually possible to concentrate it from the regular New York tap water via electrolysis.  I don’t like simple solutions I guess, so to make things more complicated I had to make my own electrolysis device out of an AC/DC adapter.  I had to consult a few of my friends – a chemist and an electrical engineer. Both said it was possible.

WL:  Does it feel different to use water colors with the water that has undergone the process of electrolysis?

ES:  Actually, there is no visual difference at all. But this is not what is important. By going a long way to create this special water to paint with, I want to share with my viewers a bit of science behind the space mission. Everyone who saw this pretty process of electrolysis (tiny bubbles of split water H and O streaming rapidly up) and heard me talking about Rosetta’s fascinating discoveries are becoming genuinely interested in this mission. And this is my main goal.

WL:  Is this experimentation in your artistic process enjoyable or confounding, or both at times?

ES:  I believe that artists and scientists have a lot in common. Both have an inquisitive mind. For me it is natural to do different types of experimentations, finding solutions to problems, testing and so on. Not every experiment is a successful one, which can get frustrating of course, but generally I take a big pleasure in experimenting, sometimes even losing myself in it and forgetting the main job – which is to create an artwork.

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67P work is displayed during Planetary Science symposium, Pasadena, California, 2016.  Viewers are interacting with paintings using augmented reality.

WL:  Is this experimentation in your artistic process enjoyable or confounding, or both at times?

ES:  I believe that artists and scientists have a lot in common. Both have an inquisitive mind. For me it is natural to do different types of experimentations, finding solutions to problems, testing and so on. Not every experiment is a successful one, which can get frustrating of course, but generally I take a big pleasure in experimenting, sometimes even losing myself in it and forgetting the main job – which is to create an artwork.

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Solo show at the European Space Agency, 2016.  Model of the Rosetta spacecraft (left), 67P III (right) , watermedia on paper, 70″ x 52″

 

WL:  Your work is often presented in non-traditional painting formats that are quasi-installation-like, such as large scale multi-panel paintings on paper in asymmetrical configurations.  What are the artistic concerns that bring about these specific presentations?

ES:  I always thought that rectangular formats are a bit “square,” lol, if you know what I mean. Who decided on this standard and why do we need to follow?  In my opinion art does not have rules. I like to work on odd formats, sometimes adding extra paper to a standard format, sort of getting out of the canvas. For the celestial paintings the inspiration comes from the space photo collages, where an image can take a random shape, what is outside of the shape – is missing data. Unfortunately the gallery world is not really prepared for the odd formats, which often causes different framing problems.

 

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The Shift, watercolor on paper, 87″ x 169″, 2013 – solo show at Kofu City Hall, Japan

WL:  What is next in the studio?  Is there a new project you are currently interested in?

ES:  This year my focus is the environment. I believe this is an important and more urgent topic. At the moment I am researching snow in subarctic regions in Japan. Snow is very sensitive to temperature, so it represents climate change better than anything else. I would like to continue working with scientists and already had a meeting with a glaciologist and a planetary scientist at the Low Temperature Institute in Sapporo. In the spring I will be participating in a science symposium of the European Geosciences Union. My session is “Scientists, Artists and the Earth: co-operating for a better planet sustainability.”  I would like to accentuate your attention to this big problem that we have globally, so that together we will be able to solve it.


For more information about Ekaterina Smirnova, visit her website

Ekaterina Smirnova was recently featured on the Discovery Channel speaking about the Rosetta Mission.  Watch the video here

 

 

 

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