The haunting, slightly bilious yellow-green of uranium glass fascinated Victorian interior designers. Uranium metal glows green in ultraviolet light, and this property lends uranium glass a subtle yet compelling inner fire.
The Victorians made any number of knick-knacks out of the stuff. The exhibition Periodic Tales at Compton Verney – a stately home near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, best known for its collection of British folk art – boasts a piano foot, an ornamental castor fashioned to spread the weight of the parlour piano.
It is mildly radioactive, which triggers all manner of safety protocols. “We installed it using special gloves,” says Penelope Sexton, the exhibition’s curator. “I shudder to think what any passing Victorian would have made of us.”
Sexton is leading Compton Verney’s long-term campaign to become a contemporary arts venue as well as a “grand day out” for visitors from London and central England.
Periodic Tales combines simple objects made from different elements – a tiny lead figurine from the Aegean islands is the oldest, dating from around 2500 BC – with art that draws contemporary mischief from Mendeleev’s world-changing periodic table of the elements of 1869.
Before modern chemistry, it was assumed that the properties of fundamental materials were innate and could be combined. By that logic, blending sulphur’s yellow and mercury’s sheen ought to have made gold. Mendeleev, a Russian chemist and inventor, spoiled that happy dream, codifying the elements we recognise today in a table that reflects a profound atomic reality we know to be true but cannot directly see.
To read the periodic table is to be confronted by how baffling the world is.
Solids, liquids and gases nestle against each other for reasons that cannot be unpicked by simply resorting to an intuitive understanding of the human-scale world. The queer thing about calling this show Periodic Tales is that there are no tales to tell, only a stunned acknowledgement that one can, in the same moment, both be handed the keys to the material world, and firmly locked out of ever intuiting it.
The artworks Sexton has chosen struggle for purchase. Simon Patterson’s periodic tables of celebrity are facile. And Cornelia Parker‘s circle of crushed silver ornaments is almost as pretty as a well-lit silver object would have been had she not crushed it in the first place. Maria Lalic‘s chrome mirrors are pure Ikea (pictured below).
But there are some stunning successes, too. The frames of John Newling‘s wall-mounted Value; Coin, Note and Eclipse (pictured at the start of this story) capture the alchemical transformation of a living plant into gold coinage, by way of pressed kale leaves and the judicious application of gold leaf. It is a narrative piece, rooted firmly in the safe ground of material production, value and exchange.
It is significant, I think, that other standout pieces also explore the way some elements are more or less effortlessly turned into cultural signs – quite literally in the case of Fiona Banner‘s neon Brackets (An Aside).
There is much else in the show worth seeing: Danny Lane‘s Blue Moon makes cobalt positively drinkable. And there’s plenty to think about: another work by Parker, Stolen Thunder, is a display of handkerchiefs stained by the tarnish rubbed off famous objects.
But the real draw – counter-intuitive though this is – is the necessary failure of the show. Mendeleev’s table is a masterpiece of objectivity. Its truth refuses to be anthropomorphised, moralised upon, or otherwise domesticated. Undaunted, Sexton brings us right to the edge of what art can do to communicate science.