Sean O'Connell is an Australian jewelry designer and artist with a particular interest in the interactions between energy and matter. His spark experiments, first developed in 2015 and currently being exhibited as part of the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial event, are amazing examinations into how electricity flows though different materials.
O'Connell's initial series of spark rings examines 14 different materials and captures evocative images highlighting the unique energetic character of each material, from bone and wood, to meteorite and gold. To capture these astounding images O'Connell created rings of each material and then sat them on top of a photographic emulsion.
Using custom made machines, each ring was then applied with a burst of electricity. The photographic film captures the electricity as it finds its own novel path through each different material. It's a profoundly clever way of capturing each material's unique electrical fingerprint, and the resulting images are stark in their absence of the actual materials as the photographic film only recordis the electrical trails of each material.
"What you see in the images are electrical arcs, ionised trails of light, channelled through each ring, directly exposing onto traditional photographic emulsion," O'Connell writes, describing the process. "The images are not presented here as an aura or the motion of the aether, but simply as excess electrical energy trying to find a way to ground as fast as possible – like a ball rolling down a hill – potential energy naturally seeking out the lowest place."
The results are both intellectually compelling and just plain gorgeous. Conductive elements such as copper display explosive eruptions of electrical bolts in all directions, while plastic is unsurprisingly quiet and subdued in its activity. Some of the more unconventional materials show bizarre and unexpected pattering, such as the interesting intermittent sparking of wax or odd warm hue coming from wood.
"This energy, while applied from an external source, takes on the characteristics and qualities of the material, and of the general form of the object," explains O'Connell. "If there is a crack in the form, it flows either side of it. If there is a dominant granular or crystalline structure to the material, it moves along it. If the material conducts electricity well, it streams quickly through it, if the material is capacitative, electricity can be stored, slowly leaching out over time."
O'Connell has continued this technique of using scientific methods to explore materiality in a recent project called Suburban Spirits. Here the artist explored the idea of family history being embedded into a home by literally excavating his childhood residence. He X-rayed the house's walls, created spark images of nostalgic objects including his grandparent's wedding rings, and even traced the last words he heard from his grandmother by using mirrors mounted on speakers to direct lasers onto photo film.
Looking forward, O'Connell hopes to expand the Spark project by examining dozens more materials, creating a veritable library of electrical fingerprints.
If you're in Melbourne you can head along to the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial and check O'Connell's work until April 15. Failing that, take a look through the gallery to see all the amazing spark material images.
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