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A plinth for the Solar System

Ecliptic Column: a proposal (by Adam Nieman)

introduction | description | background

 

A Stonehenge for the third millennium, a plinth for the entire Solar System, a bridge between Earth and space or a striking object that makes people smile. There are many ways of conceiving the Ecliptic Column – a kinetic sculpture that remains aligned with the Solar System as the Earth rotates beneath it.

A schematic sketch of the Ecliptic Column. The materials are not indicated in the diagram. The top surface remains aligned with the plane of the ecliptic (and parallel to sunlight) throughout the day and throughout the year.

The Ecliptic Column is not merely beautiful; it transforms the experience of inhabiting a moving planet. It is a kinetic monument that provides a new sense of stillness: a celestial stillness, which allows us to perceive our own motion through space. The motion of the Sun and the passing of the seasons, so confusing from the surface of a spinning sphere can be perceived directly from this new perspective. As the column turns, the top face remains aligned with the Solar System as a whole, compensating elegantly for the Earth’s own path through it. The Ecliptic Column provides a bridge between the surface of the Earth and the Solar System as a whole and so allows viewers to locate themselves in the cosmos. It is acts as a plinth for the kinetic sculpture that is our celestial home.

Description

A column is embedded into bearings in the ground tilted towards the north at an angle equal to the site’s latitude [1]. The top surface of the column is at an angle of 23.5° with respect to the column’s axis [2]. The column is driven from underground and rotates on its own axis once per sidereal day [3].

Ecliptic column at different times of day and times of year

Frames from three animations showing alignment of the Ecliptic Column in Amherst, NY (43° North) at different times of day and different times of year.

The ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun through the sky. Throughout the year, the Sun appears to move through the zodiac constellations. The current position of the zodiac constellations can be read directly from the face of the Ecliptic Column. The Column also provides a direct link with the Sun – whose position can be followed even after sunset. Thus, even after dark the installation will continue to allow viewers to locate themselves in our celestial neighbourhood. The strip lights (LEDs) are embedded in the cladding and run the length of the Column. Only the strip that is aligned with the Sun is illuminated. As the year goes by, the strip that is illuminated moves around the Column in an anti-clockwise direction. (This is a patent pending method of tracking celestial objects [4].)

Orbits diagram

The obits of the planets revealing the plane of the ecliptic. The face of the Ecliptic Column remains aligned with this plane throughout the day and throughout the year.

Materials for the Ecliptic Column have yet to be finalised but the Column could be polished marble with LEDs in 52 inlaid strips parallel to its axis. The face may be an inlaid brass plate with a design etched into it.

Another representation of planetary orbits and the plane of the ecliptic. This one includes the orbit of the dwarf planet Eris beyond the orbit of Pluto. The Earth's orbit is red.

Background

My current work places emphasis on place and on the viewer’s relationship to the space around them. See for instance Space Signpost: Welcome to the Neighbourhood, which has been developed in collaboration with Futurelab (with support from the Royal Society, the DTI and NESTA).

Welcome to the Neighbourhood emerged from a series of kinetic sculptures I made that had the following elements in common:

  • Because they are still with respect to objects in space, but move in relation to the surface of the Earth, they disrupt the distinction between Earth and space. They facilitate a perception of the Earth as an object in space, allowing viewers to ‘inhabit’ the celestial neighbourhood.
  • The sculptures were not designed to communicate my own feelings about space and location but rather to facilitate and legitimise those of the viewer.
  • The sculptures are not ‘mere’ representations – rather they map a representation of space to the space they represent. They force viewers to locate themselves in space and reconsider their relationship with their environment rather than inviting a passive gaze. This is, perhaps, the most profound contribution they can make in public contexts.

The sculptures share the property of being clearly located on Earth and in space at the same time. The intention was to give viewers a sense of inhabiting a space which is larger than their immediate surroundings. Thus the sculptures are tools for locating a viewer in the cosmos, disrupting the notion of space being ‘up there’ or elsewhere. My goal, then, is to make objects that allow us to really feel that we abide in the universe. I want the universe to feel like home, rather than something that is only for astronomers. Essentially, I want a more cosmopolitan sense of my own place in the galaxy. However, there is a major obstacle to such a sense of place, an accident of circumstance that keeps our outlook parochial.

If we want to feel we are part of the cosmos, a parochialism to overcome is the sense that the ground is still. We measure and experience motion relative to our local horizon. The ground is our primary reference frame, the frame against which every other motion is judged. To truly feel we are part of the cosmos, we need an alternative reference frame, one that we must see or feel on a level deeper than that of intellectual understanding. As an aid in this process, the Ecliptic Column provides an alternative sense of stillness against which viewers’ own motion through space can be directly perceived. To provide this sense of stillness, the sculptures must move in relation to the surface of the Earth. Like the movement of the hands of a clock, the motion may be imperceptible, but as with a clock, the motion is crucial. It allows us measure our own movement through time and space.

The Ecliptic Column is the latest sculpture in this series. Earlier sculptures include Sun/Moon/Tide and Local Stars [5]. This series including the Space Signpost (Welcome to the Neighbourhood) project are discussed in a forthcoming article in the art/science journal Leonardo [6]. It was presented at the 7th Workshop on Space and the Arts at the European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands [7]; the Machinisa Art/Technology Festival in Glasgow (both in May 2004) and on a tour of UK science centres sponsored by the BBC in the winter of 2004/5

The Ecliptic Column and the other Earth/Space sculptures make people smile as well as making them think. Sometimes my artwork is ‘educational’ but hopefully not ‘didactic’. My goal is to empower viewers to make the cosmos meaningful for themselves rather than to foist my own feelings upon them. I intend to keep the Ecliptic Column simple, to leave as much room as possible for interpretation by viewers. (Earlier designs used the strip-lights for tracking the Moon and planets in addition to the Sun and included ways of indicating the plane of the Moon’s orbit and the plane of the galaxy in addition to the ecliptic plane.)

The Ecliptic Column will celebrate the continuing endeavours to make sense of our place in the cosmos. It will also help us to place the Earth in its celestial context and so will be a celebration of our own Solar System. It is a kinetic sculpture that emerges from the three different artistic traditions: land art, kinetic art and space art.

 

Notes

[1] This means that the column is parallel to the Earth’s axis. It would be at an angle of 43° in Amherst, NY. At the North Pole it would point straight up and at the Equator it would be parallel to the ground.

[2] 23.5° is the angle at which the Earth’s axis is inclined to its path around the Sun.

[3] A sidereal day is 4 minutes shorter than a solar day because the period is not affected by the Earth’s orbit of the Sun.

[4] Adam Nieman, 8 July 2004, Position Indicating Device PCT/GB2004/002942

[5] For pictures of these and Space Signpost see: http://www.spacesignpost.com/gallery/highres.html

[6] Adam Nieman, Oct. 2005 (Forthcoming), ‘Belonging to the Universe’ Leonardo Vol. 38, No. 5.

[7] Space: Science, Technology and the Arts:7th Workshop on Space and the Arts, 18‑21 May 2004, European Space Research and Technology Center (ESA-ESTEC)Noordwijk, The Netherlands (http://www.olats.org/space/13avril/2004/mono_index.html).

 

Download Movies

Summer solstice movie
Summer Solstice

Equinox movie
Equinox

Winter movie
Winter Solstice

The movies show the Ecliptic Column over the course of a day. Each movie is approximately 6.5 MB.

 


 
 

 
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