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The art of dark matter

A new exhibition and residency project, generated by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the McDonald Institute, and SNOLAB, brings together artists and scientists in the quest to understand dark matter.

In the 1930s, researchers first proposed the seemingly impossible concept of dark matter, the “glue” that holds the universe together. Dark matter is made up of material that does not emit light or energy, making it invisible. Even though about 80 per cent of the matter in the universe is composed of this indiscernible substance, we barely understand how it behaves or influences other entities.

The mysteries of dark matter are being unlocked by scientists and engineers at the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute at Queen’s University and SNOLAB, located in an active nickel mine two kilometres below the surface, near Sudbury. This work has inspired a new collaboration with Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

  • Artist Nadia Lichtig photographing the drift entrance to SNOLAB. Photo: Zac Kenny
    Artist Nadia Lichtig photographing the drift entrance to SNOLAB. Photo: Zac Kenny
  • Artist Jol Thomson documents researchers working on CUTE (a Cryogenic Underground Test Facility) at SNOLAB. Photo: Gerry Kingsley
    Artist Jol Thomson documents researchers working on CUTE (a Cryogenic Underground Test Facility) at SNOLAB. Photo: Gerry Kingsley
  • Artist Josèfa Ntjam and SNOLAB staff scientist Dimpal Chauhan discuss ancient water. Photo: Zac Kenny
    Artist Josèfa Ntjam and SNOLAB staff scientist Dimpal Chauhan discuss ancient water. Photo: Zac Kenny

To explore the “known unknown” from different angles and demonstrate the interrelatedness of science and art, McDonald Institute, SNOLAB, and Agnes launched a residency and exhibition project, called Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Drift, an ode to the mining term for a horizontal tunnel, collaborated with four nationally- and internationally-acclaimed artists, Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley, and Jol Thoms, to partner with Queen’s and SNOLAB researchers searching for dark matter and create unique pieces inspired by these exchanges.

The first stage of the residency took place in July and October 2019. It involved two extended site visits, at Queen’s and at SNOLAB, during which the artists, scientists, and staff participated in presentations, hands-on research experiments, and field trips. The visits provided ample opportunity for Lichtig, Ntjam, Riley, and Thoms to connect with world-renowned physicists, chemists, engineers, and other scholars, including Dr. Arthur B. McDonald, co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics. Discussions ranged from the basics of dark matter and neutrino physics to articulations of racialized, Indigenous, and entangled identity, prioritizing mutual exchange of knowledge and insights. The subsequent months of the residency were focused on digital discussion among collaborators and home studio production for artists.   

Josèfa Ntjam, Luciferin Drop, 2020, glass, metal, ABS filament and luminescent liquid and Myceaqua Vitae, 2020, video with sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes
Josèfa Ntjam, Luciferin Drop, 2020, glass, metal, ABS filament and luminescent liquid and Myceaqua Vitae, 2020, video with sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes

“The experience was unique for several reasons. Firstly, I was able to travel to Canada and then go two kilometres underground, together with the miners. Then the fact I was able to visit the research facilities and speak with the researchers, and later able to deepen the discussions with the researchers invited in the context of the residency,” says Nadia Lichtig, one of Drifts artists-in-residence. “The whole experience was very inspiring.” 

Drift successfully opened dialogue between artists and physicists, revealing shared values, goals, and habits and highlighting new perspectives and comprehensions of advanced scientific theories being explored and developed nationwide. The residency culminated in several artworks – installation, sculpture, textile, and video – that offer a multisensory experience of dark matter science and the “how” and “why” of that which cannot be sensed directly.

Jol Thoms, Orthomorph (Tunneling), 2020, digital print. Courtesy of the artist.
Jol Thoms, Orthomorph (Tunneling), 2020, digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

“From a curator’s perspective, I believe we have reached a historical moment when the modes and motivations of producing culture need to be reconsidered, and with this project, we’re participating in a broader movement of artists and institutions making forays to explore much wider contexts and different constructions of knowledge,” says Sunny Kerr, Curator of Drift and Contemporary Art at Agnes. “This exhibition is a crucial step at the beginning of longer conversations between art and science.”

For those interested in experiencing the exhibition in person, it is on view at the Agnes until May 30, 2021. It will then tour across Canada to galleries with McDonald Institute and SNOLAB affiliations in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Sudbury. 

Nadia Lichtig, Blank Spots, 2021–ongoing, frottage on canvas, theatre lights, sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes
Nadia Lichtig, Blank Spots, 2021–ongoing, frottage on canvas, theatre lights, sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo: Tim Forbes

Drift: Art and Dark Matter also takes the form of an online exhibition that can be found on Digital AGNES. The digital exhibition showcases the meeting of theories and voices that informed this exciting transdisciplinary residency and features behind-the-scenes videos, interviews, and interactive activities.


Agnes is open: Agnes reopened its doors to the public on Feb. 20. In addition to Drift, visitors can experience two other exhibitions, From the vibe out: Neven Lochhead and Radicals and Revolutionaries: Artists of Atelier 17, 1960s as part of the Agnes’ current season offerings.

Josèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.
Josèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.