The Brilliance of Darkness

Art First, 9 Cork Street, London W1S 3LL Until 9 October 2008.

Dark materials: Karel Nel's art explores the seen and unseen Universe. Credit: ART FIRST, LONDON

How did you get involved in astronomy?

Artists and scientists have questioned the nature of reality for centuries. Feeling the need to grasp contemporary scientific paradigms, I had worked for decades at the interface between these disciplines when I met Nick Scoville, leader of the COSMOS project. He invited me to be its resident artist. It was a very steep learning curve: I felt like an ant being taught compound interest by an economist.

What does your work convey?

My art investigates seen and unseen worlds. COSMOS looks back in deep time at patterns of galaxy formation and large-scale structures, and from these, attempts to understand invisible dark energy and dark matter. I use metaphorical means to grasp these abstract ideas, as scientists often do. In my 20 exhibited works, I use mixed media including 540-million-year-old black carboniferous dust and white primordial salts from the oceans to present shimmering images of galaxies that emitted their light millions of years ago.

Have the scientists influenced your ideas?

Yes — representing the Universe is not like painting a traditional landscape; there are invisible as well as visible aspects to convey. Scientists have developed codes to deal with cosmic phenomena, and my work captures the unstable nature of our perceptions of this distant, unknown terrain. In one piece, dotted lines echo the grids found in astronomy textbooks, but also refer to invisible characters, as used in comic books. In another, I evoke the 'blind spots' of telescopes with amorphous dark shapes.

Did you influence the astronomers?

Many of the astronomers focus on incremental, detailed information, so my broad outsider's perception rekindled the extraordinariness of their endeavour.

What was it like, visiting observatories?

At the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, some of the world's most powerful telescopes are trained on the powder-black darkness, looking at complexity and eternity. It is awesome and desolate. Even the scientists fall silent in the face of that.