UN/EARTH Exhibit Uses Underground Experiments to Explore Art and Science

The UN/EARTH exhibition uses experiments occurring in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) to explore science and art from a mile beneath the Earth’s surface. 

Located in the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota, SURF conducts experiments to gain a better understanding of the universe. It’s the deepest underground laboratory in the country, allowing for a great environment to perform experiments that need to escape the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation, which can interfere with the detection of rare physics events. It’s home of the world’s most sensitive dark matter experiment, LUX-Zeplin (LZ), that was built in collaboration with the University of Michigan. 

Described by U of M Physics Professor Bjoern Penning as “a wonderful blend of art and science,” UN/EARTH consists of two main parts. Art featuring work from Professor of Graphic Design at Black Hills State University Gina Gibson is the main component of the exhibit. Her work consists of a mix of wall art and sculptures that often incorporate research equipment, results, or findings from the mine. The other main part is highlighting SURF, including its history, research conducted there, and its connection to the Black Hills. 

Photo provided by Bjoern Penning.

Gibson became the first SURF artist-in-residence in 2019. While there, she met Penning, and their discussions about art and science eventually led to an invitation to bring her art to U of M. Some of the artwork in the exhibit was inspired by her time at SURF. 

When walking through the exhibit, a person will see references to the history, science and infrastructure of SURF. Along with the art, this is also experienced through videos, infographics, and the use of scientific and mining equipment. 

“One example is that I use gold and transition to copper to express the change in the way the facility has been used over time,” Gibson said. “And I have my own feeling that now there is a search for something far more valuable than material riches, it is about humans understanding the universe.”

Copper gaskets from the LZ experiment are used both physically and digitally in some of her artwork.

“In some ways the copper became my symbol for the scientific work being done, it’s bright and shiny, but it also made closed circles and interchanging rings, echoing celestial bodies,” she said. 

Bacteria from a mile underground also found its way into several of the artworks, as well as old blue prints and other objects relating to mining and scientific inquiry. Many were used together in juxtaposition to represent the past and present. In one piece, Hubble images and bacteria overlap to create celestial bodies. 

“I enjoyed exploring ways to make the everyday or overlooked visible. Making it new, uncovering it, and finding its beauty,” Gibson said. 

Gibson said that the value of interdisciplinary work is hard to describe, and she finds inspiration in science such as the search for dark matter. 

“My mind and my art grew exponentially out of my experiences with scientists, engineers, and those working to make big science happen,” Gibson said. 

Another theme that kept coming up in her work was signals and noise, specifically how to cut through the noise in the same way that LZ is a mile below the Earth’s surface to shield from cosmic noise. 

“How to express these ideas through imagery was a wonderful challenge,” Gibson said. 

Photo provided by Bjoern Penning.

At the forefront of the art exhibition is a hand sculpture standing four feet in height. “Touch,” was created by Gibson with cable slices used at SURF during the pandemic, when the connections she was making as artist-in-residence came to a halt. One day Gibson looked at her hand and realized how much she had been missing human connection, even something as simple as shaking someone’s hand. 

“I wanted that piece to take up space in the room and to help people think about the humanity present and our own connection to the cosmos and one another,” she said. 

Both Penning and Gibson describe a main theme of the exhibition as a reflection of the similarities art and science share. 

“By connecting art and science I think we can instill a sense of wonder and also an appreciation of what we do in either area,” Penning said. “We are also able to explain cutting edge research and our present understanding of the Universe in a very accessible format.”

Gibson views UN/EARTH as a celebration of the search, including the ideas and people involved.

“Artists and scientists share curiosity,” she said. “We wouldn’t have any of the achievements today if humans didn’t reach for the seemingly impossible at some point. I feel like we are just scratching the surface.”

The University of Michigan’s Natural History Museum is hosting the UN/EARTH exhibit through Jan. 2024, and entry is free of charge. 

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