No copper-bottomed matter

At first, it was its elegance that drew my attention: from a bucket, hovering above the floor and held in place by three thin metal rods, a shiny copper plate is gushing out upwards, as though the solid metal were magically flowing like a fluid; then, after gently bending in an arched shape, the ginger, lively metal dives into a second vessel on the floor, disappearing. It looked like a snapshot of metal casting, a metallurgical still life; I could not help moving closer, and suddenly I gasped, standing in awe: I was watching a living artwork, a dynamic process driven by redox reactions. Only then did I realise that the metal arc was buzzing with an electric, invisible energy flow right under my nose. Indeed, the “bucket” on the floor is a crucible filled with a yellow-greenish HCl solution. Conversely, the top end is stuck in a thick deep blue sludge, as though the metal were drowning in a well containing CuSO4 1. Brightly-coloured encrustations, as concretions of seashells growing on a ship’s keel, creep up the copper plate and the crucibles themselves.

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This is Crogioli con acidi (“Crucibles with acids”), a 1981 artwork by the Italian artist Gilberto Zorio, which is on show at the Museum of 20th Century Art in Milan. This artist is closely associated with the Arte Povera (literally “Poor Art”) movement, which developed in Italy at the end of the 1960s within the context of the radical protests of those years. In opposition to “high”, conventional art, Arte Povera focusses on a broad range of everyday, unconventional raw materials (rags, plastics, scraps) processed into bewildering, stunning compositions challenging the viewer. What most matters here is the emphasis on the “processual” nature of art, which, rather than producing a finished artwork, is “unfolding” while being watched or needs a sort of “priming” to take life. Moving one step further, Zorio embraces a vision of art as a dynamic process driven by energy flows and transformations which draws on the artist’s fascination with alchemy, and hence his works often exploit chemical properties of matter or chemical reactions 2.

The artistic stance of Arte Povera, viewing the artist as demiurge, rather than almighty creator, resonates with a reflection on chemistry and art and suggests that matter is art in its ground state, in a primeval form, whence chemical art emerges by means of energy and through a process involving the chemist’s actions and ideas. Quoting Marcellin Berthelot, a 19th century French chemist: “La chimie crée son objet” (“Chemistry creates its own object”) 3, much as a (figurative) artists paints, sculpts or enacts the work of art. However, there is a catch: art as commonly understood is the artist’s subjective expression through mastery of techniques and materials, whereas chemical art is an objective form of art, pitting the chemist’s goals and ingenuity against the constraints of matter. The chemist’s trade, therefore, seems “an interminable war”, as the Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi remarked in his 1975 collection of autobiographical and chemical short stories The Periodic Table 4.

None of those stories deals with copper, but artists keep being fascinated with this element: take Roger Hiorns’s metamorphosis of an abandoned London flat entitled Seizure (2008). The humble dwelling was turned into a magical Aladdin’s cave, all of its walls glistening with CuSO4 crystals, which was achieved by pumping in and then out a supersaturated CuSO4 solution. Thus, the anthropic element is overwhelmed by the mineral world, much as in an accelerated fossilisation. As Hiorns stated, “it is just a system which is doing what it does if you give it the right environment”, echoing Zorio’s reflections on one of his artwork: “I have done nothing more than making it, dragging it in, and making use of it”. In my view, Seizure also demonstrates that chemical art, matter primed by a demiurge, stands comparison with renowned “blue” masterpieces of world art, from the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, to Giotto’s star-studded ultramarine blue ceiling at Scrovegni Chapel, or Yves Klein’s trademark blue monochromes. Indeed, blue is the most chemical colour, not only because of the chemical synthesis of Prussian Blue or ultramarine, but also because of the complex purification of lapis lazuli developed in the Middle Ages and involving wax, linseed oil, turpentine and lye 7. Yet, like Zorio’s earthly copper, even heavenly ultramarine yields to HCl, releasing H2S that rises to the sky as the pigment is being bleached 8.

Chemistry can be cruel and corrosive art, and matter needs harnessing to be turned into chemical art: thus, the chemist sometimes sacrifices copper, like the artist who etches it away to let a drawing emerge; sometimes it is copper to be the incorruptible metal, as in Volta’s original pile, in which the metal helps to produce H2 while zinc dissolves into brine.


1 So, this is by far and large a concentration cell.
2 Italian-speaking readers can also refer to this webpage for a further discussion of Zorio’s art.
3 M. Berthelot, La synthèse chimique, 1876
4 “Chemical events […] give you the impression of fighting an interminable war against an obtuse and slow-moving enemy, who, however, is fearful in terms of number and bulk; of losing all the battles, one after the other, year after year; and to salve your bruised pride you must be satisfied with the few occasions when you catch sight of a break in the enemy front and you pounce on it and administer a quick single blow”, Primo Levi, Silver, in The Periodic Table, p. 170, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Penguin Classics.
5 As stated in the clip on the linked webpage.
6 See:
7 As explained in Il libro dell’arte, o trattato della pittura, Cellino Cellini, early XV century, available online in Italian.
8 Curious readers can refer to this paper: E. Del Federico et al., Insight into Framework Destruction in Ultramarine Pigments, Inorg. Chem., 2006, 45 (3), 1270–1276,  and the related study by S. Li et al.Preparation of Acid-Resisting Ultramarine Blue by Novel Two-Step Silica Coating Process Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2011, 50 (12), 7326–7331


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