The Elsie B. Rosefsky Memorial Art Gallery’s newest exhibition is much more than an opportunity to use a virtual reality headset and take pictures for Instagram.
Now open to the public, “Mutant Space” is a large-scale, long-term project created by Atif Akin. It has been featured in various galleries since its genesis around 10 years ago. At first glance, the exhibition may seem like any other minimalistic modern art installation, but the concept behind the design is laden with complexity and meaning. Akin creates works of digital art inspired by technology and research that explores the issues of nuclear radiation through geology and archaeology.
Currently an associate professor of art and design at Rutgers University, Akin grew up in Ankara, Turkey, where he first took an interest in the subject matter at hand in “Mutant Space.” Akin was just 7 years old when the Chernobyl disaster occurred in Ukraine, about 1,000 miles away from his home in Turkey. As an adult, Akin went back to visit Chernobyl and found himself struck by how the site connects to a larger nuclear history. The pieces in the gallery are from various sites with historical significance to nuclear energy, a common thread within Akin’s work.
“Everything is somewhat connected to each other by the nuclear substance itself,” Akin said. “It always has a different power and a different ability to change the environment, so that’s why the show is called ‘Mutant Space’ — it kind of mutates the space, as much as it mutates the cells biologically, and the environment.”
Akin’s work plays with technology to explore the unknown, as well as the research that has already been collected about radioactivity. His pieces vary from photographs with scientific and technology-based design layered over or around images to interactive virtual reality creations. The virtual reality headset in the center of the gallery features a digital version of the gallery space itself, showing the initial concept and layout and how the design came about. Though the piece allows viewers to enter an imagined reality, the issues and concepts behind it are very much real and immediate. Because of the somewhat controversial nature of his works, which deal with the conflict between Turkey and Armenia, Akin said he believes art is the best way to communicate his thoughts free of politics or bias from the press.
“I think contemporary art is the only venue that can really host freedom of speech and critical thinking,” Akin said.
Akin’s art is also rooted in his own personal interests and culture, related to a time in his life focused around archaeology in Turkey and a time when the issue of nuclear weapons was at the forefront of politics.
“It’s been more than 10 years, and I sometimes still get emotional about how this whole nuclear history is so prevalent in many places in the world and still not spoken about,” Akin said. “Of course art is something to enjoy, but the content is not always enjoyable. But we have to talk about these tragedies and traumas and catastrophes — they are important subjects of art.”
Though Akin loves every aspect of creating art and technical design, he said the subject matter he deals with can be emotionally tasking at times, especially when it hits so close to home.
“Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed,” he said. “Why don’t I go into nature and make pictures of the clouds? That would be art too, right? Sometimes you have to deal with the dark stuff. And sometimes you can just enjoy life and make a beautiful landscape painting.”
Akin also uses his scientific background and degree from Middle East Technical University in Turkey in his work, as he sees science and art as one.
“They require the same passion and curiosity,” Akin said. “I think this is more powerful than any political discourse. This dynamic between art and science should be the defining thinking and reasoning platform for decision-makers, and I think this university is a great place for that.”
Akin worked with Hans Gindlesberger, an associate professor of art and design at Binghamton University, and a few student interns to bring the exhibition to life in the gallery by physically installing the pieces. Akin had already created a 3D model of what the space might look like, featured in the virtual reality headset, and this vision was physically realized in the Rosefsky Gallery.
Gindlesberger said an important part of the gallery lies in its ability to foster connections between young art students and the artists whose pieces are brought in.
“There’s not that much separation between the students and these established, yet still emerging artists that they see in these shows,” Gindlesberger said.
Lucky Wei, a student intern at the Rosefsky Gallery and a senior majoring in art and design, said the work she did with Akin helped her gain valuable experience and a new perspective about art.
“As art students, the exhibition is really important for us to get some inspiration, and each exhibition is always different,” she said. “Like before this one, I never saw how science and art could be brought together.”
The gallery allows students to see and experience the process of bringing artwork into the public eye. Akin’s exhibition deals with political conflict and ecological issues, which Gindlesberger feels is important to bring attention to.
“It deals with these grand ecological issues and with trying to conceive of what the world will look like and what humanity will look like 250,000 years from now,” Gindlesberger said. “That kind of duration and outlook of his work is really important. You don’t often hear an artist talk where the artist is thinking in that kind of time frame, so that was a startling thing to think about.”