Chemical Vision

Interactive Installation, 2000
(music by Jeff Toyne)


“The law of periodicity first allowed us to perceive undiscovered elements at a distance which formerly was inaccessible to chemical vision.”

from Dimitri Mendeleev’s Faraday lecture before the Chemical Society in London twenty years after his discovery of periodic law (1889)

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1919)

If I am allowed to misunderstand Mendeleev’s remarks, it is possible to imagine that he is suggesting such a thing as chemical vision. What a wonderful idea to think we could touch the world with our eyes, to know the world unencumbered by signs and representations, to know what the world really is; what substance it has, what things really are. Mendeleev’s great discovery, the periodic table, is a pinnacle of modernism. It sustains the atomist’s hope that signs can be ascribed to all things; and those things, suspended in the proper order of differences and similarities, can be used as the building blocks of our picture of the world. Chemical atomism is perhaps the most pronounced of all the tendencies towards atomism that characterize modernism. But we live in a time after the atom has been split, when our sensorium is being ripped apart by the domination of physical senses and the suppression of the chemical senses. Logic is just another language game; the visual has become the virtual. We are rapidly losing our grasp of the real that has heretofore grounded our existence and knowledge of the world.

Chemical Vision is a large-scale, walk-through interactive installation that has resonances of a science museum. Architecturally, it is derived from the shape of the periodic table, or more specifically the Meyer table that has become synonymous with periodic law – an image which has become a meta-sign of the discipline of chemistry itself. In the installation, the viewer encounters enigmatic displays that reflect on vision, language, and the physical sciences: a Braille visual acuity chart constructed out of the chemical element’s abbreviations, a giant, motorized computer mouse on an Ouija board, also inscribed with the chemical elements. This museum doesn’t explain but shows us the difficulties for art and science in the transition from the modernist world to our own. The mouse is a particular figure here; both the mouse that has lent itself to psychology experiments and the computer mouse that evokes an entire virtual world that is devoid of the chemical senses. What will be the progression of knowledge in this chemical-less dream world? What will become of mice and men?

Chemical Vision was first shown in an exhibition entitled ‘Scienced Fictions’ curated by Peter Dykhuis at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, Canada in 2000. It was exhibited again in an exhibition entitled ‘Chemical Vision’ at Museum London in London, Ontario in November of 2003 and at the exhibition ‘Chlorine Argon Potassium’ at MICA Galleries, Baltimore in 2005.


2000         ‘Scienced Fictions’, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada.
2001         Art System Gallery, Images Festival, Toronto, Canada.
2003         Museum London, London, Ontario, Canada.
2005         ‘Chlorine, Argon, Potassium’, MICA Galleries, Baltimore, USA.
2011          The Museum of Chemical History, Philadelphia, USA.


2003        HYLE: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, “Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry” Award


Chemical Vision by
David Clark

Music Composer
Jeff Toyne

Kenny Parsons
Erin McCutcheon
Geoff Long
Martha Yang

The Mouse that Jack Built
Jack Niven
Bob Glidden – Glass

Visual Acuity Charts and Ouija Board
David Johnson
Jake Ethridge

Cheese Maze
Jason Mombert

Skull Drawing
Paul O’Toole

Cast Iron Apple
Jerry Ferguson

Computer Programming
Troy Strum

Andrew Fraser

Video Technician
Tim Dallett

Computer Assistants
Jeremy Drumond
Andrew Fraser
Terry Wallace

Alexandria Beck: Soprano
Cheryl McHugh: Piccolo, Flute
Bud Kurtz: Alto Flute
Peter Gal: Oboe, English Horn
Rachel Fels Elliot: Bassoon
Micheal Siu: Bassoon
Sue Elwood: E flat, B flat, A, Alto, Bass Clarinet
Ward Blair: Soprano,Alto,Tenor Sax
Nathaniel Senff: Bari Sax
Megan Smith: French Horn
Darrell Penner: Trumpet, Flugel
Ken Surges: Trombone, Euphonium
James Tempest: Bass Trombone
Scott Weaver: Tuba
David Corman: Guitar
Jason Overy: Percussion
Nicole Scofield: Violin
Martina Smazal: Viola
Diederik van Dyjk: Cello
Brayden Wise: Double Bass

Recording Technicians
David Corman and Jason Overy

Interactive Computer Programming
Jeff Toyne

Music Produced by
Jeff Toyne

Thanks to
Arthur at Norman Wade Printing
John Murphy at Cheeseworks

Produced with the Assistance of the Canada Council, New Media and through the facilities of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design


Chemical Vision quotes from this famous painting ‘The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein. The painting portrays two worldly men surrounded at a table that contains objects refering to knowledge and the arts. The painting also features the curious anamorphic skull that skews across the bottom of the painting. This painting could be seen as a vanitas expressing how even in our worldly achievements we have to acknowledge the existence of death (the skull). I also like the fact that Holbein means ‘Hollow Bone’ and the skull could be read as a signature effect (or as Lacan suggests in his read of this painting; as an erect phallus). I worked with the periodic table as an image in my work for many years because my family name: Clark is spelled out in abbreviations of the adjacent elements: Chlorine (Cl), Argon (Ar) and Potasssium (K). I also see the periodic table as a kind of vanitas. It is a grand diagram of the material world and yet what does it teach us about life?


The music in the Chemical Vision piece was composed and produced by the Canadian Composer Jeff Toyne. The idea was based on the fact that chemical abbreviations spell my name. With this in mind, I asked Jeff to compose a musical fragment for each chemical element that would be combined with other musical elements depending on the occurance of chemical abbreviations in the audience’s name. This part of the piece is triggered by viewers typing their name into a computer kiosk. The computer then plays up to eight of these musical fragments along a hallway of speakers that leads the viewer into the piece. The chart above shows how Jeff treated the periodic table like an orchestra and shows how the structural features of the periodic table was used in organizing the sounds.