One of the defining characteristics of people who practice sol-gel science and technology in their professional lives is the opportunity to embrace multiple classical discipline in the practice of our craft. From chemistry to physics to biology to materials science – and everything in between – we rely on collaboration and expertise within and across these disciplinary boundaries to generate the scientific and technological outcomes that impact on our day-to-day lives. Another defining characteristic of our community is creativity – not just in our science, but in areas such as art. Our Colleague in the Spotlight for October, Professor Ioannis Michaloudis, currently based at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the American University of Cyprus (AUCY) has pushed the boundaries between science, technology and art by transforming aerogels into hauntingly beautiful works of art and jewellery. His personal account of his career journey to date begins below.
“As a doctorate candidate, I was lucky enough to be studying at the Sorbonne University in France. Based on my textile and fashion design practice, I undertook research in the visual arts and I discovered what I named the ‘elastic arts’. It is a type of visual art that – when you stretch its limits – becomes design or architecture or even a theatrical installation. Today we emphasise the value of interdisciplinary studies; myself included. As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at AUCY, I urge my colleagues and students to choose their courses based on their feelings, not on their intellect. Soft skills such as empathy and enthusiasm could lead you to innovation; this has certainly been true of my path.
The Art Historian Herbert Read once wrote that the artist is not progressing. The artist is the only human being who is regressing, by looking to find the source of things. In my case I looked to the clouds and the sky which are filling our rivers and lakes with water. During my thesis’ practice project Into the Circulation of Red Trees, where I bandaged two trees in the gardens of the City University of Paris, I observed a cloud in the sky looking like a hook. I said to myself “If nature can transform clouds into such shapes, then could I create a cubic cloud?
This thought drove me – via a Fulbright Greek Artist Award – to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Advanced Visual Studies where I was accepted as a Research Affiliate to conduct postgraduate Art and Science research on the (Nephele)3 project. During my research on confining steam using high-powered CO2 lasers for constructing an invisible container to create my “cubic cloud”, in October 2001, a colleague showed me a sample of what appeared, to my amazement, to be a cloud. In fact, it was a piece of silica aerogel. Having seen this new and exotic (to me) nanomaterial, my first idea was to create a replica of the Venus de Milo and to levitate it in between magnetic fields. Instead, I decided to participate in the “Sky Art” Conference, which was being organised at MIT, by creating the first ever silica aerogel artwork entitled “Icare… I care”. This work was created with the help of Dr Larry Hrubesh at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who helped me to find a company who could process the aerogel for me.
Since then, I have built my own laboratory for creating aerogel art works and have had the opportunity to publish papers in journals such as JSST and to present at many international forums on my artINscience initiative. Some of the highlights of this journey include receiving the Golden Lighthouse Award at the XXIV Biennale for Mediterranean Countries (one of the world’s leading art events, held in Alexandria, Egypt) and having the opportunity to exhibit my artwork in 13 solo international exhibitions (including one in the Museum of Cycladic Art in Greece). In 2020, I had the opportunity to see my aerogel art research applied in jewellery design, when Boucheron approached me to create “wearable sky”. I subsequently created the “Skydrop”, the first ever silica aerogel to be incorporated into high jewellery. Apart from the silica aerogel, the piece contains over 6000 diamonds, in addition to white gold and quartz.
This 20-year journey, which began at the Sorbonne and MIT had been richly rewarding for many reasons. However, perhaps the most important of these is that after three years at MIT, I had the opportunity to refocus and construct my artINscience laboratory in the small village where I was born. This provided me with an opportunity to adapt the high-temperature and high-pressure approaches required to produce aerogels to the requirements of art in relative isolation.
Today I enjoy my blue-sky research on silica aerogels in parallel with my teaching of the experiential History of Art at AUCY in Larnaca, Cyprus, where students discover and build knowledge though their own exploration. While teaching studio art, I am honoured to be an Adjunct Fellow at the International Space University and a Research Associate at Demokritos. In my latest experiments at the Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, I introduce magnetic and phosphorus nebulae into my sky samples.
And while CO2 lasers were too expensive for me to use for creation of the Nephele)3 project all of those years ago, nowadays they are so “affordable” that you can use them to embed your portrait within a Skyprint or on a sample of “Bottled Cloud”.