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Sándor Barics: MARS and the Sunspots

An Interview with Peter Tepe | Section: Interviews

Abstract: The interview begins with the story of how Sándor Barics’ connection between art and science came about and the impetus for further development he gained during his art studies in New York. Attending an event about Mars then changed his artistic position: the MARS series was created. Its artistic concept is elaborated. Finally, the sunspots series is treated in a similar way.

Sándor Barics, our conversation will mainly focus on your series MARS and Sunspots. However, your earlier science-related work is also of interest to w/k. At the end of the article you refer to a list of the 15 series that have been created since 1989, which is available elsewhere. That is an impressive record.
You have developed a specific connection between science and art. We would like to shed some light on their genesis.
From 1981–1984, the well-known cultural science radio program What if …? was broadcast in my home country of Hungary. I was a fan of this program, which raised inspiring questions. It motivated me to read and research a lot. I have loved reading since I was a child. My grandmother had wonderful little books about famous painters in her library. Rubens, Rembrandt, el Greco, Dürer, van Gogh etc. As there were no art galleries in my small hometown, I only knew art from books. 
I have also been fascinated by telescopes and microscopes since I was a child.  When I was 8 and 9 years old, I used to go to the local observatory in the evenings and watch the stars. But despite this great love of astronomy, I wanted to become a famous archaeologist thanks to Indiana Jones at the time.

What are the main stages of your further development?
I wanted and want to discover everything myself. The best source of knowledge is experience. So I wanted to travel the whole world, see, feel and experience for myself. I was always an A+ student in Hungary. From the time I was six, I also learned to play the piano, until the end of the 8th grade. Music encourages creativity and makes you mentally fit.
In December 1985, my parents fled from Hungary to Germany. My new life began in Munich in 1986. First I had to learn languages, not just German, but English, French and Latin at the same time. A big challenge for a 15-year-old. I also wanted to do well in the other school subjects. My head was often spinning from non-stop learning. I found relaxation in art.
We lived near the Lenbachhaus, where I spent countless days and got to know the masterpieces of the 19th century, the impressive works of the Blaue Reiter group and some masters of contemporary art. The Lenbachhaus was like an oasis of well-being for me. 
I was able to set up a mini studio in the basement of our house in the dusty, hot and rather noisy boiler room and I was already creating my first works there at the age of 18. I spent a lot of time in Munich’s Gasteig City Library and worked extensively on art history there.

Did you start studying or other training after leaving school? 
My parents had worked in the hospitality industry for decades. There were two Hungarian 4-star hotels in Munich at the time, where I started training as a hotel manager. I got to know many different people in the exciting hotel world. Among them were artists who had lived in the USA. Through them, I saw photos of the artistic works of Willem de Kooning, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly for the first time and heard about art performances. Slowly, the desire to travel to America and get to know contemporary art there became more and more firmly established.
In 1993, I decided to move to New York to become an artist. My role models were Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and Mark Rothko.  When I saw works by Antoni Tapiès on my first trip to New York in 1993, I knew that I had to spend a lot of time in this city to learn more about this kind of contemporary art. 
Two years later, I was able to enroll in the Art Students League of New York; I was accepted as a fellow for a four-year program. New York was full of painting stars and exciting personalities – and I was in the midst of it.

What are the most important insights you gained during your studies and what were the decisive impulses for your further development? 
After visiting hundreds of art exhibitions and all the museums and art institutions in New York, I realized through conversations with my artist friends and lecturers that making art is not a craft for me, but a tireless search: the decisive factor is curiosity, finding out the unknown, getting to know the mysteries of life and creating something new and unprecedented. My professors Larry Poons and Bruce Dorfman always emphasized: “Curiosity is pricking up your ears, opening your eyes and asking questions. That’s where a work of art begins.” 
In the summer of 1997, I was back in Munich during the summer vacation to visit my parents. A good friend invited me to the Pathfinder Landing on Mars event. It was this July 4, 1997, that changed my artistic perspective.

Please describe this developmental leap in more detail.
I discovered new landscapes for painting, landscapes captured by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and the Sojourner Rover. I had always loved observing the stars, but these close-up images surpassed anything I had seen before. Immaculate landscapes untouched by human hands. The exciting alternation of the two contrasting perspectives on identical landscapes – the bird’s eye view of the satellite images and the more human perspective of the rover – was also captivating. I especially loved the MGS remote sensing images! I began obsessively researching the subject of Mars.
The space expert Prof. Jesco von Puttkamer, whom I met at the aforementioned event, got me excited about this subject. He provided me with documents, photographs and reports from NASA and the German Aerospace Agency. An enormous amount of drawings and composition drafts were created. I studied these remote sensing images and selected interesting land areas. Some were perfect for a painting because of the geological formations. 
I not only studied the geological formations, but also the colors. Why is Mars red? What other colors are there to see? My paintings also suddenly became three-dimensional. Spatial thinking in art was one of the most important insights for me during my time in New York. I spent weeks applying layers of paint and materials such as sand, layers of acrylic paint and packaging materials, which gave the works a relief-like effect. In this process, I felt like an archaeologist examining layer after layer, unearthing something unknown. I was creating new kinds of landscapes.
Many of these works were exhibited in smaller galleries in New York at the time. After that, I wanted to show the MARS series everywhere, especially in Germany.

Sándor Barics: Arsia Mons, MARS (2004). Photo: Sándor Barics.
Sándor Barics: Arsia Mons, MARS (2004). Photo: Sándor Barics.
Sándor Barics: Martian Landscapes (2000). Photo: Sándor Barics.
Sándor Barics: Martian Landscapes (2000). Photo: Sándor Barics.

Let’s stay with the MARS series for a bit longer.
It is one of my most intensive series. I created several hundred drawings, watercolors, prints and around 60 paintings. I always asked myself the question: How can I lend even more dignity to the untouched nature of the planet?
In 2001, my wife, whom I had met in New York in 1998, and I moved to Berlin. I moved into a studio there and slowly began to look at the Martian landscapes not only from a technical perspective, but also started to study the aesthetics: Do we want to live there in the future? Will we like it there? How does the Martian landscape differ from our planet? Are we allowed to change these pristine landscapes? I began to realize that an interesting landscape is not only the all-round experience of beauty and space, but that the aesthetic experience permeates all human emotions, motivations and cognitions. In addition, ethical and philosophical questions also arise, e.g: How do landscapes shape our identity and sense of belonging? Is it morally acceptable to manipulate emotions or change perceptions of reality through artworks? How does the transience of landscapes influence our perception of time and change?
So I began to look at landscape painting with different eyes. Over the next 15-20 years, through aesthetic research, I discovered many scientific subjects that I had always associated with landscape.
Microscope images from nanotechnology inspired me to create fantasy compositions. Later, the world of cosmic radiation and wavelengths, dark matter and black holes. All these discoveries inspired me first and foremost to create new cosmic landscapes, but also to discover the disorder in the cosmos, the enormous chaos that surrounds us all.

Sándor Barics: Dark Matter- Vibrations (2020). Photo: Sándor Barics.
Sándor Barics: Dark Matter-Vibrations (2020). Photo: Sándor Barics.

In 2017, I saw close-up images of sunspots for the first time. I knew about sunspots, of course, but didn’t pay much attention to the subject. In Gyula, one of the most beautiful small towns in Hungary, the Hungarian Solar Physics Foundation organizes an annual educational week on the sun. There I was able to see sunspots on the surface of the sun with a high-performance telescope. I found them very exciting – especially from an aesthetic point of view. New landscapes! New shapes! Through my conversations with solar researcher Marianna Korsós, I learned exciting details about sunspots. For example, that they can be several hundred kilometers deep (between 400km and 800km), that the field loops (these are loops formed by magnetic fields that are visible from time to time) of the interconnected sunspots can reach heights of up to 90,000 km.
I studied the shapes, formations and movements of these fascinating objects. How do solar landscapes move? How do the shapes and formations change? Do the shapes tell us something?

I would like to find out more about the sunspot series.
The dark spots on the surface of the sun are sometimes several times the size of our Earth – they are huge and dangerous power plants. Unleashed magnetic forces can take interesting forms. 
The series consists of two parts. The first part deals with appearance and aesthetics. The original idea was to explore the clustering and movement of sunspots. Sunspots are a kind of floating magnetic swamps and show the active inner life of our sun. In the meantime, my work has also become more sculptural, as I want to explore the depth of the sunspots in the image. I use scientific databases and talk to solar researchers.

To evoke sunspots, I used yellow fields and black clusters, features that have their own aesthetic appeal. But this appeal is only a question of the frame. If you move away from these vignettes, the cosmic horror takes over. If you zoom in closer, the simple beauty of the sunspots takes center stage. But even in these images, the seething energy and relentless power of the sunspots can still be sensed.
Yellow is generally an uplifting color – bright, cheerful and even friendly. But the billowing masses at the center of these paintings seem to grow and metastasize like cancer. So in these works we are dealing with a combination of pleasure and terror, safety and danger. What is the true nature of the sun?
The second part of the series – Pleasure & Terror – is an associative concept to explore what the sunspots (which show tremendous forces on the surface of the sun) might have to do with explosions on Earth.
Solar activity has an impact on us. Not only on space weather and thus on our technologies (e.g. satellites can be knocked out by a solar storm), but also on our bodies and psyches. Cosmic radiation and increased solar activity can make us aggressive. I suspect that there is a connection between solar activity and times of war and peace on Earth. In Terror & Pleasure, comparative images were created that confront sunspots with a war photograph of a brutal air attack.

I call the works eerily beautiful because they are so aesthetically powerful, even though there is a sad story behind it. 
The paintings and the photographs fit together: sometimes, when I was painting sunspots, there were pictures of air raids on television. The shapes of these explosions are amazingly similar. A strange correlation. The sunspots also remind me of mold formations and skin cancer. Perhaps this will lead to another series of comparisons. 

Sándor Barics, thank you for the informative interview.

▷ An overview of the series created since 1989 is available here.

Details of the cover photos: Sándor Barics: Left: Chersonesus, MARS (1998). Photo: Sándor Barics. Right: Sàndor Barics: Sunspot, B0172022 (2022). Photo: Sándor Barics.

How to cite this article

Sándor Barics and Peter Tepe (2024): Sándor Barics: MARS and the Sunspots. w/k–Between Science & Art Journal. https://doi.org/10.55597/e9625

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