Artisphere’s ‘Undone’ bubbles to life with oils, inks and secret ingredients

‘Ghost Planet B1158’ — At the center of the planet (made of liquid) is a large air bubble, which C. Andrew Rohrmann coaxed into place intentionally. “In the video, you can see all those tiny bubbles come up and collect on the surface of the planet,” he says. The swirly nebula is black ink, which quickly engulfed the planet. “Two seconds later, [the scene is] ugly again,” Rohrmann says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)
‘Ghost Planet B1158’ — At the center of the planet (made of liquid) is a large air bubble, which C. Andrew Rohrmann coaxed into place intentionally. “In the video, you can see all those tiny bubbles come up and collect on the surface of the planet,” he says. The swirly nebula is black ink, which quickly engulfed the planet. “Two seconds later, [the scene is] ugly again,” Rohrmann says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)
Have you ever seen the Milky Way in a swirl of cream in your coffee? Then you’re either a fan of D.C. decriminalizing marijuana or you’re C. Andrew Rohrmann, a Seattle-based artist whose video installation “Undone” is at Artisphere.

Four TV screens and a two-story projection show what look like the birth of galaxies and planets. The movement of tiny air bubbles signal that you’re looking at a small puddle of colored liquid, not the Big Bang.

“I originally tried taking out those imperfections,” Rohrmann says of the bubbles. “But then I decided to leave them in so that viewers can get both experiences at once. They can tell that it’s real and it’s small, but it reminds them of something very big.”

‘Nebula 0202RN’ — Most of the time, Rohrmann uses a $600 digital camera with a rented high-magnification lens. For this shoot, however, his friend TJ Williams Jr., a cinematographer, brought over pricier equipment. So when Rohrmann set this galaxy in motion by spinning a beaker of chemicals on a turntable, “I was panicking that I was going to spill something really bad on TJ’s $10,000 lens,” he says. (TJ Williams Jr.)
‘Nebula 0202RN’ — Most of the time, Rohrmann uses a $600 digital camera with a rented high-magnification lens. For this shoot, however, his friend TJ Williams Jr., a cinematographer, brought over pricier equipment. So when Rohrmann set this galaxy in motion by spinning a beaker of chemicals on a turntable, “I was panicking that I was going to spill something really bad on TJ’s $10,000 lens,” he says. (TJ Williams Jr.)

The music is also not what it seems. Listen closely and you’ll find that the buzzing, droning noise is a slowed-down version of a well-known hymn or classical work.

Rohrmann created the videos in his basement, mad scientist-style, using a variety of chemicals he is loath to disclose.

‘Undone 4086B’ — To create this image, Rohrmann simply dropped oil-based ink into water. “I shot it top-down with a light table underneath,” he says. Unlike most of his videos, this one doesn’t necessarily resemble anything you might see through a telescope. “But it looked so damn cool, so I kept it,” he says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)
‘Undone 4086B’ —
To create this image, Rohrmann simply dropped oil-based ink into water. “I shot it top-down with a light table underneath,” he says. Unlike most of his videos, this one doesn’t necessarily resemble anything you might see through a telescope. “But it looked so damn cool, so I kept it,” he says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)

“I hate to be secretive,” he says. “But telling someone exactly how it is done ruins the magic.”

He does admit to using a variety of ordinary oils and inks, plus a few more exotic substances, though “nothing that would put me on a terrorist watch list.” Rohrmann drops them into a beaker and captures the results with a digital video camera and a high-magnification lens.

‘Planet 1211’ — After Rohrmann dropped liquid onto the planet (itself liquid, but holding the shape of a sphere), it spread across the surface in fits and starts, forming continents and islands as it went. This was not what the artist expected would happen. “The terraforming effect was actually a failed attempt to make Saturn-like rings,” Rohrmann says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)
‘Planet 1211’ — After Rohrmann dropped liquid onto the planet (itself liquid, but holding the shape of a sphere), it spread across the surface in fits and starts, forming continents and islands as it went. This was not what the artist expected would happen. “The terraforming effect was actually a failed attempt to make Saturn-like rings,” Rohrmann says. (C. Andrew Rohrmann)

“Sometimes I get two good minutes out of an entire day of shooting,” Rohrmann says.

His high failure rate may, in part, be due to the fact he’s an artist, not a chemist.

“I don’t really know, technically, what is happening, but I keep pretty detailed notes so I can repeat the things that work,” Rohrmann says. “Someday I will ask a scientist what is going on.”

Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; through March 30, free; 703-875-1100. (Rosslyn)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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