Science and
in the art
of Rolando Peña

By Margarita D'Amico


Science is knowledge. Technology is the practical applications of this knowledge. Both disciplines have had a powerful influence in the art of Rolando Peña through at least five phases in his successful career as a pioneer of contemporary art in Venezuela.

Initially the technologies he used were derived from science such as film, slideshows, stroboscopic light and electronic music, which led to the first multimedia events that took place at the Universidad Central de Venezuela: Testimony (Teatro Experimental de la Facultad de Arquitectura) and Homage to Henry Miller (Sala de Conciertos) with Peña, José Ignacio Cabrujas and others.

It was a way to break through the boundaries between art, life and technology. This kind of creative activity characterized the Black Prince’s sojourn in New York, where he made movies with Andy Warhol and shared the stage with many other well-known artists. This also made way for him to establish and direct the Foundation for Totality in 1967, a movement for young avant garde Latin American artists in New York.

A second approach to science took place in 1975 at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas when he presented his work on Santería, with maps, altars, use of gold as a color and a big photographic mural named Diariografía, showing a clear preoccupation with cultural anthropology.

In 1979 he returned with The Seven Vanishing Points in which he integrated drawings of renaissance perspective with intervened photo booths. Undoubtedly, this was a very important step toward understanding the relation between art and science in the work of Rolando Peña; the use of perspective marks the influx of mathematics in his artistic creation, primarily concerning structure.

Structure, regarding mathematics applied to art, does not only concern itself with proportion (the golden ratio) and symmetry (united to algebra and group theory), but also with perspective (the realistic depictions of scenes in a plane), with studies that started in antiquity and returned with Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.

Rolando Peña went back to the idea of perspective during the 90s, this time with digital technology, in the graphic work Mene Digital in collaboration with the astrophysicist Claudio Mendoza and Thomas Fromherz (from IBM). Not content with this, he broke the symmetry again in 2001 with digital technology for El barril de Dios (God’s oil barrel).

The fourth phase along Rolando Peña’s journey across the paths of science takes us back to the 80s. It was precisely in those years of post-modernity that his passion for this most basic of all sciences, physics, was born. He became fascinated by the mysteries of energy and the structure of matter. Art is transmission and transformation of energy in a most specific manner.

The energy that has been inspiring him from then on is oil, the energy source that moves Venezuela, it is our country’s most powerful symbol. The mythology of the day to day, the artifact of supreme devotion, catalyst of armed conflicts across the globe and so on.

We remember The Labyrinth of 1990, with three hundred and eighty four oil barrels, painted black and in immaculate condition, alongside mirrors and video-beam screens, at the Sala Rómulo Gallegos in Caracas, showing us that art and science move along in constant interrelation and dialogue. Its way of seeing reality (investigating what is behind appearances), foreseeing the future (and making it at times), will create consciousness about the present.

Throughout the history of culture (science is culture), the labyrinth as a symbol has been associated with fate, mostly as a dark corridor ever-changing without ever letting us see the exit, thus leaving us confused. A perplexity tied to uncertainty, drama, the unexpected, to things going backwards. There are so many sensations in the oil labyrinth of Rolando Peña and, for that matter, in any other of his creations.

His work around the theme of oil includes, among others (in no particular order), Petróleo crudo (Crude oil), El petróleo soy yo (Oil is I), La espiral, Tri-Tótem (at the Seoul Olympics, 1988), Diagonales, Mene, El derrame (The spill), El Mar Negro, El Pozo (The well). At the end of the 90s, Rolando Peña expressed the structure of matter with multimedia installations such as El modelo estándar de la materia: tributo al siglo XX, and later Energía Oscura: tributo a Albert Einstein with digitized findings about the cosmic expansion, antigravity and the like. Alongside this universe of revelations and uncertainty came out Ruptura espontánea de simetría: el barril de Dios (Spontaneous symmetry breaking: God´s barrel).

It was a privilege for the lovers of science, art and technology to experience El barril de Dios again in 2005, the International Year of Physics.

In that barrel that Peña calls “the barrel of God” (reminding us of “God’s particle”, (the Higgs boson), as Nobel laureate Leon Lederman calls it), in that barrel you will not find forty two gallons of crude oil from Cerro Negro or Morichal, nor heavy, light, aromatic or otherwise at a prize of seventy dollars. This barrel, icon and modular element of Rolando Peña’s artistic language, infallible patron of his works, is a universe of sensations, questions, uncertainties, a cosmic imaginary carrier of an up to date aesthetic of science and technology, expressed in an interactive multimedia installation that is energizing the world at large since 2001.

In 2010 the compromise is with nature and ecology. The new project from Rolando Peña also unifies art, science and technology: Make Oil Green, a work that deals with global warming and involves multiple video projections, media rooms, blog, website and, last but not least, complex structures made of ice and mirrors.

Once again, and as Rolando Peña states, “science and art become tools with which the visitor becomes involved, emphasizing the sense of urgency that must be the norm in order to be able to revert the course while we still can.”


Margarita D'Amico. Journalist and investigator of contemporary art.
Caracas, 2010