V&A Dundee

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Everlasting bubbles

Soap Opera replicates a sense of the wonder and playful child-like intent that blowing bubbles instils in us. Jenny Kane explores our installation, its creators and the inspiration behind it.

It’s predicted the robotic arm installed in the upper hall of the museum will produce around 38,400 bubbles during its time here. Each unique rainbow sphere floating gracefully from UR10 industrial robot lasts just a few seconds before popping and disappearing forever.

But not all bubbles are so fleeting. Many have been immortalised in paint thanks to the tradition of vanitas imagery, a genre of still-life painting that became popular in the early 17th century.

In these pictures fragile bubbles, alongside many other everyday objects, carry a much deeper meaning. Instead of symbolising fun and childish pursuits, artists used bubbles as well as clocks, burning candles, fading flowers and skulls to represent the inevitability of death.

Other objects to frequently appear in these paintings include playing cards, goblets and pipes to symbolise earthly pleasures and jewellery to indicate wealth and power.

Andrea Anner and Thibault Brevet, founders of the non-industrial robot practice AATB, were inspired by these dramatic images while researching their V&A Dundee commission. They have paid homage to these works by including a preparatory sketch used by Edouard Manet to inform his 1867 painting Boy Blowing Bubbles next to the robotic arm.

Painting of a boy blowing a bubble against a black background.
'Boy Blowing Bubbles', 1867, by Edouard Manet. A preparatory sketch of this painting sits alongside the robot in the museum. (© 2019 Calouste Gulbenkian Museum/Scala, Florence)

Other depictions of bubbles can be found in numerous European paintings including works by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and English painter Sir John Everett Millais. Rembrandt even included a soap bubble in a painting of Cupid, thought to symbolise the fragility of love.

Andrea explains: “We wanted to bring the idea that bubbles are a metaphorical symbol for the transience of life into the 21st century by removing the human in the act of blowing bubbles.

“Instead of a strictly practical repetitive movement, we’ve programmed an industrial robot to carefully wave a wand in the air over and over again. It’s mesmerising to watch with each movement performed perfectly but each bubble unique, reacting to tiny changes in the initial conditions.”

Thibault adds: “We want people to be entertained and enjoy watching this fleeting moment and also to consider the interaction between the digital controls of the robot and the organic nature of the bubble which prevents us from knowing what to expect each time.”

Soap Opera is on until 28 October 2019.

Jenny Kane is the Media Officer at V&A Dundee.