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Review: 'Heartbreak and Magic' at Somerset House


Heartbreak and Magic, currently based at Somerset House, is the latest work by Libby Heaney. It incorporates a virtual reality experience, which lasts about 15 minutes, alongside four watercolour paintings scattered around the room. 

The installation focuses on questions of grief, the self, and our existence. Evidently, the artwork has a deep personal resonance with Heaney, as it explores her experience of the sudden loss of her sister in 2019 and her grieving process that followed. In her work, she is exploring what the magic of quantum physics might be able to tell us about life and death.

Photo by Humaira Valera

Heaney’s background is incredibly unique; she has a PhD in quantum mechanics, and after receiving this, she attended Central Saint Martins Art School in London. Her artwork involves the intertwining of quantum computing with physical art. She began working with watercolour around the same time as she started working with quantum computing. The scans of her watercolour paintings are used as source material for the VR computer work, as she views water like a quantum particle with its ever-changing quality. She is exploring questions posed by quantum mechanics, such as how reality is non-binary and non-hierarchical and how quantum particles can exist in two states at once. 

According to quantum mechanics, something can exist in multiple places at once; whether the art is about one finding solace in the belief that their lost loved one exists somewhere else, perhaps in a different universe entirely, or whether it is about a long, hard journey of recovering and coming to acceptance in the face of sudden grief, it is entirely up to the person experiencing it. The VR experience ends quite powerfully with the message that those that you love will find their way back to you eventually.

Photo by Humaira Valera

Quantum mechanics stipulates plurality and connectivity of existence, and this is very much reflected in the artwork; motifs and images from the watercolour paintings bleed into the VR work, and visualisations from the VR work can be found within screens on the floor and suspended from the ceiling. Heaney blurs together the material and the virtual, invoking some of the senses in her work. On top of the striking audios used in her work, the audience is encouraged to take off their shoes during the VR experience in order to really feel it wholeheartedly. Grounded in hope and magic, the audience is led on a journey through both the digital and physical, through different worlds and through grief.

The VR experience is definitely the main focus of the exhibition, lasting about 15-20 minutes. As a result of this, one may come to overlook the paintings, which are also a fundamental part of the installation. Although one thing I would have appreciated from the installation is some descriptive panels around the room to differentiate the four paintings as, in retrospect, they begin to blur together as one. The focus on the VR experience is very much at the expense of the paintings, as they are not granted much attention.

Photo by Humaira Valera

While the message and background of Heaney’s artwork are undoubtedly beautiful and moving, I found the art itself to be somewhat underwhelming. The lack of differentiation between the four paintings definitely adds to this feeling. Because of the lack of distinction between the paintings, you go in expecting something great from the VR, and while it was an emotional experience, I don’t think it was enough to sideline the paintings. 

Despite its faults, Heartbreak and Magic is worth a visit. It encourages the audience to really exist within their body and in the room, as the invoking of the senses is really grounding. Even if you’re like me, with very limited knowledge of quantum mechanics, we can still contemplate the possibility of existence. Heaney’s work acts as a reminder of how little we truly know about the world around us and what comes next. 

Heartbreak and Magic is open at Somerset House until 18th February 2024. Tickets are priced at £6 and can be booked via their website.


Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor


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