How This Man Makes Mesmerizing Fluid Sculptures | Obsessed | WIRED

published on July 3, 2020

– [Eric] I just remember
it was so captivating,

really kinda alien like

– [Narrator] This strange looking material

is not computer generated

What you're seeing is a liquid

with nano-sized particles of iron in it

reacting to a magnetic field

It's called ferrofluid

It was first developed by NASA

and artist Eric Mesple has
been using it in his work

for the past 12 years

[mesmerizing music]

– Every single sculpture

I feel like I tackle with ferrofluid,

I have no idea how I'm gonna
get this to work when I go in

[playful music]

– [Narrator] Eric is a master
metal worker and builder

He built this giant clock
and a literal metal jacket

– My father, when I was 11 years old,

he got me an anvil and
I started blacksmithing

When I was younger I would
make all sorts of stuff

from gates, ornamental spoons, and swords

– [Narrator] But ever since
coming across ferrofluids

in a scientific article
as a graduate student,

he's been captivated by it

– The more I read about it
and the characteristics of it,

I just the whole time was thinking,

"Oh, I really wanna do
something with this stuff"

And when you were a kid

you could see the magnetic field in a 2D,

iron filings on a piece of paper,

you could see the striations of it,

but now you're actually seeing
with nodes coming of off it

what the magnetic field looks like

in a three dimensional realm

– [Narrator] NASA developed
ferrofluids in the early 1960s

Engineer Steve Papell was
trying to figure out how

to draw rocket fuel into
the engine in zero gravity

His solution, he would magnetize it

Now the magnetic fuel was
never actually adopted

for space flight,

but ferrofluids are used in a number

of different commercial applications

From cooling loud speakers,

dampening vibrations on helicopters,

and even to create an airtight seal

around your computer's hard drive

– It's been used for
many different things,

but what I use it for
is none of those things

I use it to show off
how beautiful it looks

– [Narrator] What you're seeing

is Eric increasing the
power to the electromagnet

until eventually the fluid jumps

– And it forms into those little cones

because that's the magnetic field,

but also that's least resistance too

Once something gets skinnier and skinnier

and then it goes right up
towards the magnet itself

The very first time I got ferrofluid,

I had it shipped from a
company called Ferro Tech,

and they're the ones that make ferrofluid

I noticed instantly that it
was totally, totally messy

I mean, it's like black ink,

so I had ink all over myself,

but I would purchase natural
magnets and move it around

and just stare at it and go like,

"Wow, this is crazy"

But even the characteristics
of me playing with it

with a magnet,

it was different than what I thought

It wasn't quite moving
how I wanted it to move

or I envisioned it moving,

but it was nonetheless still
intriguing and beautiful to me

I decided to do my first project,

which was the Machine Affecting Effect

I made a very large sphere

There was a huge natural
magnet inside the sphere

– [Narrator] Teaching himself how to code,

Eric programmed the movement of the magnet

so it would seemingly become attracted

to a viewer who approached the sphere

– [Eric] I think there's
something really important

about connecting people
with a piece of work,

not only just visually,

but what you're doing is affecting it

– [Narrator] For his next project,

Eric built a wall of ferrofluid
that would mirror the shape

of the viewer standing in front of it

– I was originally
thinking of that pin toy

where you would like push your hand in

and all the pins would come out

and make the shape of your hand

I really wanted to do a version of that

that was with just this fluid,

and as you would walk in front,

it would make a very 8-bit
kind of representation of you

in real time

I made 320 electromagnets

and I placed it behind this wall,

and I had a pump that
would recirculate the fluid

up to the top and run
over the surface of it

I had to build all of the computer chips,

computer components, write the program

I built every single magnet,

every single problem I ran in to,

I kinda had to figure out how to solve it

– [Narrator] Eric quickly ran
into issues with the pumps

that circulated the ferrofluid

– These cheap pumps that
you buy have a magnet

and they kinda spin around
and that's what turns it

All this fluid,

it's just dragging around
on the pump system,

so it was adding tons of
resistance and every half hour,

two hours, I was blowing them out

I finally decided I'm just
gonna tip the whole thing over

and make it in to a pool,

and so that was my third piece

That one's called Ferroflection Pool

I was in a class and it was
an interactive musical class,

and there was a professor
there who specialized

in what's called Max MSP,

and it's a way of programming
for a lot of stuff

in the music industry and
lighting and things timed

An image is captured from an old Xbox,

the computer program tells this

microcontroller right here in the center,

and then this microcontroller
tells these driver boards

which magnets to turn on or off,

and it just makes a real
pixelated, simple representation

of what it's picking
up through the camera

The whole time in the class,

everyone else is working
on their music projects,

I am trying to build a program
for the sculpture I want

Tons of wires, tons of connections,

tons of problems left and right

and eventually it got working

– [Narrator] As Eric built

on his experience with ferrofluids,

he had to learn more
and more about magnetism

and how to build his own electromagnets

– In science class, your
professor would take a nail

and then he would wrap
the nail with copper wire,

and then he'd connect it to a battery,

and then you could pick up
little paper clips or whatever

That's what I was going for

– [Narrator] Using the same concept,

Eric built larger and more
powerful electromagnets

to make the fluid jump further

– Well, when I first turned it on,

we weren't sure if it was working

so I kind of waved a
crescent wrench over it,

and it immediately just
sucked it out of my hand

and stuck right to the magnet

– [Narrator] As he built stronger magnets,

he faced new challenges

– Heat is a huge factor with magnets,

so if a magnet gets too
hot, it gets saturated,

and meaning the magnetic field
isn't really that optimal

for how much current you're
really putting into it

– [Narrator] Eric
developed a coolant system

for these larger, more powerful magnets

– So this is the next electromagnet

This is the bottom part
of the coolant system,

so this places in here,

and another version of this
coolant system goes down here

on the steel

So it's being cooled from both sides

as well as through the center

– [Narrator] In his 2016
piece, Killing Time,

Eric says he built his
strongest electromagnet yet

– I'm guessing that that
magnet, attached properly,

could probably pick up 1,000
pounds, maybe a small car

[tranquil music]

And my father, he was
very much of a builder,

as well as being an artist,

so I was helping out my father,

like physically built stuff
when I was a very young kid

He introduced me to the foundries

Loveland, Colorado had some
of the biggest foundries

in the the nation, surprisingly

It started with mold
making and wax chasing,

and then I moved up to
pouring molten metal

and to welding and then
eventually lead welder

Most of the other lead welders
were in their young 40s

I just enjoyed creating

I thought it was really
awesome to just build things

with my hand and watch something
unfold and be complete

My dad's done tons of huge drawings

I can still remember
one drawing he had done,

this thing was massive

I mean, it like nine feet by 14 feet,

and just the way he would draw,

I was really blown away with

He'd do like a section over here,

and then he'd do a section over here,

and then a section over here,

and then the whole thing
would completely come together

absolutely perfect,

and he didn't really outline
the piece as a whole

The whole thing would just
fit together all of a sudden

I was around this all the time

I was around this sense
of wonderment and awe

because my dad was doing things
that no one else was doing

I think, overall, the goal has
been to create a sense of art

that kind of restimulates
people about art

A lot of sculptures I try to make,

I try to show the what ifs

or how is this possible to
even do something like this

Those are the fun questions
for me to try to showcase

in this type of work, of
the unforeseen things

What most people don't
realize is I have failed

so many times trying to
figure this stuff out,

but as time goes on,

I figure more and more and more out,

and I don't know if a lot of people stick

with something that is that
frustrating for a long time

That's how it goes

My current project, I'm using light,

and trying to bend the
light with the magnet

What's happening is as
the magnet is spinning,

the microscopic particles of the iron,

they're actually moving
in the pane of glass

So when you see the light
look like it's moving,

it's actually the way the
iron particles are moving

and the light is refracting off of them

Adding the light on this new system

is a whole new starting point

of frustration [laughs] for me

– [Narrator] Frustrations
are just part of working

with this mesmerizing material

[mesmerizing music]

– It's so hard to even
master anything in life

With this fluid,

I feel like this is just the beginning

And I've been into it for
10 to 12 years now [laughs],

so there's a lot left

[mesmerizing music]

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