Wondering about science and art? During Dublin’s ‘Science in the City’ festival this month, catch the Blue Leaf Gallery’s thought-provoking show Eureka: Meditations on the light and dark sides of discovery in science and technology as explored through the eyes of three Irish, and ten American contemporary and emerging artists until July 16th.
We this people
On this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living.
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing,
That the haltered neck is happy to bow,
And the proud back is glad to bend.
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines…
(From “Space Junk” by Maya Angelou)
Exploratorium Founder Frank Oppenheimer called artists and scientists “the official ‘noticers’ of society,” adding that “they notice things that other people either have never learned to see or have learned to ignore, and communicate those ‘noticings’ to others. Eureka! Is a term generally referring to discovery. But, discovery and awareness is not always beneficial. It can, in fact, be lethal. Science and Technology has its dark side. J. Robert Oppenheimer invented the atomic bomb, and his first revelation was from the Hindu text, “I have become death, a destroyer of worlds”.
Anxiety underlies much of the American artists’ work in Eureka! – from Rick Newton’s spitfires and Dali-esque sci-fi lobster pincers emerging out of a clear blue sky; to the spray-paint feel of Jean-Pierre Roy’s apocalyptic atomic mushroom cloud paintings, and the polish of Bethany Krull’s porcelain pets (which might be in conversation with Damian Hirst’s sharks and calves preserved in formaldehyde).
But the world of science and technology can also be a fun, affirmative, and playful one, as in Kyle Trowbridge’s ‘paintings that text’, Allison Schullnik’s retro stop-motion claymation music videos and Catherine Owens’ sidereal wonder.
If “Science” is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (OED) and Technology, from the ancient Greek Tekhne, which incidentally means ‘art, craft’, is defined as ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes’ (OED), then Artists are naturally to be found at that intersection, performing their own alchemy on the edges between humanity, technology, and science. That is where the cutting edge of science has lived since time immemorial, pushing the limits, dreaming, imagining the previously unimaginable – and sometimes bringing it into being, for better or for worse.
Similarly, the artist as explorer/ searcher/ expeditionist is constantly striving towards that Damascene moment, where like Saul, the scales fall from their eyes and new visions are beheld, new connections, opening a door to transformation, and maybe even enlightenment.
That’s the point where the scientist exclaims Eureka! “A cry of joy or satisfaction when one finds or discovers something: from Gk Heureka ‘I have found it’, said to have been uttered by Archimedes when he hit upon a method of determining the purity of gold (OED).
Equally, each artist has their own Epiphany “a moment of sudden and great revelation”, which, most crucially they communicate to us via their work – whatever form that may take. In this eclectic exhibition the forms are myriad.
Across the planet, from mobile phone charging huts in African villages to technology super-stores in downtown New York, everybody knows that our love affair with pervasive technology ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes’ is at an all-time high. Inextricable to what sociologist Raymond Williams calls the ‘structure of feeling’ of our society, we can’t leave home without it – there it is, in our pockets, subtly, and sometimes insidiously embedded into the fibre of our very existence. Like a Trojan Horse, ubiquitous technology has infiltrated into the very matrix of our human “being”, as we mediate the world through smart phones, communicating through truncated text messages, cartoon-esque emoticons, relying on this intangible, virtual world for intimacy through disembodied skype on lap-tops, desk-tops, tablets and i-pads. This, too, can be both good and bad.
Have you ever stopped to think how (say, compared to previous generations, who had nothing mediating between themselves and their “”live experience”), we negotiate and navigate the world mostly through small rectangular screens (like the one you’re reading this on right now, for example)? In Eureka!, artist Patrick Jacobs playfully subverts and interrogates this with his quaint, circular, 18th century Claude Frames. Think how anthropologically fascinating it must be to an onlooker, how we tap, gaze into, and even pet our rectangular screens like we might a beloved dog or a cat. Which brings me to Bethany Krull’s exquisite, yet somehow disquieting porcelain pets.
These days, going outside the front door sans mobile phone can produce separation anxiety of a most intense nature. Without the mobile phone, though we may actually be in the outside world, we feel cut off from it. In a variation on this theme, in her “Frankenstein’s monster” type oeuvre artist Bethany Krull raises the issue of how warm, cuddly – and terrifying – technology has become. She puts this to us in her polished, porcelain current series called “Dominance and Affection”, revealing how we have tamed wild nature, and genetically modified it to suit our inner control freak. ‘In today’s nature-deprived society, our most intimate connection tends to be with plants and animals that we have drastically altered through the process of domestication. Instead of us succumbing to our role as part of nature, nature must bend to our will, and it is science and technology that makes this happen”. Far beyond Stanley Kubrik’s prophetic Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey” – have we finally lost our last shred of humility where nature is concerned?
“We have turned wild animals into companions, genetically sculpting them into sweeter, cuter, less dangerous versions of themselves”, says Krull. “We shower our pets with love at the same time we cage and contain them and it is this affection contradicting complete control that I am interested in illustrating in my work. For no amount of love lavished upon these creatures will erase the fact that the success of the relationship lies in our complete domination over all aspects of their existence.”
“Zoology (the study of animals) and Ethology (a more specific study of animal behavior) play quite significant roles in my work as I am constantly exploring the ways in which the human animal interacts with other species (which is often informed by the psychological sciences as well as ethics) and how wild species come to be domesticated. I am interested in the complicated and often contradictory attitudes our society often maintains with other species as well as the human species propensity to dominate.”
Meanwhile, in her Claymation music videos, artist Allison Schulnik brings us back to the earth Patrick Kavanagh deifies in his 1942 poem “The Great Hunger”, with his opening gambit “Clay is the Word, and Clay is the flesh”. Schulnik’s “Mound”, “Hobo” and “Forest”, bring us back to the joy of primordial goo. Abandoning the blatantly hi-tech because it is disconnected from the physical aspects of what makes a sculptural artist a creator, her paradoxically luddite claymations, are populated with Apichatong Weerasethakul type creatures, UFO’s, primordial slime, hobos, clowns, and the occasional extra-terrestrial. Her stop-motion animation, with plasticine clay, where objects are constantly adjusted by hand and photographed to create movement on film – are striking for their gloopy colour-burst painterly quality, going back to the child-like basics and wonder of squeezing raw colour out of a tube of paint, and mushing it around on the palette.
Here, she introduces the elemental science of dancing: spellbinding Martha-Graham esque choreography is conjured out of this colourburst slime to mesmeric effect. Schulnik’s sculptural claymation music videos – with the occasional UFO – bring us back to a reassuringly earthy world of yore.
In “Metathesiophobia I Irish Sculptor Margaret O’Brien’s gorgeous, part unctuous, part crystalline “Gallium” plunges us into the old-fashioned science of Mechanical Engineering, and the feel of being back in school science lab. Developing her own alchemy of slow and repetitive changes in temperature, O’Brien allows various forms of the metal Gallium, whose state and form is constantly in flux to invite metaphorical exploration of the relationship and boundaries between the physical and the psychological.
“Metathesiophobia I uses the physical properties of the metal gallium to explore the relationship and boundaries between the physical and the psychological, with particular regard to the experience of objects and conditions of space” shares O’Brien. “Gallium is one of five metals whose physical state is unstable at or near room temperature and, due to its physical properties, it does not solidify into the same physical form twice but reforms with each change in state. With the changing nature of the material, the relationship of the viewer to the ‘object’ is destabilized as familiarity with its form is continually undermined.”
Constantly in a kind of Heraclitean flux – due to the changing nature of the material, the relationship of the viewer to the ‘object’ is destabilized as familiarity with its form is continually undermined. This results in the viewer’s referencing through association being constantly challenged and redressed.
“I use science or technology to introduce the possibility of malfunction or technical failure into the work, as a formal condition of the work that informs and renegotiates shifting boundaries between the physical and psychological. The language of the works is anchored on the interstice between operational and breakdown so that the work embodies a condition of impossibility within the threat of technical failure, and endless conditions of possibility or potentiality within the realm of its functioning or semi-functioning capacity. In doing this, the experience of the physical and psychological is interweaved within the experience of the work. “
From there to the playful science of games: have you ever wondered, if abstract painting could text, what it might say? Wave your mobile phone in front of Kyle Trowbridge’s Piet Mondriaan Style painting and find out! Like a Trojan horse, Kyle Trowbridge has embedded messages into his scannable painting, so the viewer experiences this oxymoron of literal text emanating out of abstraction. “Much of my work in the past has been based on buried subtext… It’s the idea that things are never what they appear to be that I am truly in love with. So when you pick up your phone and scan my paintings, you can see the literal message it conveys.” This work could trace its lineage to morse code, which, in its day was high technology indeed.
“I think at its root, the idea of using codes can cloak meaning in such interesting ways. Leaving my art to perform like a wolf in sheep’s clothing or is it a sheep in wolf’s clothing!”
“I do not believe these to be a far stretch from the literal definitions of the terms science and technology” he elaborates. “These are technologically based because the very foundation of these paintings relies on the structuring of the QR code. but it does not end with the painting itself. To unlock the full potential of these paintings one must again rely on their smart phones to decipher the code/painting. Technology by way of the computer is used to convert my text and generate a coded version. It is then technology once again that is used to translate this digital language. Technology itself mirrors current social trends greatly. It is the computer and its heavy interrelation with life, society, and our environment, that further increases the drawing upon such subjects as computer science, engineering, and applied science. The Quick Response code is one more excuse to pull out our phones and justify their existence!”
“Colour theory and the science of colour plays a great part in the creation of these works as QR codes are designed to be mono chromatic. This of course is because there are inherent limitations in the smartphone camera lens that is to act as a scanner for these codes. Believe me I have spent many hours struggling with certain colours to keep these paintings scannable. There are so many variables (hue, chroma, saturation, intensity, value, clash, simultaneous contrast, etc. etc.) that only the breaking down of colour to a science can help overcome / manage them.”
Meanwhile, in another scientific realm, at the forefront of experimental film and media since the 1980’s, Leslie Thornton’s kaleidoscopic Ant Video, Bluebird, Fish, and zebra lure us into a hyper National Geographic type of environment.
Deconstructing the ubiquitous rectangular screen our 2012 world is framed in, we see Patrick Jacobs’ hallucinatory mushrooms emerge in trippy perspective through an anachronistic Claude glass – a circular optical device popular in the 18th century used to frame the picturesque. The quaint yet disorienting combination of the pretty frame –– coupled with Jacobs’ negative focal length of the concave lenses and sculptural foreshortening all combine to create an illusion of infinite depth within a narrow space. Ingeniously, the artist has made you a magic mushroom, and a teeny fairy ring, revelling in the beauty and pharmacology of the nature his art mimics.
“A kind of pseudoscience often characterizes my work in which the everyday conspires to transcend to the supernatural”, he says. “We have always attempted to understand the world around us through a mixture of scientific fact and cultural assumptions, wishful thinking or even magic. The fairy ring fungus series centers on a folk-tale which held that dark grass and mushrooms growing in a circle followed the path made by fairies dancing in a ring. An ordinary natural phenomenon – the bane of lawn owners and gardeners – thus becomes the object of wonder. Each work consists of a constructed, three-dimensional diorama lighted from within and viewed through a circular window of glass lenses. Recalling the Claude glass, an optical device popular in the 18th century used to frame the picturesque, and Chevron’s Ortho home and garden brochures, the lenses also invoke the invisible eye of the wary homeowner searching a landscape for imagined interlopers. Installed within the wall, the physical diorama vanishes and we struggle to ascertain an image which can only exist within our mind. The combination of the negative focal length of the concave lenses and sculptural foreshortening creates the illusion of infinite depth within a narrow space. Blurring boundaries between painting, sculpture and photography the works present the viewer with a spatial and perceptual conundrum; we are drawn into a space at once determinate and infinite, natural and contrived, prosaic and otherworldly. In the foreground, we behold a detail of a cluster of mushrooms tenderly recreated with a degree of botanical accuracy. Then, our gaze is drawn deeper into a space with an impossible bird’s eye view of a distant, fantastical landscape. The unwanted, or mundane become synonymous with a disorienting even hallucinatory experience”.
The Salvador Dali-esque, anxious world of Rick Newton, where spitfire planes and lobster pincers emerge out of the sky rhymes with the age-old Shakespearean sentiment ‘like fies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”. Inspired by scientific textbook illustrations, and incorporating Cold War imagery, Newton has created a personal mythology concerning the future of the planet – with a generous dollop of post 9-11 angst.
As regards how science informs his work, Newton offers: “If the applied science of technology is perceived as an icon for the modern desire to provide for human growth, then my work is informed by this ideal trajectory. For me, technological innovations signify change and the climate of opinion from the various epochs artificially imposed by scientific inquiry. For the modern period, change over time can be traced via technological innovations”.
Science has become the beacon for ‘Revelation’ in Jean-Pierre Roy’s painterly, post-divine, materialist world. “Classical Western Art traditions often have at their core a desire for “Revelation”, he offers. “As the material and existential unknowns formally relegated to the realm of the “divine” give up their secrets to the small, unwavering and clarifying lens of rational investigation, “Science” has become the beacon for this act of “Revelation” for a post-divine, materialist world-view.”
“The day to day evolution of the state of the scientific conversation makes its way into my work- from Geology and Meteorology, to Thermodynamics and Particle Physics. On a macro-level, my work seeks to evoke a place for the viewer to contemplate the act of discovery itself. The Enlightenment gave rise to schools of sculptors and painters that sought to codify the “old world-view” shattering ideas of Christiaan Huygens, Galileo and Tycho Brahe. Artists like Casper Davide Friedrich and painters from the American Luminist Tradition sought to move the sublime mysteries of the world out of the damp confines of the cloisters and pews of the church and out into the light of the now Sun-Centric planetary system and the dappled star light of a much larger cosmos”.
“Drawing on these traditions of light as a metaphor for the rational mind, my work continues to explore the luminous boundaries between the known and the unknown, or as 19th century mathematician Georg Cantor put it “the chasm between what he had seen and what he knew must be there, but could never reach.”
Lenny Campello gives us a virtual wink as he brings us back to the retro technology of Tube TV and old soap operas in his installation. Featuring 1950’s couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a classic bedroom farce moment from iconic series “I Love Lucy”, Desi walks in and catches Lucy in the arms of his fellow Cuban – Fidel Castro. Storytelling and narrative will always be part of the fabric of what it is to be human, and Campello reminds us that technology, is often but a tool to plug in to this innate and ancient human need.
“My work has always been about the narrative and/or storytelling”, he says. “My marriage of a traditional and well-established genre of art (such as drawing has been for centuries), with a modern form of technology is an attempt on my part to extend the narrative of the artwork via embedded videos or powerpoint presentations. The digital technology thus expands what the visual imagery offers via drawing and it adds more information, more clues, a deeper agenda, etc.”
Finally, out of all the sidereal, technological and scientific wonder in this exhibition, and on this ‘small and lonely planet, travelling through casual space, past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns’ in “Space Junk”, U2 collaborator, and 3D pioneer Catherine Owens invites us (in her video work, made for a U2 Concert) to consider Maya Angelou’s heartening assertion:
When we come to it, we must confess
That we are the possible,
We are the miraculous,
We are the true wonder of this world.
So go on, put your miraculous self in the vortex of the organic conversation that emerges between these eclectic art works, and perhaps experience your own epiphany. Claim your own Eureka! Moment.
By Deirdre Mulrooney
Eureka! runs at the Blue Leaf Gallery, Whitaker Square (hidden on the new concourse between Sir John Rogersons Quay and the Maldron Hotel, near Grand Canal Quay) until July 16th. Dublin City of Science 2012 will host a 10 day ‘Science in the City’ festival from 6 – 15 July as part of the ESOF 2012 science in the city programme. Euroscience Open Forum Dublin (www.esof2012.org) is from July 11th – 15th. For more info on Eureka! see www.blueleafgallery.com