Art and Science: Opposites Attract IIJohn Haber
in New York City
Ruisdael's Sluice Gates and Produced at Eyebeam
Mark Dion, Michal Rovner, and Jessica Bronson
Modern art may not resemble old-fashioned realism, but art has definitely not given up on nature. Just ask an artist. You may not hear these days the arrogance of a Picasso proclaiming he is nature. You may not hear But meet artists and ask what they are working on, and do not be surprised if you find them inspired by perhaps the most powerful account of nature possible—science.
If art has lost something of its magic in a secular age, science still has mystery and authority to burn. Besides, when it comes to art, the meaning of realism may have changed, but scientists still like to think they belong to what a Bushie once derided as the "reality-based community." No wonder artists still draw on science for methods, metaphors, and representations.
In the first half of this two-part essay, I therefore dealt again with a running theme of this webzine. What, if anything, do science and art have to do with one another? If they stand only as polar opposites, do opposites attract?
More than a few artists feel the attraction, and this half will let them have their say. As 2005 came to an end, half a dozen artists displayed new media produced at Eyebeam, a nonprofit dedicated to the space between science, art, and culture. Meanwhile Mark Dion asks how art and science grew together from some decidedly old media, and Michal Rovner makes video and fluid dynamics look like painterly abstraction. Last, giving a fast start to 2006, Jessica Bronson combines Eyebeam's high-tech means with Dion's old-fashioned turn toward natural wonders and the history of science. (Follow-ups take the story into spring 2006, with the space between still life and science experiment, thanks in part to Olafur Eliasson.) Together, they suggest a multiplicity of practices behind a simple question about art and science.
Remember when new media looked cool but took a moment to figure out? Does art often seem a product of hyperactive minds and markets, designed for gallery-goers already heading out the door? This year's offering of work "Produced at Eyebeam" has at least one virtue: I could not turn away until I figured it out.
Along with artists known only as D-Fuse, I seemed to have stepped into a rainforest, but I could not count at first the number of images. The projections, however many and distinct, fall across the floor, four screens, and through to the walls behind them. One crosses this space as if in the felt uniformity of the woods, and in this way, too, one becomes conscious of the scene's very diversity. And, sure enough, that turns out to be the theme, for soon the images switch to computer-generated maps, grids, numerical displays, and further photographic images. Together, these track the loss of biodiversity as McDonalds expands worldwide and as mining operations intensify. The problem of correlation versus causation, like the distinct forms of data display, tempers the work's didacticism with the puzzle of representing the world—and one's place in it.
As this example suggests, the works at Eyebeam hold out the promise of a narrative, but the artist and viewer share responsibility for creating it. Chihcheng Peng calls his montage of old film clips Seminal Events, More or Less, and Brian Alfred places an obvious question mark at the end of his title, Conspiracy? In practice, Peng's apparent documentary presents an urgent flow of crowds and desires, in a space neither clearly archival nor one's own. Alfred, too, hints at watchful military affairs and fenced-off installations. Mostly, however, I took pleasure in the drawings that dominate the video, with crisp lines and flat fields of colors. Presumably, paranoia should not strike too deep, even when the eye looks everywhere and remembers everything.
In each case, the basic idea turns out much simpler than one may first think, reducible in fact to a sentence. I strained at first to make out the voices and actions split across Julia Loktev's three screens. The confusion arises, however, as what she calls a by-product. Each screen cycles, at its own pace, no more than several seconds of video. A woman zips up her skirt and makes the motel room's bed, while the narrator not only gives directions but offers severely measured praise each step of the way. Perhaps it, too, plays on the relationship between art and surveillance, as well as between video and film noir and between woman as subject and as artist, but it also takes one back to the medium's roots in performance—only here in the sense of competence.
Call them all, then, Eyebeam's performance appraisals, and one of the seven contributors, Christian Marclay, appears only in a live performance that I missed, as perhaps the ultimate extreme from the extended video of Marclay's The Clock. But only with my favorite aside from Loktev's, by Anthony McCall, does the performance become the viewer's own as well. McCall, the senior contributor, projects sheets of light onto the floor, where they trace schematic curves and line segments. The bare outlines contrast with the illusion of volumes or solid walls of light, as if by a denatured James Turrell or a cloud chamber by Antony Gormley. One slows to avoid crashing into them, giving one time to appreciate the illusion, its beauty, and its slow shifts over time. By the end, two distinct patterns—or perhaps two chambers of light within the dark room—swap places.
It makes sense that new media these days may prefer transparent ideas and lavish effects. Most artists fall in love with their medium and put it to the test. Besides, a bit of slickness akin to the movies accords with video's increasing commercial acceptance, as with the latest from Sharin Neshat or Bill Viola. At the same time, a dedication to computational firepower goes back to the roots of digital art in video games, early broadcasting, and programming experiments. Here new media take a contrary path, with simple means but epistemic uncertainties, not unlike a Whitney exhibition called "Into the Light" a few years back. The artists at Eyebeam stick to video—or, in the case of LoVid, film as a less than transparent plastic collage—rather than interactivity, and they give it time to take shape.
Mark Dion does not have a computer algorithm to connect physics and art or art and mathematics, but he has a lively curiosity. He has sifted the Thames for a group portrait of London—or of the volunteers who combed its shores for him. For months he followed the Museum of Modern Art as it dug deeper still, to the foundations for a new architecture. In the detritus of his Rescue Archaeology, he describes a vanishing city block, an evolving institution, and the art and lives they uproot and preserve. Now he comments on the very urge to dig, to collect, and to preserve, as in a museum of natural history.
Obviously Dion loves layers. The Thames Dig focused on the foreshore, the layer between high tide and low, river and land, natural and human action. The Curiosity Shop adds fictional layers as well. They include the shop itself, a one-room structure with a proper New England porch and signboard. They include, too, the unseen shopkeeper who presumably packed its tables and shelves with curiosities. Surely they include, too, the imagined families who sold or discarded so many books, toys, and stereotypically ugly adult knickknacks. As token of its fictional status and perhaps an additional layer between past and present, Dion allows one to climb the porch, circumnavigate the shop, and look through its windows into near darkness, but not to enter.
When it comes to the intersection between art and science, one thinks first of new media, as in "Produced at Eyebeam" or other representations of live data. Dion's old-fashioned route carries an added interest, in part because it questions the intersection's existence. "Unlike legitimate archaeological excavations," the gallery states, "Dion's have little scientific value." However, that, too, simplifies matters. Archaeology itself uses the tools of science to investigate not natural but cultural phenomena. In London, the Tate coordinated The Thames Dig with webcasts on archaeology and discussion points for schools.
One might say that Dion probes how value judgments accrue to science, art, and culture in the first place. He blurs the distinctions between the real, the imagined, and the documentation of both. The gallery's front room includes high- and low-tech gear that may or may not have helped dig through MOMA. Real families did sell or discard all that junk further inside. As yet another layer of time, media, distance, and reflection, The Curiosity Shop looks far more beautiful in photographs, lit from within. In person, one can more easily dismiss its quaintness, along with the ten years' worth of fairly ordinary drawings also on display.
Alternatively, one could say that Dion describes the evolution of art and science along with the changing world they represent. Both the drawings and the shelving invoke arbitrary taxonomies. They point to a nostalgic, downright prescientific view of science, one with more classification schemes than theories to support them. They suggest that art always has a kind of nominalist residue left over when it emulates science. It invites fictions and interpretation in part to handle so much immediate visual experience.
If the project's fiction adds to its layers, it may also leave Dion the collector in something of a holding pattern. So much of his past work's fascination lies in its reality. Its subject matter and display thrust the work's presence up against past events, while its collaborative nature adds still more voices and moments in time. The Curiosity Shop blends suspiciously easily into the cluttered exhibitions everywhere in Chelsea, and the escape from urban excavation to souvenir hunting seems just in time for Christmas shopping. Ironically, in the real world taxonomy has become marketing jargon for the classification and manipulation of human needs. Perhaps Dion is taking stock of his own methods before digging deeper than ever.
Michal Rovner, too, has a fascination with digging into the earth and its cultures. She also has drawn on science for a metaphor that I am seeing so much that I may as well call it a trend. More than once now, artists have mined the genetic sequence or other data from biomedicine, calling it portraiture. Rarely, I can even believe it.
Perhaps my favorite instance came two years ago, when Rovner projected images on stone that one could read at once as tiny human beings, a runic alphabet, and a particularly enduring one—human chromosomes. I liked the befuddlement of sculpture and video, as well as of vision, archaeology, and biology. It allowed one to situate one's destiny simultaneously in the physical body, culture, and one's genes. Ever since, however, I have wondered if the easy slide among these competing codes did not come too glibly, and I had to notice the ease with which she could fill such a huge show this way. Reproducible forms have a definite appeal when they are debunking the aura of a work of art, but less so when they sustain so many lovely, marketable works. However, the close relationship between the reproducible and each of her three alphabets quieted my fears.
Now Rovner turns a very different metaphor into an even larger show. That alone has me wondering about its commodity value. She also sticks to flat surfaces, largely white fields, and common art materials, rather than carvings. Moreover, the new metaphor, rivers of oil, lacks the self-awareness that rescued her for me last time—or does it?
The show suggests more of a consistent vision than I thought when I entered. Again she starts with a theme—sex determinants or economic ones, archaeology or oil—not irrelevant to a woman artist from the Middle East. Again she works with projections or, in some cases, tiny monitors, and again she makes them look at first more abstract or mythic than one comes to learn. In some, tiny oil derricks dance about like yet another set of ancient characters. In others, undulating strips of color invoke such grand themes as fire and water. Either way, Rovner again displays a knack for transformations and a very old-fashioned sense of beauty.
One could argue that she even improves on her last exhibition. After all, chromosomes and excavations go in and out of the news, but oil points to some particularly nasty political contexts right now. She may have situated her metaphors in a harsher reality. Then again, she may have grown more evasive than ever. Whatever oil means to national economies and a few wars here and there, it definitely does not mean a comfortable moment of contemplation. However oil spills behave in a fluid-dynamics class, out in the ocean they leave a big mess. Has gushing here gone for all the wrong associations?
Thanks to those painterly color fields, I found this show emptier in more ways than one. The sheer volume of similar works started to numb me more than intrigue me. Few artists can hit all the right notes in one show, but maybe next time hers will harmonize a little less readily.
"Produced at Eyebeam" describe art and science on the edge of contemporary culture, while Dion and Rovner dig for the history of each. Jessica Bronson, in contrast, jumps lightly from the Enlightenment to the light-emitting diode. I have been trying for weeks to address her new work, but I cannot seem to put my finger on it. In fact, I cannot pin it down by looking either.
Bronson displays a row of slim, short vertical tubes of flashing light, each a different color, like a neon rainbow spread across the wall. A second work compresses the entire rainbow vertically into a single band of light, while another LED sticks to a harsh white. One had better give art so apparently simple, however, a second look. As one moves on to the next work and then back, something startling happens: for an instant and no more, words flash outward—from the very tube that one had at first dismissed. Sometimes an entire phrase leaps diagonally off a single light fixture, but the flash does not permit easy reading.
Bronson tempts one to turn again, to confirm or dispel the illusion—and then yet again, almost certainly in vain, to decipher the text. I found myself spinning in circles, somewhere between frustration, embarrassment, and sheer joy. Critics who hate puff adjectives in place of literal description can take comfort in calling this work dazzling. A sign as one enters warns those susceptible to seizures, but anyone can grow dizzy.
I often managed to guess at a word or two, but I never did decipher an entire message. I must take on trust that the long wall cites Goethe's color theories, that the narrow rainbow blasts "like transient day" from Book of Thel by William Blake, and that the chill, white light quotes Helen Keller, for whom the rainbow "remains colorless." I cannot tell you how it works either, but I shall venture to guess that Bronson projects the words diagonally because the periphery of the eye responds to motion. It its high-tech means, short lengths of tubing, preference for rapid motion over steady contemplation, and confusion over exactly what the viewer does contribute, this work updates the fluorescent interiors of Dan Flavin or James Turrell for an age of short attention spans. An apparently minimal installation disguises maximal means and maximal perceptual overflow.
Bronson, who once studied biomedical engineering, all but follows in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller and Fuller's futurism, and she likes images to straddle art, science, and an imagined spirit world. A previous vision of heaven and hell began with aerial views of planet earth. Two additional works in the present show stick close to the ground themselves. One follows the artist's nature walk on four small monitors, incrementally pixilating the black-and-white grid. A second video supplies three versions of an olive tree. I found them boring compared to the light show, but for all their slow pace, they as much as the LEDs make it difficult to look on anything directly.
As so often when art invokes the authority of science, Bronson effectively reduces science—like Yeats's spirits—to a bringer of metaphor for poetry. Looking to Goethe and Blake for advances in art and optics is like mistaking Plato's cave metaphor for spelunking. Still, Bronson's mappings of the rainbow or her backyard succeed in putting vision and metaphor literally in the spotlight. As with many digital artists, one can question whether her data lie or whether the gallery lies about her texts, but one does not lose sight of her and her words as off-screen presences. As Blake says about Thel, in yet another metaphor of vanishing, they are "like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun."
Mark Dion's "The Curiosity Shop" ran at Tanya Bonakdar through January 14, 2006, "Produced at Eyebeam" through December 17, 2005, Michal Rovner at PaceWildenstein through March 18, 2006, and Jessica Bronson's "Like Transient Day" at Lombard-Freid through February 25, 2006. The first part of this two-part article considered points of intersection between art and science. Related articles have given particular attention to science and Postmodernism, the materials and methods of art, when photography can deceive, how digital art can lie, how medicine and mathematics approach art, high-res scans and Leonardo, Christina McPhee's digital landscapes, and McPhee's digital prints.