I Led Three Lives

John Haber
in New York City

Physics, Biology, and Book Art

As a TV drama had it before I was even born, I led three lives. Not as in the 1950s for the FBI, but somewhere between art and science. And most often, I can keep them rigorously apart. Artists, I am finding cannot. And sometimes, it gives them material for their art.

My own lives included majoring in physics with the hope of career as a theoretician. I did not succeed, but as a physics student without a university, I am still learning. Of course, my lives include writing about art, or you would not be reading this. During the day, as a textbook editor, those concerns sometimes cross, but I can never claim expertise rather than interest. For an artist, however, dabbling in science, art, and books can be a virtue. It can make a poor excuse for science, but also for fresh imagery, media, and metaphors. Paul Tecklenberg's Dark Field Cluster I (Central Booking, 2003)

From landscape painting to new media to halls of mirrors, art every so often has me revisiting the parallels between art and science—or questioning them. So recently has Brooklyn. Consider two shows, on the themes of physics and biology. "Attract/Repel" has a particular fascinating with magnetic fields, real or imagined. A few months before in the same space, "Anatomical/Microbial/Microcosms" worried about the meaning of life. Frankly, I try not to. But the Dumbo gallery invited me to contribute an essay anyway.

Theories of everything

Physics has it all. Sure, everything is chemistry—at least everything larger than a subatomic particle and less inert than Congress. But that may leave out the workings of the universe. And what science other than physics could talk, at least in its wildest dreams, of a "theory of everything"? And what other science could be crazy enough to debate openly whether it will ever come true? A wall drawing or a map of the art world can only dream of encompassing so much.

Physics ranges from the near-instantaneous bubbling up of electrons in a vacuum sea to slow movements of the earth's crust and the billion-year evolution of galaxies. It can imagine time running backward or the origin of time itself. It has a habit of pronouncing "universal laws" and then breaking them. Mostly, though, it is a vision of every day, as plain as the art of realism—or Sarah Sze at the Wal-Mart. Galileo started the way toward Newton and Einstein just by rolling balls down an inclined plane, like bowling for the athletically challenged. He could not have imagined the transformation of everyday life that their creations made possible.

As an activity, physics is even more modest, with a lab as its studio. In practice, physicists focus on the task at hand for hours, weeks, or a lifetime. Alone and in groups, they design experiments and tease out solutions to hard problems. They appropriate the tools they need, like an art of assemblage or twisted data, and hope they know when to cut corners. Is it okay to neglect an infinity here and there? Better leave that to mathematicians to sort out.

Physicists speak of universals, but they know that there may be more than one art or one final answer—or even more than one universe. Most likely, a baseball will fly pretty straight even in the wind, the computer will not crash before I finish this sentence, and the air in the room will not all gather into one corner when you are trying to breathe. But you can never be sure. In the 1940s, long before his best-sellers, Richard Feynman and others seemed to have found very different solutions to the puzzle known as quantum field theory, and both seemed entirely correct. And they are, only not so different after all. As for the meaning of life and other final answers, religion and biology will have to fight that one out.

Perhaps more than any other science, too, physics is about beauty, just like motion for Harold Edgerton. As much as formalism in art, much less mathematics in art, it is about symmetries and symmetry breaking. Theoreticians, like the avant-garde, can be a little cavalier about this. If the world does not live up to its picture, so much the worse for the world. James Clerk Maxwell added a "correction" to his equations for electricity and magnetism in the 1860s because intuition and consistency required it, although it took until the twentieth century to understand why. In the process, he found the nature of light.

I think you can see where this is going—and can see, I hope, that I was talking about art all along. Physicists and artists may not know it, but they are kindred spirits. They are visionaries and drudges, obsessed with the truth and caring enough to create their own. Physics and art are both, by necessity, abstract and representational. Artists are often terrible at math (and, I find, with words as well), and physicists can be seriously primitive when it comes to pictures. Then again, folk art is hot these days.

Metaphors for life

That is not to say that art and science or art and planet earth are at all the same thing—not even when, increasingly, art crosses disciplines and genres or Gabriel Orozco classifies life. Typically, art draws on science simply for images, subject matter, and a sense of authority, not unlike pop psychology. Artists can mistake the craft and speculation of old-fashioned tinkering and superstition for the rigorous self-questioning of modern science, and they can mistake metaphors for something more. New-media artists especially tend to think that their technology changes everything. All that is evident in "Attract/Repel." Distinct representations of nature are learning from one another all the same.

Many of the artists stick to much the same tools, whether they invoke science or their surroundings. Enzo Perin's photographs range from low-tech lighting in empty room to high-tech bursts of blue light. He is really imagining two time scales, one of them with a dangerous charge. When the electric blue encompasses the artists at the computer, he could be calling up its arc with a keystroke or powered by it. For others, science becomes all but indistinguishable from myth, like earth art oriented to the path of the sun. Carter Hodgkin's colors resemble particle tracks under the influence of LSD, but she claims inspiration from Korean art.

Even those who stick most closely to the materials of science have an old-fashioned bent, like W. David Powell's drawings of perplexing gizmos out of Kurt Schwitters. Think, too, of the Bay Area assemblages of Edward Kienholz and George Herms. Alan Rosner's sculptures incorporate motors and magnets, but they look like nineteenth-century experiments left to age in a museum. These artists like the imagery of magnetic fields, but they cannot help associating it with life. Katherine Jackson applies the same LED in glass to images of bridges and flora, while Claire Watkins uses moving magnets and needles along with peacock feathers to outline artificial dendrites, parasites, and weeds. Torino:Margolis captures a dancer's movement as electrical impulses, as if dance itself spread fields through time and space.

Julian Voss-Andreae really did study physics in his native Germany. Yet his "quantum sculptures" in stainless steel model the chemicals within biological cells, not unlike Kendell Buster's sculpture for the new Princeton chemistry building based on molecular orbitals. David Smith might be delivering biochemistry lessons. The artists may think of fields, too, as traces of human absence. Paul Tecklenberg has mimicked "bodies and antibodies" akin to the video Petri dishes of Michel Rovner. However, he also pictures laundry as if under x-rays, like a scrutiny of its owner. Physics will find itself a long, long way from this animism after all.

The divergence between science and art predates science. When Jan Vermeer painted The Astronomer and The Geographer, in the years between Newton's first experiments in optics and his Principia, both astronomy and geography were merely empirical, and his explorers had the Dutch exploration of trade routes as its subtext. Well before modern science, William Blake expressed revulsion at the machine age, and art after World War I rediscovered the cost of modernity. Georges Seurat might have kept up with the color theory of his time, like what an exhibition calls "Now You See It," but the more technical vocabulary of twentieth-century art and science alike increased the distance. The quirky sound art of Nam June Paik finds a kind of optimism in dysfunctional machines. Digital art had a burden of strangeness from the start.

Yet a shared comfort in unseen presences has a precedent, too, beyond Surrealism. When William Butler Yeats became more mystical in his old age, he imagined himself in touch with spirits. His tough side showed, though, when he asked them why they sought his attention in the first place. "We come to bring you metaphors for your poetry." It sounds like quite a trip from the ineffable just to help out art. Physics, I suppose, should be at least as generous.

Looking within

If eyes open windows onto the soul, no wonder art lingers over appearances. Biology and medicine, though, have gone one better. Want appearances and yet something deeper? We can cut you open and image the interior. And we do. "Anatomical/Microbial/Microcosms" brings together a dozen artists who, at least on the surface, look within.

Central Booking, started as a haven for works on paper and artist books, has in its short life had group shows on the intersection of art and science. "Natural Histories" looked back to a time when science, like art, trusted observation and intuition as much as grand theories, as they still do for Rosemarie Trockel. If you grew up with the Museum of Natural History as a succession of darkly lit rooms and glass cases, with no multimedia in sight, you will know what I mean. Biology, more than any other science, is still necessarily tactile and physical, even as new techniques are looking crisper and deeper. I myself have taken home x-rays home as ghastly souvenirs. So what if they are not imaging the soul?

Barbara Rosenthal, for one, displays her brain scans, in neatly cropped ovals and with the machine-generated data cut off as it fall. She had concerns for her psychic well-being, but doctors looked inside her head and found nothing. (Let me rephrase that: they found nothing untoward.) Her name lands on each sheet, in red block letters beneath the ghosts of a mind. In a show with few signed works, the most prominent artist's signature is machine made.

Clearly it takes imagination to pin an artist down. Travis Childers transfers images of a human eye to a dense grid with peeled-off tape. If these eyes are not windows, they are also not quite I's. Eva Lee creates a color Digital Terrain of the mind, in sharp-edged peaks and valleys. Paul Tecklenberg's presumed micrographs turn out to represent not single cells but household objects, like corks and rubber bands. They are translucent and luminous all the same.

The theme could lead almost anywhere, given centuries of natural and human imagery. Even now, Terry Winters has had untold progeny in biomorphic abstraction, Leslie Thornton heads for the zoo, and Marina Abramovic in performance lay with a skeleton pressed to her naked chest. The Dumbo gallery prefers traditional media to shocks anyway, as with Nene Humphry, Elena Costelian, Stephanie Brody-Lederman, Thorsten Dennerline, and Linda Plotkin. While biology has advanced to evolutionary theory along with high technology. only Barbara Confino dives into The Genetic Wars. Her warnings have the visual style of a Cold War science-fiction menace, and part of me wishes they were true. Brian Alves comes closest to actual research, with photographic traces of medical reports.

Watkins's wires climb a gallery corner and descend, blossoming into a plant-like matrix of crystalline capillaries or nerves. Tiny brushes pluck the strings, leaving sonic traces in the air and visual traces on the wall. Mary Hambleton combines the directness of medical imagery with the harsh lyricism of early photography or film. She poses naked, crossed by white bars or machine imperfection. One work has successive images of herself dancing, with a pronounced belly and drapery like Louise Fuller at the dawn of Art Nouveau. The artist, who died in 2009, acknowledged the brevity of life but never frailty.

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"Attract/Repel" ran at Central Booking through January 9, 2011, "Anatomical/Microbial/Microcosms" through July 11, 2010. Portions of this article appeared in slightly different form as a catalog essay for the first. The gallery asked that I not stick to artists in the show or cover them all, but rather frame the question.


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