a scattering matrix
Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Art has always been linked to technology and the scientific process, if by technology we mean the different materials and interactions of science appropriated by artists (think, for example, about the evolution of painting when canvas replaced wood support, or tube paints replaced mixing pigments with medium, or how photography is currently threatened with obsolescence by the computer). Although now separated into two distinct categories, artists and scientists are interested in each other's physical, visual, and cultural renderings of the world. In order to conquer nature, hierarchies and categories were established to separate disciplines and fields of knowledge, to tame and name the disorderly world in which we live. Art, in general, has been kept distinct from the real world, used as a literal or metaphorical record of human technological triumph over nature. Art, in a way, is no longer expected to challenge or further scientific research and discovery, but to humanize it. How, then, can the two disciplines be reconnected? Although the works in "a scattering matrix" use scientific formulae and methods to evoke specific reactions, they still rely on the audience's knowledge of art history to understand the curiosities within.
A show such as "a scattering matrix" presents artists on the research-and-development arm of art-making. The works were done, according to curator Jane Hart, to "challenge . . . commonly held perceptions of reality and existence," their forms attempting to scatter the matrix of "real" science. As the ultimate goal, the artists wish to question "conventional notions of order, structure and systems applying to the constructs of matter, time and space." Hart also states the work "directly engage[s] the senses," an optimistic statement given the mute nature of many objects in the show.
One could assume that the forms presented would be unrecognizable--indeed, alien--skirting not just scientific order but that of art as well. In the handsome catalogue, essayist Tobey Crockett posits that it is a common vocabulary (social, cultural, and emotional) that is the spark that ignites an audience's response to the work of art. How, then, do artists working outside recognizable forms (as suggested by Hart) connect with the audience? How does the artistic audience interpret the scientific vocabulary, and vice-versa? How can a matrix of art and science challenge notions of order?
To me, the key in understanding the linkage of these two disciplines is to understand that, as imperfect as art objects can be, they reflect the humans that create them. Science, too, is rife with prejudice, which casts a long shadow on scientific definitions of reality. This acknowledgment of the imperfection of human knowledge generously pardons human effort, allowing us to open up to artwork. By embracing disorder, both science and art achieve the freedom to create. This is their basic common ground. Thus, Hart's description of art questioning "conventional notions of order, structure, and systems applying to the constructs of matter, time, and space" comes to mean it is not art separated from science but art ingesting it, reveling in its profound strengths and weaknesses.
With the complex nature of the underlying concepts of the show, it is regrettable that the catalogue did not include specific discussions about particular works, nor did the gallery sport object labels to illuminate specifics. I must now use my own imperfect scientific education, and slip into the familiar world of art, where the links to the works are based on material or visual clues. All of the larger categories of art are seen here--including painting, sculpture, photography and installation--yet the best work critiques the ossification of these forms. Held in tension is the simplicity of the form and the complexity of the idea. The spectacle of flash, the comic frailty of human life, the utopian hope of the past, the psychedelic plush of the colored sky, or a blast-off into blinding space--all represent ways to lose oneself in the immensity of the void, to embrace disorder and create a new vision.
Sprinkled throughout the show are moments of humor, disembodied experience, utopian wish, or frank puzzlement. In a set of cibachrome prints of stills from their "overintelligent film," (1996) artists Michael Joaquin Grey and Pauline Wallenberg Olsson mix and match the outfits, books, and over-sized brains of two cheerful first graders: girls gleefully popping in and out of their skins like interchangeable Siamese twins. The grid of images are cartoons animating some unimaginable proposition from the world of biogenetics. Is this how we will look in the future--shared brains, networked like so many computers? As sly commentary explains cloning to the audience, the girls present our newly reconfigured future bodies. Part cyber-girls, part laboratory mishaps, matter is malleable and displayed in a cheerful way. The seamless computer-generated manipulations distill what is most exciting, and disturbing, about the computer's ability to front new realities.
Similarly adept at stretching the descriptive capabilities of the computer, Jennifer Steinkamp, known for her vertiginous, body-confounding light projections, presents iris prints of imagery from past installations. Although only a notation in comparison to her larger works, these glorious star scapes link the tangible strengths of the computer's imaginings to the ineffable presence of the unknown in our world.
Just as Steinkamp jiggles our brains with unimaginable scenes, Michael Brewster seeks to simultaneously disorient and ground our constant struggle between autonomic response and deliberate mind control. In a small, blank room, Brewster's sound sculptures all of before (1996) use the physics of sound waves bouncing off walls, and the viewer's movement in space, to focus the body's breathing, wavering, and floating about. In the CD produced for the show we are informed that the three acoustic sculptures presented are from different periods of his production, and that to fully appreciate each the viewer must be an "active listener." The radical ambiance of the works recall the gyrating sounds of early 20th-century machines (as related through B-grade sci-fi films), the presence of unknown forces in the sky, or serve to immobilize us (my dog was plastered to the ground while subject to the CD; he alternated between moments of catatonic languor and sudden attention, electrified by sharp turns in the work's frequency). Using obsolete technology and intangible volume while demonstrating physical properties, Brewster seeks to integrate the artistic experience with the unseen world. As the ultimate dematerialized art object, Brewster continues to undermine the comfortable truce we have with our invisible world.
Other works in the show, such as Liam Gillick's ibuka! wormhole backdrop (1995), or Matthew Ritchie's seven earths, (1995), rely on the wall-based two-dimensional form of painting to shift our physical expectations. Through Ritchie's diagrammatic scheme of sliced or exploding matter, in shades of '50s interiors such as mustard-green and shit-brown, we see the de-evolution of some mysterious form illustrated through line drawings reminiscent of high school science. Perhaps Ritchie is suggesting that the balanced forms, colors, and lines are scientific problems that can be solved formally.
Gillick's bright yellow, grommeted wall hangings, like Grey and Olsson's film stills, grant the viewer some comic relief, if only via the mention of a "worm" in the context of art. Wormholes, those smart little sky-holes that are short-cuts through the universe, allow matter to go in one location in space and out another. As a metaphor, and contrary to the nihilism implicit in black holes, wormholes provide an "escape hatch" for the inevitability of the annihilation of matter in space. Gillick's backdrop functions either as a cover-up for the wall which would impede passage of matter through space and time, or playfully limits the human stage upon which these dramas are being played.
Most of the show eschewed alluding to the aesthetics of high-tech design (apart from Gregory Green's missile and Spencer Finch's constructions). In fact, common jerry-rigged "machines" proposed an alternative order for understanding the world. Rachel Berwick's two fold silence (1995-96) recalls Arte Povera, where earthly materials were used to demonstrate, in odd and personal ways, the laws of life and the natural world. Berwick's elegant, yet frosty sculpture consists of a frozen line held up off the ground by slim metal poles. Leaping over one end is a rubber-cast fish--a coelacanth, to be precise--from a species of "mostly extinct fishes." One begins to think: Is this the frozen line of history, a disappeared fish signaling our own imminent endings? On the other hand, it is nature's ability to mutate and adapt that has allowed many animals (including humans) to survive local and global changes. Yes, this frozen spear cutting a line through space may be the reaper's prong, but life somehow leaps around it.
Opposing Berwick's elegant, Minimalist moral is the playfully breathing sculpture, encounter with a void where i thought my self resided (1996) by Terri Friedman. As an imaginative re-engineering of human life, this pumping, upright form giggles at our human need to see ourselves everywhere. Science tries to recreate life or develop new forms of it, and we will read any vertical art work as a person. We rather expect to see ourselves in the arts, for artists distill disparate elements from our seen and imagined universe, presenting it anew. However, this also underscores the subjective nature of science, which is seen in the late 20th-century as burdened with its own blind spots, including those of class, race, and gender. Friedman's playful work restates contradictory ideas about the breakdown of scientific order in an organic, engaging way.
Art needs science, or technology, as the material vehicle for expressing the world, but how are scientists affected by the visual models proposed by artists? What styles of representation do we expect from our contemporary life, super-saturated with technological revolution? Can artwork become a blackboard or sketch pad for scientific, or for that matter social, equations? How can an audience trained largely in the arts relate to objects whose vocabulary resides elsewhere? Although science, as a body of knowledge, has the potential to replace the physical body as site for artistic critique, complex scientific ideas will remain as elusive for the lay person as ever. Just as many artist's own idea of cosmogony lends great depth to the understanding of their work, at some point the gallery or museum space has to function as communicator. This, then, is my greatest critique of "a scattering matrix:" show me the text.
The Grey & Olsson work best describes this type of work; over-intelligent, or in some ways, over-determined, may be what happens when art and science collide. The pop look of the work may also reflect the way that popular culture has overwhelmed the art object that seeks to appropriate it. Indeed, in understanding the specific nature of scientific and artistic discourse, what strikes me most is how bifurcated our world has become. If scientists continue their march towards specialization and abstraction, it is artists who take on the burden of humanizing information.