I am, of course, very grateful for science, not to mention deeply indebted to it, and I do find it mind-bendingly interesting at times. My only problem with it is that it spends so much time telling us things that are either bleedingly obvious or simply unhelpful.
If, for instance, I hear one more explanation of common social behavior that resorts to evolutionary theory, I will fall asleep. And how helpful really is it to know about deep time and deep space? I still have to pick up the kids at 2:30 p.m.
It’s not just me. Scientists themselves wrestle internally with the cool, disinterested stance that underpins their calling. Unless there’s money to be made, new ways to prolong life, or an improved capacity for war-mongering, people seem to feel free to ignore their most pressing discoveries. It must be infuriating. The science of climate change is but one example.
As a consequence, scientists often have art envy. They envy art’s capacity to communicate directly to the emotions. Art can sidestep the laborious requirements of rational deductions from demonstrable evidence and go straight to the gut, telling us things we need to know.
But many artists, too, have science envy. They grow weary of the vague, stormy, and ineffectual realm of the emotions. Emotions — especially fear — can impose terrible limits on the human capacity for speculation and discovery.
Many artists admire this capacity so much that they make art openly in the spirit of science. Sensing common ground between science and art, they work from the premise that something went fundamentally wrong when the two fields were rent asunder.
All this is admirable, unimpeachable. But in pursuing such a course, artists risk falling between stools. They also risk marginalization in both fields: Art lovers cannot abide their snubbing of pleasure and beauty, while scientists look over their shoulder and find their efforts laughably undisciplined or indulgent.
The List Visual Arts Center — an art gallery embedded in one of the world’s most famous centers of scientific inquiry, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — is a great, and in some ways a provocative, place to show this kind of art. It’s doing so in a show called “In the Holocene,” organized by List curator Joao Ribas.
The exhibition features work by 46 artists. Among them are such famous names as Joseph Beuys, Berenice Abbott, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt, Man Ray, On Kawara, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Joan Jonas, as well as somewhat more obscure figures like Leonor Antunes, Roger Caillois, Helen Mirra, and Georges Vantongerloo.
Among the works are films that hew close to the disinterested documentary tradition; sculptures that seek aesthetic and even spiritual values in mathematics; and paintings and audio pieces that remind us of the many profound truths uncovered by science.
The artist On Kawara, for instance, reminds us of the head-splitting reality of deep time with an audio piece called “One Million Years.” It consists of alternating human voices reciting the names of years in succession: “961,709 BC,” “961,708 BC,” et cetera. It’s a sound, a mantra, that you hear in the background throughout the show, and it has the great merit of helping put things in perspective.
Other works shared affinities with Kawara. A beautiful 16mm film by Ben Rivers, installed in a makeshift hut in the foyer outside the List gallery, offered for me the most poignant summary of the situation — and in a sense, of the whole show.
The film is filled with quiet, contemplative footage of nature (along with evocative sounds), and of an elderly Scottish man who has made a life for himself in the woods. He has invented simple technologies in a problem-solving spirit, and he ponders the mysteries of life and the counterintuitive complexities of modern science.
“How come it’s like this? How did it get like this?” he asks as he reflects on evolution. “It has taken so very, very long.” And a moment later: “Some things happen very, very slowly. And yet other times, things happen very fast. Like for instance, man’s brain. It evolved very quick. And it’ s just trouble. It’s trouble.”
How true. (The show’s title, by the way, is the term for our current geological epoch.)
Overall, “In the Holocene” falls slightly between stools itself, I’m afraid. The subject — artists who explore art as a speculative science — is simply too large. After all, what artist hasn’t felt that her way of comprehending the world is not somehow akin to a speculative science, delving into the nature of things? Continued...