Thursday, December 4, 2008

Last Scattering Surface and other marriages of science and art

Artist Josiah McElheny and cosmologist David Weinberg gave a public lecture on Tuesday night about the former’s sculpture, Last Scattering Surface. This new installation has a glowing core with many dazzling glass globes and discs shooting from it, much like a bizarrely decorated, shiny hedgehog. The artist tries to capture a representation of Big Bang processes through this design. The surface of the bright core stands for the black scattering surface, where universe transforms from the opaque state filled with dense electrons to the transparent form. The many glass globes and discs surrounding the bright core symbolize many galaxies – the current state of the universe.

Their talk attempted to grasp tremendous ideas not only because this work is about the creation of the universe. By building his art based on scientific knowledge, McElheny’s first effort is to negotiate how art can be constructed according to precise models, as science has been done. He also tries to convey the ideas derived from science in a way that they can shed lights on the nature of humanity. If, as the Big Bang proposes, the universe has no absolute center and everywhere can be seen as a relative center of the universe, what does it tell about humanity? How can any system of places, people or thoughts gain supremacy to others, if the places they reside in are equal? Also, if the universe was made possible by its imperfection, maybe we should not try to define a perfect state and tag humanity as nature’s corruption or its ascension. By presenting the equality and plurality of galaxies, he tried to overturn hierarchical, utopian world views, which may be what he means by “modernism”.

In light of both intriguing and confusing feature of the “Big Bang”, it was no wonder that the cosmologist Weinberg attracted most of the questions. (Hooray, Science!) When people realized the faithfulness of the sculpture’s design in presenting cosmology and how little was added for art’s sake, the philosophical, ideological notions the artist argues seemed a little bit arbitrary. Consequently, the artist seemed rather like an “under labor” of science, as philosopher F put it, although the artist must think differently.

However, there are other artists who claim themselves as labors for science. Some of them, such as Felice Frankel, even do not categorize their profession as artist. (Thank Professor J for her introduction.) Frankel views her photographs as “phenomena” rather than art. How the hydrophobic and hydrophilic material forms regular grids (right), for example, assumes more a question to investigate than an esthetic experience. As such, she may never have to label her work as modern or post-modern under the mantle of a research scientist. Ironically, these “artistic scientists” are more likely to use generic scientific processes as a tool to create arts (e.g. “brainbow”) than those self-claimed scientific artists.

Too bad that I do not know much about Monet, Picasso and other experimental pioneer's works. Due to this and many other ignorance, I can only post some pictures as instances of marriage between science and art here, rather than give a fuller account of its spectrum.

Galelio: Saturn's rings -- Art as minimal as a scientific shorthand.

Mitosis won the first prize in Princeton's Art and Science Competetion. It was created in superimposing a microscopic cell image and a floral pattern, overlaying elements of art on science.

Art by Jennifer Rea.

Kepler's Platonic solid model. How blissful he would have felt if he had an opportunity, like what McElheny provided to Big Bang, to build this into a concrete form.

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