Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2005
Time/Space, Gravity, and Light
Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, Calif., November 16, 2004–February 27, 2005
Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno. Protrude, Flow, 2001–4. Magnetic fluid, electromagnets, video camera, computers, and audio equipment. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists.

Time/Space, Gravity, and Light, which complements Einstein, the major science-history exhibition on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through May 29, 2005, showcases recent digital art and multimedia installations that explore the same physical phenomena that captivated Albert Einstein throughout his life. The projects in Time/Space also embrace the world made possible by quantum mechanical devices, such as computers and electronics, which Einstein never knew. Glenn Phillips, research associate and consulting curator at the Getty Research Institute’s Department of Contemporary Programs and Research, ably organized the exhibition and paced the different modes of viewing, which range from the interactive to the contemplative and from the audio to the visual.

The predominance of “light” in the exhibition, presented in the form of negativelike images—whether black and white, black and red, or black and green—plays, on some level, on Einstein’s assertion that this form of energy is the source of all physical phenomena. This comes to mind after one has walked through the white-cube environment of the Einstein exhibition and across the corridor into a black-box installation of Time/Space, Gravity, and Light, which consists of one small, intimate room dedicated to the work of Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno and two additional spaces divided by a small corridor blocked off with short lightweight black curtains.

The physicist Ernst Mach theorized that the visualization of physical phenomena is relative to a specific frame of reference. Mach’s theory of sensations not only influenced Einstein’s thinking about relativity, but it also established the correlation among elemental equations (mechanical laws) perceived through a body—a physical object—that is nothing more than a firm pattern of sensations. As László Moholy-Nagy wrote in 1927, “… everyone will be compelled to see that which is optically true, is explicable in its own terms, is objective, before he can arrive at any possible subjective position” (Painting, Photography, Film [London: Lund Humphries, 1969], 29). Yet this exhibition compels us to move beyond this relative objectivity and remodel our idea of contemporary art in synthetic terms, thereby challenging us to leap into the new imagination of the twenty-first century.

Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is drawn into the first room toward mutating, expressive black-and-white forms digitally projected onto a wall, part of Kodama and Takeno’s environment, Protrude, Flow (2001–4). This interactive installation consists of a video camera placed in front of a pool of sleek metallic fluid above which a cylinder housing powerful electromagnets is suspended. The viewers’ voices cause the magnetic field to act upon the liquid, making it rise against gravity—the louder the sound, the taller the swell. The dynamic movement of this black oily substance in turn enlivens the vocal reactions of the viewers, evoking an organic sensation of movement. The reciprocal energy between the metallic fluid and human sound creates a distinct vibrant atmosphere that is lost when the metallic fluid responds solely to the electronic music playing continuously in the room.

Moving from the enclosed space housing Protrude, Flow to an open gallery, the viewer then encounters the moving pictures of Jim Campbell’s red LED boards of his “Ambiguous Icons” series as a totality or as individual images. The LED displays continuously emanate impressionistic patterns of light and dark that form recognizable images: a crashing ocean wave, the motion of young people strolling on Fifth Avenue in New York, or an elderly person walking with cane. Campbell uses digital programming and analogue presentation to produce particular images with a bare minimum of visual information; these images suggest motion or present still pictures, such as an illuminated silhouette of a human face—significantly of the physicist and engineer Harry Nyquist, who developed theories of signal processing and the conversion of analogue to digital signals. The poetic space between the abstraction of the light-emitting diodes and the frosted Plexiglas with the phenomena depicted is where the viewer turns to find meaning. Reminiscent of the imagery in Michal Rovner’s videos, Campbell’s work seem to urge the viewer to remain on the level of experience and to understand reality (or information) as nothing more than material to be manipulated.

For Campbell, light can also be about time. In his piece Untitled (For the Sun) (1999), he demonstrates how light can be used not only to visualize time as motion, but also to measure time itself. Suggesting a sundial, Untitled connects an outdoor sensor to an LED display to count down numerically the percentage of daylight or nighttime left in a single day.

Light seems to be the one constant in the natural world that is indispensable for human perception, just as electricity’s speed is indispensable for modern telecommunications. Using the latter as a starting point, Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post (2001–3) visualizes the real-time communications of a global society. Here, visitors read electronically typed green text scrolling from right to left across LED screens that are arranged in a curved, gridlike wall. The words are a visual cacophony not unlike the sound of many people speaking all at once, echoing the synthesized voice reading arbitrary phrases or words as well as the syncopated music heard in the background. The words declare positive, pleasurable, even trite statements about ordinary, likeable things in all caps: “I LOVE YOU TOO,” “I LIKE FRIED RICE,” or “I LIKE YELLOW.” But when sentence fragments in lowercase letters are randomly emitted, some viewers approached the listening post in order to read these words, even though the text-to-speech voice synthesizer read this text aloud. Up close, fragmented statements about adverse circumstances—“without any body armor,” “he and more than 1000 in the army have perished,” “live with losing your child,” and so on—overlap with the pleasantries of the larger, uppercase sentences. Another dramatic shift takes place: isolated words (nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives) in lowercase letters appear in a random pattern: “luckiest,” “must,” “resisting,” “greet,” “sofa.” They are followed by a column of uppercase words (nouns and adjectives)—“NAVY, ECHO, ROSE”—that suggest communication can be reduced to a mere selection of words. The LED screens then go blank, and the viewer is left in semidarkness as syncopated chords from a synthesizer’s keyboard play on the loudspeakers. The clever play on the keyboard as instrument, whether piano or computer, lends insight into the imagination of our new century that constantly synthesizes fragments of text, drawn from online public forums and originating from points all over the world, to make sense of the world.

As the informative handout for the exhibition states, “… these art works are not merely about scientific observation of the universe but also about the very human experience of living in a world that behaves the way it does.” The flux of viewers entering and exiting, beginning and ending the exhibition as they choose, underscores the overlapping and meshing together of observation and experience.

Cristina Cuevas-Wolf
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Riverside