|Marianne Moore, A Jellyfish (1959)|
Of course this first one isn’t even an image, but a poem—a lyric. In this digital audio file at the SFMA Poetry Center you can hear Marianne Moore reading it. Listening to this clip is lovely, because it gives you a sense of the witty, self-depreciating charm of the personality behind the language.
If this poem is an ‘image,’ it is a drama of the almost-visible, starring a jellyfish. Quite a specific, individual jellyfish, swimming around as they do, and momentarily caught in a small poetic narrative. It is the jellyfish that is both visible and invisible: fluctuating, transparent, ethereal, sometimes translucent and sometimes highly colored, jewel-toned, gem-like, strangely compelling, very beautiful, intensely desirable, and alive.
The first lines of the poem contain so much all-over movement that you sense the liquidity before articulating it. Yet when the “arm/ approaches” everything changes. Suddenly it hits you that there’s no glass barrier, an aquarium or a zoo, to separate the person from the jellyfish, so that that this might actually be an eco-drama: a story of ecological ethics in which the arm is in the ocean with the jellyfish.
And this realization introduces two important other movements. When the arm drops back it registers fear, but also something else. “Abandon[ing] your intent” isn't exactly giving up. There’s a hint of purposeful letting go: a deliberate act of relinquishment, or an instinctive reaction to the liveness of the jellyfish’s quiver.
This poem is a kind of motionless animation. It is a drama in which what is not visible becomes more practically significant than we can see, so that a very attractive ‘thing’ is not removed from its environment.
|Mark Bradford, Strawberry (2002)|
This painting by Mark Bradford is one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a while. It is an abstraction—a visual lyric, if you like—a big, high, haptic canvas whose charisma fills the room.
It is made largely with collage and covered with stuff: mostly layers of a hair-dressing tool called ‘permanent-wave end papers’ pasted all over the canvas in small squares. This is a pretty nitty-gritty technique for building up an abstraction, and the point is to make a strangely spatial plane that lets the background color onto the surface only in glimpses.
All this makes for an oddly demanding viewing experience. The painting puts you through your paces, making you stand back at various distances and then draw up close to scrutinize its surface, holding your attention in a way that feels almost depleting by the end. Like the poem, its visual language operates in an abstract space somewhere between the visible and the invisible.
A high school art teacher named Jack Watson describes the experience on the Art 21 blog:
I saw Mark Bradford’s solo show at the Wexner Art Center last summer and was inspired by the way he reclaimed the castaway detritus of his neighborhood—old signs and posters, record covers, permanent-wave end papers, etc.—and the way he layers them in dense and complex abstract compositions. The surface beauty of his work seduced me, but when I watched his Art21 segment, I became interested in the idea of palimpsest and trace memory and how layered images can create a juxtaposition of ideas.
|Lumière Brothers, Demolition of a Wall (1896)|
This third image is part of the catalog of the very first movies ever made. The Lumière cinema is a collection of 50-second ‘actualities’ that show you more or less exactly what their titles describe—in this case, the Demolition of a Wall. We see Auguste Lumière directing pick-axe wielding workers in the attack on a small-ish wall, which almost immediately collapses into a big cloud of dust. The whole thing is clearly rigged. Then the film is played backwards, and we see everything in reverse: the dust sucking itself back into the wall, people walking backwards in an awkward, slapstick way.
A number of things are delightful about this film. The title is comical because it practically turns the wall into a character. And it is amusing to consider that knocking down a wall—and a small one at that—might be the subject of a movie. Yet, there is something magical about watching the cloud of dust rise up and then reverse itself, and this reversal trick is the aspect that makes this film an important example of how early cinema played around with visual perception.
Time and space were starting to feel plastic in the early twentieth-century, and physics—particularly the very idea of relativity, in a general, non-specialist sense—would come to enter the popular imagination as a kind of intoxication. In fact, what reminded me of this film was Shaun’s description of the Big Bang with this phrase: “But what happens if we run the clock backwards?” For a film critic or an art historian this kind of question does not make a lot of sense because, as we’ve just seen, everything is different when you run time backwards. In fact a philosopher of time, Henri Bergson, actually did ask this question in the early twentieth-century and seemed to make no sense:
….the film could be run off ten, a hundred, even a thousand times faster without the slightest modification in what was being shown; if its speed were increased to infinity, if the unrolling (this time, away from the apparatus) became instantaneous, the pictures would still be the same.Reading Shaun’s rhetorical question made me realize something: that in this moment Bergson is thinking like a physicist. The picture is obviously not the same when you run it backwards, but in this instance that is not the point—he is thinking time in a more malleable way.
To switch into a fourth gear and summarize, I might say that all these objects are encompassed by the phrase ‘the arts.’
On the one hand there is a tribe of makers who produce literature, painting, film; and on the other a tribe of readers who act as critical advocates and antagonists. One can say in a generalized way that ‘the arts’ value newness and are curious about the inexplicable. For example, a tribute to an extremely well known critic begins with this sentence: “We thought we knew everything about Roland Barthes—the way he managed to glide effortlessly across the entire French intellectual landscape, in turn embracing semiotics and dismissing it, dissolving the author in the text and then bringing out the secret of its pleasure, all the while keeping his distance and the singularity of his style.” Art and the humanities value the challenge of these Barthesian qualities—distances, smooth movements, contradictions, paradoxes, the impossible—and their ability to surprise.
If all the images I’ve just described are in some sense impossible, I still have explanatory paradigms for them: rich, complex, fascinating frameworks of interpretation. Their impossibility is what keeps me in this game. For the next three images, however, I have far fewer points of entry:
|RCW 86, remains of the oldest documented exploding star. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA|
What is the right vocabulary for time on this scale, which is vastly beyond human?
What are you actually seeing when you’re watching a live cell move around?
|Inorganic chemical cell created from two salts|
What is this thing—living or inert? Is it an object for life science or natural science?
It should be obvious that part of what’s at stake in about thinking art and science together are fundamentally different modes of interpretation. There is a scientific method, and there are humanistic methods. What counts as evidence is different in each situation, and people using those methods go about making arguments and building cases in vastly different ways.
But at the same time, and this is amazing, there are some common grounds. In the comments to a previous post Shaun mentions the usefulness of 'intuition' for a theoretical scientific imagination, and elsewhere describes light rather poetically. Here James invokes the mystery of biology, the paradox of being not being dead, and the strangeness of a metal ‘cell.’ In all these descriptions, it seems to me that there is also an aspect of impossibility at work in science. And this might mean that the bare existence of impossible images like pictures of cells and clusters could map out the ground for a shared space between what are otherwise very different ways of looking at the same world.