3.4 / Review

Think Art - Act Science

By Genevieve Quick October 31, 2011

Departing from the Walter and McBean Galleries’ usual focus on identity and politics, Think Art-Act Science considers the relationship between art and science in the work of eight artists who recently participated in residencies at various European research laboratories through the ZhdK Zurich University of the Arts. Although the pieces and the creative way in which they’re installed succeed to varying degrees, Think Art-Act Science nonetheless raises many relevant issues regarding curatorial practice, art production, and the intersection of art and science.

Curated by Iréne Hediger, Hou Hanru, and Mary Ellyn Johnson, Think Art-Act Science is emblematic of trends in contemporary curation, displaying a dizzying amount of information while overstating the exhibit’s thematic cohesiveness, often to the detriment of the work itself. Dark gray walls with yellow accents visually unify the show and give it an installation-like aesthetic. Each artist’s name is stenciled on the wall near their piece, which are further set apart within the space by hexagonally shaped outlines on the floor made from yellow duct tape. In addition, some of the works are set off by sculptural dividers made of corrugated cardboard and steel that also serve as slick backdrops to other pieces in the show. When viewed alongside many of the pieces’ flashing lights, projections, and intermittent aural components, these additional design elements leave few places to rest the eye. Additionally, each installation is accompanied by a small monitor with headphones that features footage of the artists and scientists talking about their projects. While this process of collaboration is central to the exhibition, I wish that the artists had found a purposeful way of integrating it into their work. Moreover, while many of the installations are based upon abstract or obscure scientific information and concepts, the overly explanatory nature of some of the accompanying videos not only presents an interpretive dead end to the work, but is simply distracting.

Alexandre Joly’s Fish Skin (2010) is an elegant, if rather perplexing, installation of Piezo speakers, magnets, and piano wire, suggestive of a diagram representing any number of man-made, natural, or conceptual systems. The piece, which also abstractly resembles an electric harp, softly relays amphibian vocal calls that Joly recorded during his residency. The ambient sound of the other works in the gallery and the piece’s low volume require that the viewer lean in close to it. I wish Joly had further developed this intimate dynamic between object, sound, and viewer. Unfortunately, the amphibian calls are so abstract and unfamiliar that they really could be anything. Knowing their origin left me indifferent to the aural experience they produced.

With its cluster of flickering neon lights and complicated wiring, Christian Gozenbach’s QUARC (Quantum Art Crystal) (2010) is the most visually demanding piece in the exhibition. While cleverly fabricated, QUARC’s purpose gets lost in its intricate machinery. Gozenbach has created an elaborate system of magnetic wheels that complete electrical circuits to individually trigger neon lights. Except for a motorized central wheel, all of the piece’s other wheels turn according to the magnetic pull and resistance of the wheels that surround them. This cascading system of cause-and-effect relationships


Alexandre Joly. Fish Skin, 2010; nails, magnets, piezo speakers, copper wire, mp3 player, and piano strings. Courtesy of the Artist.


Nicole Ottiger. Third Person, No. 1, 2010; pencil on paper; 1.12 x 1.5 m. Courtesy of the Artist.

makes it improbable that the magnets will properly align to simultaneously illuminate the neon tubes. While I appreciate Gozenbach’s exploration of randomness and probability, the piece itself is too self-explanatory; it is a demonstrative model of a closed system, rather than a more expansive one that invites questions about the relationships it demonstrates.

Nicole Ottiger takes a different approach in Third Person, No. 1, 2, 3, and 7 (2010) using Virtual Reality (VR) to probe the conceptual and poetic implications of technology in regards to representation, place, time, and self. With the simplest presentation in the exhibition—a series of crude graphite and marker self-portraits—Ottiger provides just enough information to clearly convey the conceptual ramifications of her project. The accompanying video nicely explains that in order to draw a self-portrait, one must have a third-person perspective. Rather than using the standard mirror or photograph, Ottiger based her drawings on the feed from a video camera positioned two meters behind her. This footage was then fed to her via a VR visor. Ottiger and the scientists programmed a delay into the feed so that she saw her movements moments after they had occurred, requiring her to constantly coordinate her physical location with the visual information she received as she attempted to draw herself. Most interestingly, when the researchers tapped her with a wooden rod, her physical and visual sense of time and place synchronized and her drawings became more accurate. Ottiger’s resulting project attempts to parse out her various sensory perceptions (e.g., movement, vision, and touch) to explore how we understand and document the presentness of our lived bodies and experiences. 

With the exception of Ottiger’s, many pieces are encumbered by complicated processes, intricate machinery, or arcane references, which wind up obscuring rather than enriching the artists’ original intent. Rather than attempting to create artworks out of science, it might have been more fruitful for the artists to use science to probe artistic and poetic questions. Working alongside scientists in laboratories may have provided the artists with access to many new materials, technologies, and methodologies, but I am uncertain if the participants chose the most effective ways to convey their ideas. The exhibit's ambiance, however aesthetically unifying, also had the negative effect of overwhelming some of the individual works. Many of the videos in Think Art-Act Science repeatedly discuss whether a given project qualifies as art or science. Some viewers might need to be persuaded that what they're seeing are “proper” artworks; for others familiar with the work of Mark Dion, Eduardo Kac, and Carsten Höller this intersection of art and science is just another example of contemporary art's interdisciplinarity. The more pressing question that Think Art-Act Science leaves largely unaddressed is also the rather basic one of how to merge content and form.



Think Art-Act Science is on view at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries through November 12, 2011.

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