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Theories of relativity Interweaving time and space with art and science
Marriage of true minds Seminar probes the many meanings of weddings

 


Interweaving Time and Space with Art and Science
by Mae G. Banner

Where else but at Skidmore’s Tang Museum would a visitor be invited to lie down on a commodious futon (“Stretch out and let me plump up the pillows for you,” says the docent) and gaze upward at a galactic journey projected on the ceiling? The eight-minute film The Power of Ten, made in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames, starts with a man and woman lying on a picnic blanket. Every ten seconds the camera moves higher and higher: soon it’s one mile away, ten miles, a hundred miles, a thousand miles ... all the way to Venus, Mars, the outer planets, through the Milky Way, to ten million miles above Earth. It’s a dizzying experience. Then the return trip: zooming back through the cosmos, through the atmosphere, through the picnic scene, through the skin of the man’s hand, to a final image that looks like a magnified bit of a Seurat painting.

Vast, microscopic; heaven, earth, endoplasm—it’s all electrons and, ultimately, it’s all one.

The Power of Ten is a pivot point in the Tang exhibition entitled A Very Liquid Heaven, on view through June 5. Co-curated by art professor Margo Mensing, physicist Mary Crone Odekon, and Tang curator Ian Berry, it’s an interplay of works by contemporary artists with historical photographs, drawings, and star charts going back to the seventeenth century. The show (whose title quotes from a Descartes commentary) illuminates changing perceptions of stars and the universe, permanence and mutability, time and space—and the nature of art and science.

Is the Eames film art or science? “I wouldn’t want to call it art,” says Mensing, who designed the silk-screened futon and pillow covers (with help from Afshaan Rahman ’04). “Eames never called his films art. He saw them as teaching and problem-solving.” For Odekon, the unusual posture for viewing “makes you feel vulnerable.” Also, she says, “If you rearrange the pillows, you’ll see that Margo has made an outline on the futon cover of the two film characters lying on the blanket, so you lie here you can be part of the exhibition.” Odekon adds, “I first saw the film at the Smithsonian in the 1970s. It’s one of the things that pushed me toward astronomy as a career.”

We humans are impelled to introduce order into random sights or sounds. Equally, we are impelled to dream.

Another pivot point in the show, she notes, is “Henrietta’s Stars,” a set of 105 glass-plate photographs taken in 1910 and lent by the Harvard College Observatory. Henrietta Swan Leavitt was one of a group of astronomers, all women, who worked at Harvard, studying such slides and deducing information about the movements of the stars. It was her meticulous work that made possible, decades later, Edwin Hubble’s insight about the expanding universe. “I’m interested in Henrietta as a process artist,” Mensing says. “She sat there day after day, using methods that many artists use: observation, classification, and recording.”

So, again: Is it science or is it art? Odekon points out crucial similarities in the way that visual artists and scientists work: “Both engage in close observation. Both are representing something, whether it's a feeling or an object. "What differentiates artists from scientists is not their methods, but their purposes, she maintains. “How are you interpreting what you observe? What kind of meaning are you attributing to it? Scientists want to lay out a list of steps that someone could reproduce, while artists want to create an aesthetic or emotional meaning.”

Liquid Heaven viewers will marvel at artworks such as Karen Arm’s huge midnight-blue painting with a field of glowing dust near the center. Stare at this dust and it seems to approach and recede, to swell and shrink like a pulsar. On another wall are five photos of the constellation Orion, taken by astronomer David Malin at different times and with different equipment. They look nothing alike. Which is the “real” constellation? Another photo series is Sebastian Romo’s 1997 Constelaciones. Look closely at the angular white lines that connect bronze-colored dots on a pebble-gray ground, and you will see that they are not of heaven. Mensing explains, “Romo scattered rusty bottle caps on the sidewalk. Then he connected the dots with white chalk to make believable-looking diagrams of constellations.” We humans are impelled to introduce order into random sights or sounds. Equally, we are impelled to dream. This exhibit honors both impulses.

Mensing and Odekon say their collaboration has opened their minds to new ways of thinking. As part of planning the show, Mensing enrolled in Odekon’s astronomy course, while Odekon joined her and Berry on visits to artists’ studios in New York City. Mensing says, “Taking Mary’s course grounded me so I could understand the information in a way I could never get by reading.” Odekon began to think about the power of inductive versus deductive reasoning. She even stepped back a bit from her scientific inclination to accompany each object in the exhibit with extensive textual explanation: “I like the fact that the show is beautiful and mysterious,” she says. (But she did support her student collaborator, Stephanie Waite ’06, in creating a display pairing exhibit images with quotes from thinkers like Einstein and Pascal.)

Next, Odekon intends to enroll in Mensing’s fiber-arts class. And Mensing confesses, “I am really hooked on the night sky. Just because we finished mounting the exhibition doesn’t mean I’ve stopped watching Orion.”

 

Art in heaven

A multimedia performance set off the big bang that birthed A Very Liquid Heaven. Both teaser and kickoff for the exhibition, Mak 3 swirled together music, dance, and theater in the Tang’s soaring Wachenheim Gallery.

George Crumb’s “Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) for Two Amplified Pianos and Percussion” (1974) was the main event. David Porter, president emeritus, and Richard Hihn, of the music faculty, manned the pianos, and visiting percussionists Richard Albagli and Scott Stacey played a universe of instruments from glockenspiel and chimes to maracas, wood blocks, and clay jugs. As pianists popped up from their benches to sound the interior strings of the pianos, percussionists were clapping together Tibetan prayer stones or drawing a bow across a gong.

Orbiting this vibrating center was a family of four “wanderers” in filmy white, making their choreographed way with simple steps and bends, the two adults linking arms, and sometimes legs, with the children in their charge. Their passage was like the repetitive movement of the stars—strange, yet predictable. At one point, an actor in the role of poet Rainer Maria Rilke (whose words Crumb quoted in a note jotted on his original score) rode in on a gleaming bicycle. A dancer’s brown eyes reflected in the bike’s rearview mirror were video-projected on one wall, while images of galaxies whirled across walls and ceiling. Another dancer, in at least six yards of trailing skirt, portrayed the Egyptian goddess Nut, watching over the goings-on from a high platform.

Two years in the planning, Mak 3 and A Very Liquid Heaven informed each other from the outset. The impetus, says artist and codirector Margo Mensing, “came from the mind of David Porter,” a scholar of avant-garde as well as classical music. His concert plans then spun off the idea for the exhibit.

Orbiting this vibrating center was a family of four “wanderers,” whose choreographed passage
was like the repetitive movement of the stars—strange, yet predictable.

Mak 3 began with interviews with figures from the history of astronomy—actors portraying Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble, the poet Rilke, and filmmakers Ray and Charles Eames. Codirector Debra Fernandez, a Skidmore dance professor, recruited the actors from among her colleagues at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The leading dancers were augmented by Fernandez’s dance students, who, clad in white coveralls, flickered and floated outside the Tang windows.

Fernandez explains, “The interviews were designed on an intellectual plane, to introduce the audience to the ideas they would meet in the exhibition. I wanted dance to be the experiential part.” In fact, she reports, “I talked to two Harvard astrophysicists who saw Mak 3 and they said, ‘You guys really got what we look at.’” —MGB