Being under no illusion

At the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford one can wander almost unseen and certainly uninterrupted by gallery attendants through a labyrinth of Victorian balconies, alcoves, stairs and Escher-like cathedral arches.  This cabinet of curiosities from industrial England is stuffed to bursting with relics and treasures from other worlds and other times.  It’s easy to wander, almost lost, amidst the dead birds, some of whom ran but never flew; dried heads that should be returned; gemstones and jewels; and any number of wonders from the natural and inhabited world.  Geological specimens, a tiny fraction of the Museum’s holdings, are often displayed in fan-like formations, in Ruskin-like designs:  the shards of coloured stone and flint-like rocks hidden behind glass, and allowing for no tactile indication of each element’s weight, touch, and potential force. 

The Melbourne Museum of my childhood was not such a different place: a place of wonder, a place of awe.  Boa-constrictors in glass cases jostled with a dead horse with a big heart and dioramas of Aboriginal figures hunted and gathered the stuffed fauna of local game.  In the science section, as you pressed your way from one activating button to the next, hydraulic pumps and pistons sprang into momentary action.  These demonstrations of scientific discovery seemed to encapsulate the wonder of things little understood, and infinite in possibility and application.  Some were as exciting as mail-order crystal radio sets, or the sea monkeys that are still given to children today.  They bought science out of Encyclopaedia Britannica – or the web page - and into the here and now.   

You can tell, of course, that science was not the path I chose.  I never shared the desire to take apart torches, or find out why or how things actually worked.   It was enough that they just did, almost as if in this way the mystery remained whole.  If I had any rudimentary understanding of science, I owed some, if not much to Julian Sumner Miller’s famously eccentric children’s television programme of the 70s and 80s that so excited a generation of children to the marvels of physics.   As he scrawled using blackboard and chalk and Beuysian flair, one could not help but be caught up by the magic of the event.  Whether alchemical witchcraft, or rational scientific truth, here were cool experiments, fantastic hair, and the endorsement of Cadbury’s milk chocolate (as good, we were told, as a glass and a half of full cream milk).  Regrettably for science, or perhaps my pursuit of this form of knowledge, as he asked his trademark ‘Why Is It So?’, my regular response was ‘It doesn’t much matter, it’s enough that it is’. 

Susan Jacobs’ project Being under no illusion for New 2010 has captured in equal parts the deceptive simplicity of a feat of physics, as well as the wonder of something not fully understood.  This is not the first foray for Jacobs into the magic and mystery of physics.  In the past she has variously beaten and carved lead to form lava-like floes, re-constituted tree forms from carbonised wood (better known in its charcoal form), oxy-torched glass to a blackened opacity, carved optical lenses from solid ice,[1] and attempted to become weightless through flight (in the endeavour, a deferential nod to the Conceptualist author of human flight himself, Yves Klein).  Each a scientific paradox:  is it possible to start fire using ice by magnifying the sun’s rays; can one leap backwards out of the void, reversing Klein’s 50 year old forward act of flight?  Though there are scientific underpinnings, Jacobs’ responses are equally intuitive as she attempts to unravel and explore the task she sets herself.  A number of these hypotheses have begun with a small number of drawings of propositions that may, or may not, be actualized in the gallery space. 

Concurrent with this, Jacobs is also interested in reclaiming the gallery space itself, as did a number of seminal artists of the late 60s, 70s and 80s such as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman. Acconci’s legendary sculpture/performance, Seedbed, 1972, in which he lay, masturbating eight hours a day for a period of three weeks beneath a ramp built in the Sonnabend Gallery, New York, speaks as much about the nature of architectural interventions, as it does the idea of making marks and yet leaving little behind.  Burden’s practice of the 70s was informed by his interest in technology and engineering, as he explored and reflected on power politics and the vulnerability of art institutions.  In Samson, 1985, Burden braced a large jack between opposing gallery walls, which expanded slightly as each visitor entered.  For his 1986 installation, Exposing the Foundations of the Museum, Burden took this critique of institutional space further when he dug through the gallery floor and exposed the foundation piers of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  Jacobs’ suggests that it was Nauman’s Floating Rooms of 1972/1973, and his Failure to Levitate in the Studio work 1966,  which informed her early thinking on how to treat this newly formed space.   Her solution was to set up a system within a system within a system, which allowed objects to exist in space without a physical connection to surrounding structure, objects or floor. 

Without wanting to give it away, Jacobs’ solution for Being under no illusion was to insert three discrete scientific demonstrations into the narrow 70cm gap that exists between the rectangular prism, or sculptural form, that has been designed by Nexus for the ACCA space and which hovers, suspended and unattached, above the existing gallery floor.   Described by the designers as a space of compression, Jacobs’ magnetic fields employ the physics of diamagnetic interaction, in which ‘non magnetic’ materials repel and are repelled by a strong magnet or associated or field.  The discreet magnetic occurrences that Jacobs’ has inserted in the space between floor and architectural frame both subvert the space in which they jiggle and rotate, and at the same time, continue Jacobs’ quasi scientific endeavours.  ‘Diamagnetic’ interaction, or the physics that enables objects to stay suspended in space, seemingly floating in air, is the futuristic technology – though now not so rare – of MRI machines and the Maglev train.  The Academy was consulted, in Jacobs’ attempt to translate exotic science into the everyday, a little like Mythbusters of old, physicist turned entertainer, Sumner Miller did all those years ago. [2]  Ultimately, it was through harnessing our increasingly vital sources of you-tube and e-bay that provided results, through the virtual demonstrations of a passionate enthusiast and supplier of bismuth and magnets.   

And here we return to the world of the ancient art of science, or alchemy, as it was once known.  As US based thinker, writer and researcher Michael T Taussig suggested in a recent lecture, ‘the language of scientists tends to get in the way’.  Bismuth is the most naturally diamagnetic of all metals – so it strongly repels an external magnet.  It is generally considered to be the last naturally occurring stable, non-radioactive element on the periodic table.  But does this fully explain the sheer wonder and magic of the material, the hokiness of back-yard brilliance, as it enables ordinary objects to levitate and fly?  Heavy and brittle, it is a silvery white colour with a pinkish tinge.  A poor metal (in scientific terms); it sits on the chemical periodic table below arsenic and antimony, to which it is closely related – though not quite so poisonous.   Following one lead to the next (assisted by the trusty web), I am drawn more to the fact that the name of its relation, antimony, was derived from the French antimoine, or ‘monk-killer’, acknowledging the alchemical dabbling and toxic consequences for many a medieval monk.  And here, perhaps, we come to the nub of the nice little ‘problem’ that Jacobs presents us with:  as rare earth magnet skitters within its bismuth ring, or levitates between graphite and ply, (in sculptural forms, not dissimilar to the minimalist sculptures presaging Klein), the transformation from solid rock to levitation demands a different language from rationalist science and maths.  Sometimes, just sometimes, it is enough just to be.     

[1] Susan Jacobs/Andrew Hazewinkel Exhausted Nature, 2008

[2] Current TV science entertainment program

Rebecca Coates 2010