(This review was originally published on www.frieze.com in August 2011)
CA2M (Centro de Art 2 de Mayo), Madrid, Spain.
John Cage’s aphorism ‘art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living’ is the inspiration for ‘Experimental Station’, a group show of 29 international artists. However, it’s not just the idea of trial or error that the curators chose to explore here: the rationale of the exhibition attempts to shed some light on questions such as how new technologies can be applied to art, and what art can do for science.
‘Experimental Station’ is divided into four thematic areas: ‘Artefacts and Mechanisms’; ‘In the Laboratory’; ‘Fieldwork’; and ‘Lost in Space’. This loose taxonomy aims at bringing together a number of works that share a cluster of interests including research, process, methodology, technology, science, sci-fi, phenomenology and mechanics. But the concepts are so broad, and at times even at odds with each other, that their cohabitation often provokes more confusion than clarity.
A good number of the work displayed on the first floor of the CA2M, in the ‘Artefacts and Mechanisms’ and ‘In the Laboratory’ sections are kinetic-inspired. Alberto Tadiello’s EPROM (2008) successfully invokes a fascination with the aesthetics of the machine, both visually (through the intricate cable and component pattern) and sonically (the baffling noise that the machine emits). Conrad Shawcross’ The Limits of Everything(2010) is a perfect fit due to the artist’s ongoing experimentation with science: it’s a kinetic sculpture that creates a spiral of light. Ariel Schelesinger’s absurdist use of everyday materials in Untitled (Gas Loop) (2011), and L’angoisse de la page blanche(The anguish of the blank sheet of paper, 2007) seems to belong more to the worlds of the domestic sublime and magic tricks than to the laboratory, but his sense of humour is engaging.
Julio Adán and the artist duo O Grivo are represented by painstakingly assembled sets of music machines. Although charming and precise exercises in mechanics they both lack the musical expertise of Felix Thorn (aka Felix’s Machines), for whom the machine is a way of producing experimental music and not just an aesthetic end in itself. The installation The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty (2010) by Alistair McClymont recreates a mini-tornado with the aid of fans within a metallic structure, so that we can witness the formation and hypnotic appearance of this natural phenomenon without any of the usual havoc.
Upstairs, two works with clear cinematographic references are highlights. Rivane Neuenschwander & Cao Guimarães’ video The Tenant (2010), a tribute to Roman Polanski’s 1976 film, features a soap bubble quietly bouncing about the artist’s studio. A subtle meditation on time and fragility, it’s a work I’m still trying to understand within this exhibition’s context. Karlos Gil’sTaking/Giving Information. Every lasting idea has been made from an unverifiable but verifiable story (2011) is an installation comprising several loosely related parts and a compelling film piece titled The Neverending Story (Chapter 1) (2010). Filmed in 16mm and borrowing some semantic and visual blueprints from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), the film continuously reaches a climax but never a resolution.
Faivovich & Goldsberg, Ilana Halperin and Paloma Polo’s works all share a concern with research as artistic methodology. All three present documentation displays of personal research on different subjects. Faivovich & Goldsberg’s En búsqueda del Mesón Fierro (In Search of Mesón del Fierro, 2011) is the result of the artist’s obsessive search for meteorites that fell in Argentina 4000 years ago. Halperin’s Physical Geology (2009) concerns the artist’s interest in volcanic activity, while Paloma Polo’s The Path of Totality (2010) is a slide show of 70-odd images of the precarious eclipse observatories built from the mid-19th to the early 20th century in the USA, France, Germany and Italy, countries that invested in astrophysical research.
There is, of course, nothing particularly contemporary about this linking of art and science. Leonardo da Vinci, obviously, is the most enduring of the Renaissance polymaths, while numerous 20th century artists incorporated the whirlwind of technological innovations in their practices, from Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Rotoreliefs’ (1935) – which the artist chose to launch at an inventors’ fair – to Jean Tinguely’s large-scale, fully automated and self-destructive machines. In the last 15 years, however, it has been the Internet as means of production and distribution that has captured the imagination of many artists – and which is strangely missing from ‘Experimental Station’.
By reducing the varied works in this show to formal commonplaces, both art and science risk presented superficially instead of engaging in what could otherwise be an extremely productive partnership, aimed at unfolding serious questions about both disciplines: how we relate, consume and learn with the advent of these external prostheses. How, in other words, we live and die in the 21st century.