Material and the Multiple

Steven Zides

This guest post was written by Steven Zides. Steven has been a physics professor at Wofford College for the last 11 years.  Over that time, he has investigated the interdisciplinary nature of scientific knowledge by participating in over a dozen learning communities with the English, Philosophy and Theater Departments.  He has also developed a course on the interplay between physics and art culture through the use of scientific metaphor.

About two weeks ago, Ron Longsdorf invited me to be a panelist for the second installment of his, now infamous, Art Now lecture series.  Ron told me that it would be informal lecture with panel and audience participation.  I was also informed that the topic was “Material & the Multiple” and that we would be discussing some really interesting contemporary art pieces.  Although, I usually ask for some time to think about such requests, I gave Ron my answer right on the spot.  In the words of Steve Martin, “Well, at that point, the word No became like a Polish village …(long pause)… unpronounceable.”  In other words, I accepted.

The evening of the lecture, the audience slowly poured in and took their seats as Ron introduced his three panelists.  I was the last to be called up to the stage, but got the choice middle seat.  From that vantage point, I could see Ron, the PowerPoint slides, my fellow panelists and the audience quite well… truly the seat gods were smiling upon me.  That was surprising to me, since earlier in the day the parking gods unleashed their fury and I had to walk tens of millions of millimeters to get to my office at work.  But I digress.  The lights dimmed and Ron, who sports the coolest Grizzly Adams’ beard, began his lecture.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei

The first slide Sunflower Seeds, by Ai Weiwei, was one of my favorites.  I had looked at the slide earlier that day but on the big screen you could really see what the artist was trying to do.  Imagine a room the size of a warehouse whose floor is completely covered with millions of sunflower seeds, all carefully raked out flat by Weiwei himself.  That was definitely the multiple.  Then Ron drops the hammer on the audience and tells them that each and every one of those sunflower seeds is actually hand painted porcelain. That interesting fact, the material, blows the audience away and the oohhs and awhhhs really start to rise up from the Showroom floor, much like I imagine the response would be from cavemen (and cavewomen) invited to a Fourth of July, fireworks display, in Washington DC.

The Sunflower Seeds piece reminded me of a three dimensional version of the pointillism technique made famous by Seurat in the late 19th century.  Here were millions of seeds, that individually are not all that interesting, but as an aggregate made a very thought provoking surface that art-goers could actually walk across and experience.  I think the other panelists and the audience made several profound comments about this piece and then I got a chance to chime in with my words of wisdom.  I mentioned to the audience that although the piece was impressive, I thought that the artist missed a golden opportunity.  Just before his exhibit closed, Weiwei should have added a small squirrel in the middle of the seeds and renamed the piece Squirrel in Tartarus.  I think at that point, Ron quickly moved on… what else needed to be said.

"Ink Line" by Charles Ray

Another piece that really impressed me was Ink Line, by Charles Ray.  Just imagine that you enter a gallery and see a black string, some 1.56789321 cm in diameter, strung from floor to ceiling.  As you approach the string you realize that something is moving along the string.  One of the panelists likened the effect to water flowing down a clear plastic filament; something you might see in a Chinese restaurant that serves Po-Po Platters…. ha ha I said Po-Po.  In any case, once you actually reach the work, you realize that what you thought was a black string is actually a completely uniform stream of ink, pumped carefully down from the ceiling.  Just having a black string itself would have been interesting enough, since so much of art history points to the glorification of the 2nd, 3rd, and sometimes 4th dimensions of space.  Here was a piece that glorified the 1st dimension.  Even more impressive is that instead of using a one dimensional object, like a string, the artist used millions of drops of ink all moving in harmony.  In other words, he built his one dimensional work out of seemingly zero dimensional objects…wow.  Then someone else in the Showroom pointed out that if you touched the line, you could get ink all over yourself.  How freaking cool is that?

Anyway, I could go on forever talking about the wonderful art, thought provoking comments, and great fun had by everyone who attended the talk, but all I really want to say is “thank you Ron for inviting me.”  I had a great time and it’s events like this that make HUB-BUB a special organization.

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