In recent years increasing numbers of Irish artists have turned their attention to science, while scientific bodies have welcomed and fostered interdisciplinary research through residency programmes, symposia, and exhibitions. However, dialogue at the intersection of the two disciplines is not a new development. Painters, for instance, considered perspective and colour theory to be ‘scientific’, and modernism was shaped by paradigm shifts in science just as much as in politics. Science too has engaged the world of art, relying as it has on visual observation before the predominance of representation as data, and has occasionally seen art in the pictorial output of research like fractal theory and new geometry. As tantalizing as this narrative has proven to be, its exploration by either discipline can be problematic. Too often artists simplify or misinterpret popularised science, or turn to the aesthetics of science, as a technological instrument for the creation of a visual effect, without meaningfully engaging the conceptual underpinnings they may share. Yet there are important areas of discussion between the disciplines, ideas about experience that neither can wholly account for.
Working predominantly in film, Grace Weir is an artist who has successfully explored the difficult yet promising intersection of art and science in the long term. A significant exhibition by Weir, 3 Different nights, recurring, recently ran at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and featured artworks from twenty years of artistic enquiry. These included video, sound, sculptural, digital, and interactive pieces, as well as wall-mounted and pictorial works. The show was grounded in three major new films – Black Square, Dark Room, and A reflection on light, all made in 2015. Each film, in one way or another, follows the activities of professionals working with light, with its properties, behaviour, and limitations, as Weir herself was when producing many of the supporting works in the exhibition. This is incidental, however, to her more expansive curiosity about how direct human experience relates to knowledge, which often leads her to the formal structures of scientific theory.
The exhibition title is adopted from 19th century astronomer William Parsons, who discovered the spiral nature of certain galaxies. In the 1840s Parsons’ only means of recording his astronomical observations was to sketch them on paper, and the title refers to a note on a set of drawings he made on three consecutive nights. Weir displays Parsons’ drawing Whirlpool Galaxy, borrowed from Birr Castle Science Centre. As a document, the sketch is remarkably effective at suddenly contracting the expanse between the concept of a galaxy and the immediacy of hand-made objects. It is the recreation of this contraction, between lived experience and theoretical knowledge, that Weir regularly pursues. Her 2003 piece, Bending space-time in the basement, is a good example. In one of many ancillary video works that structure Weir’s thorough, interconnected enquiries, we see the artist build a
Her 2003 piece, Bending space-time in the basement, is a good example. In one of many ancillary video works that structure Weir’s thorough, interconnected enquiries, we see the artist build a home made apparatus for measuring gravity. This involves two pairs of cast lead objects. One is suspended on the extremities of a cradle, creating a sort of balanced scales free to turn on its centre point. The other pair is positioned on opposite sides of the circumference that the cradle traces. Repositioning these outer lead blocks will cause the cradle to rotate, slowly but visibly, by the gravitational draw of its heavy, free-moving objects. It’s a simple machine that demonstrates gravity acting on objects in parallel to its more familiar behaviour as a downward, grounding force.
The success of the piece stems from the fact that it is a video rather than a sculptural installation. The artist’s involvement is included in, and central to, the piece. The activities she participates in are quite rudimentary. She doesn’t look particularly scientific melting lead over a camping stove on floorboards. Nor does the work make any bold claims to an art historical position. It embraces interdisciplinary collaboration, successfully avoiding assertions of the rigours of one discipline or the other, and it does not force some analogy between them.
Elsewhere the artist explores knowledge that resists immediate personal engagement. Black Square is a two channel film that tracks a visit Weir and her team made to a high altitude observatory in Chile. Like Parsons before them, the scientists and technicians working there are making repeated nightly observations of celestial bodies. Through interviews and technical explanations, the film sequence thoroughly outlines the routine involved in pinpointing the location of a black hole at the centre of our own galaxy. Rather than finding a pinpoint, however, the most precise visual observation they can make of this object results in a single black (square) pixel representing an area one thousand times the black hole’s size.
Throughout the film we see Weir following procedural details and discussing the nature of black holes. Her conceptual understanding is not ultimately enriched by some kind of direct lived experience, which is reduced to an oversized pixel. It is the limitations of representation in astronomy that this pixel so effectively marks, and that Weir has distilled. However, a manifest analogy with Malevich’s Black Square, as a similar limitation or end point in modern painting, introduces difficult territory. Pleasing as the comparison may be, the effort to connect to art history seems at best unnecessary in a work that so compellingly examines a specific subject in science. At worst it forces the idea that the two fields share a common problem.
Weir is obviously sensitive to the pitfalls of drawing too deep an analogy between distinct developments in art and in science. Rather than making art that is supposedly ‘doing science’, her approach involves dialogue, collaboration, and looking at the work of experts and pioneers in various fields. Even when directly addressed, art historical connections aren’t laboured, as when she suggests a resonance between the work of Irish modernist painter Mainie Jellett and the study of light by Irish physicists.
In A reflection on light (2015) Weir considers Jellett’s painting Let There Be Light (1939) within three settings – the painter’s Dublin home, a gallery in IMMA itself, and the School of Physics in Trinity College. Through her technical proficiency in film, and a thoughtful narration, Weir threads together moments in the life of a painting, and consequently of individual people and institutions. Jellett’s was a meticulous practice that expanded the vocabulary of abstract painting; her grandfather was a scientist who contributed to the understanding of light polarization. In her film, Weir’s narrative allows a necessary slack in the connections she weaves between diverse understandings of light and, by extension, time. The connections she does suggest are intriguing and not overstated, allowing the viewer to consider any affinities between the methods and findings of painter and physicist. It is a worthwhile strategy for working in the intersection of disciplines in which shared terminology doesn’t always equate to shared understanding or meaning. This exhibition, effectively a retrospective, was a comprehensive account of an artist’s career that has been earnestly and extensively acting at the interface of art and science. Unifying this exhibition was Weir’s endeavour to position an individual experience, necessarily hers, within systems of knowledge. Varied, connected ideas are what lead the artist to experts in different fields of science, and it is by continuing to follow the trails of these ideas, in embracing their subtleties and recognising their limits that Weir has developed an interdisciplinary practice of enduring value.
This exhibition, effectively a retrospective, was a comprehensive account of an artist’s career that has been earnestly and extensively acting at the interface of art and science. Unifying this exhibition was Weir’s endeavour to position an individual experience, necessarily hers, within systems of knowledge. Varied, connected ideas are what lead the artist to experts in different fields of science, and it is by continuing to follow the trails of these ideas, in embracing their subtleties and recognising their limits that Weir has developed an interdisciplinary practice of enduring value.
Grace Weir: 3 Different Nights, recurring was on view from 7 November 2015 – 28 March 2016.