An Impossible Map
In Creation of the World or Globalization, Jean-Luc Nancy suggests that the “thought of the world” becomes possible only when its very existence is put into question. Rather than helping to form a world, globalization is, for Nancy, a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, a relentless accumulative and exploitative impulse that suppresses “all world-forming.”  In contrast, a more positive way of envisioning the world comes about through an acceptance of its fragmentary nature. A world that has been stripped of its claims to transcendence can accept its immanence in the knowledge that there is nothing beyond. It follows that such a world would resist any totalizing impulse or universalizing representation. Consisting solely of parts, it would have no way of grasping the whole; representation in a unified, “universal” manner would be impossible, given the lack of an outside perspective.
In approaching such problems, Universal Code, a major group exhibition curated by Gregory Burke at The Power Plant in Toronto, brings together a disparate group of works around the multivalent notion of cosmology. The way that the exhibition defines cosmology falls into three distinct categories. Inevitably, these categories never quite cohere into a whole. While cosmology in the context of astrophysics—as a mathematical inquiry into the origins of the universe—may occasionally share certain assumptions with cosmology in philosophy and religion, the two are fundamentally separate, just as cosmology in the spiritualist sense has little to do with the problem of lived experience in a “connected,” globalized world. In the exhibition text, Burke accepts this connectedness as an illusion. The show itself evokes everything from the role of labour—much of it traditional and non-technological, and, therefore oddly, out of step with the Information Age—to the way that the circulation of objects and codes—ranging in scale from the microscopic to the immeasurably colossal—structures different models of knowledge. The unfocussed quality of Universal Code represents both a strength and a weakness. Although the show’s title may signal a misuse of the term in a certain narrow sense, it also provokes further questions about the limits of cosmology as an umbrella concept.
Burke aligns his cosmological concept with astrophysics through the inclusion of works such as Josiah McElheny’s Island Universe (2008), whose video component goes beyond documenting an installation of scientifically accurate models of the Big Bang theory and becomes a cinematic mediation on a mid 1960s design aesthetic by installing and filming these models at the Metropolitan Opera House. McElheny has found an ingenious way to illustrate the expansion of matter from an infinitesimally small “singularity” to our universe in its present form. These intervals of inflation are rendered in sculptures made up of clustered rods that radiate from a central sphere; the rods are covered with small glass balls whose arrangement corresponds to the equations of cosmologist David H. Weinberg. It is no coincidence that McElheny’s models resemble the elaborate mid-1960s Lobmeyr chandeliers already installed at the opera house, since these chandeliers also appear in the video. The work does not so much evoke nostalgia for a certain glossy, consumer-oriented 1960s aesthetic as allude to the assumptions that sustained this aesthetic in the first place. On the one hand, the Lobmeyr chandeliers suggest a certain sense of opulence and splendour, echoing the lifestyle excesses of the early part of this self-indulgent decade; on the other, the mere mention of the 1960s also evokes a minimalist trend that reduces design to the barest essentials and focusses on an ideal conjunction of functionality and aesthetic perfection.
Thus, by acknowledging the coincidence of a specific (if fractured) moment in modernist design with the moment when the Big Bang theory was introduced to the public, Gregg Perkins has claimed that McElheny’s models place science within a post-historical framework when Western teleological thought became increasingly fragmented.  The act of bringing together cosmology and modernist design also underscores a deeper discontinuity between two models of knowledge production, making it apparent that, while they may be part of the same cultural impetus, they can never inhabit the same space. Although modern cosmology has both observational and theoretical aspects, it ultimately favours mathematical models that attempt to unify all physical phenomena. In theory at least, cosmology pertains to the universe and not the world, meaning that lived temporality becomes irrelevant when considered in this scientific context. And yet, methods of studying the universe are rooted in the world, encoded in specific historical moments when certain conceptions of the world became possible.
Universal Code also deals with spiritualist accounts of the origins of the universe across various cultures. Cerith Wyn Evans takes a more historical approach in this regard with Transmission (2003). Here, a Noguchi lamp converts John Cage’s 1961 “Lecture on Nothing” into Morse code, recalling a Western avant-garde tradition that drew liberally on elements of spiritualist thought.  More overtly spiritualist projects are also well-represented: Kimsooja’s Jukebox Mandalas, for example, emit a jarring cacophony of religious chants in Mandala: Zone of Zero (2003), while a photograph of Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites (1997), which shows a human skull covered with a graphite checkerboard pattern, serves as an obligatory meditation on death. It is at this point, however, that certain disconcerting aspects begin to emerge in Universal Code. As the concept comes full circle, it becomes clear that cosmology ultimately alludes to the contemporary impulse to map, translate, and categorize constant streams of information, whether transmitted via DNA, Morse code, or satellite. This fixation on different forms of code functions as shorthand for a whole set of contemporary concerns that have less to do with cosmology than with the Information Age. The fact that so many aspects of the world and of life are now encoded and mapped also means that a significant part of the world has little to no access to this information; at the same time, those who do have access to information must contend with a corresponding decline in privacy and a flourishing of the administration of life.
Universal Code addresses this dimension of the Information Age, making some startling thematic leaps in the process. Here, attention also shifts to the role of labour in globalization, a subject that does not immediately lend itself to the shimmering, visually seductive quality of a work such as Henrik Håkansson’s Monarch—The Eternal (2008), a 35mm film depicting thousands of butterflies flying erratically across a brilliant blue sky. In this respect, Tania Mouraud’s video and film installation La Fabrique (2006) is an exception. A striking piece that depicts the activity of workers in a Kerala carpet-weaving factory on multiple screens, La Fabrique is located in a separate room and has an immersive aspect that only intensifies as the viewer spends more time inside it. The piece consists of twelve monitors and four large projections, each one depicting a single weaver at work; the sound of this repetitive activity encircles the viewer, accounting for the sense of immersion. The weavers occasionally look up at the camera, breaking the installation’s meditative spell and “connecting” with the viewer in an immediate way. Though illusory, this connection between viewer and weaver is startling, as if hinting at the inscription of actual individuals in global circuits of labour that would otherwise remain invisible. The inclusion of Mircea Cantor’s Airplanes and Angels (2008) picks up the global labour thread in a more ambiguous way by presenting a particular kind of carpet, an object traditionally handwoven by Romanian craftswomen; this object hangs from the ceiling, revealing its disquieting iconography when viewed from below. The piece recalls the activity depicted in Mouraud’s work without showing the labour explicitly, but indicating it in an elliptical way: the uncanny effect of the juxtaposition of angels and airplanes flying in an ominous formation complements the ambiguous status of craft in today’s technological world.
On another level, the thematic connections and leaps implied by the curatorial framework are unnerving. A potential issue with Burke’s expanded definition of cosmology is that it elides the ideological intersections of technology, information, and labour in favour of a concept of near-impossible scope. It is necessary to wonder about the context in which these links could provide a fuller exploration. What exactly does the curator claim, for instance, about the workings of the (dis)connected world? More specifically, what does Franz Ackermann’s bright wall-painting Roter Platz (2007) or Trevor Paglen’s illuminated globe in Active Military and Reconnaissance Satellites of the United States of America (2008) imply about the current picture of the world, insofar as it can even be said to form a picture? Can the repetitive activity in Mouraud’s La Fabrique be in any way equated with Orozco’s memento mori in Black Kites? The conjunction of the two latter works in a shared space would seem to suggest that such connections can and should be made, yet their implications are too complex to be developed in such a setting.
Ultimately, Universal Code does not attempt to articulate the precise link between cosmology, labour, and the prevalence of codes in contemporary life, nor does it need to do so. Although the three categories of cosmology occasionally do come together, it is more interesting when they fail to, as if conceding to the fragmentary nature of knowledge networks forming an impossible map of the world. The sheer variety of the material on display—pieces that are by turns colourful and kinetic, loud and obtrusive, quiet and meditative, metaphysical or topical—creates the impression of spectacle while simultaneously functioning as a critique of it. At times, this strategy misses the mark, as with the inclusion of Adel Abdessemed’s God is Design (2005), a pulsating animation comprising three thousand elegant drawings that the exhibition texts describe as “recall[ing] Western geometrical abstraction and Eastern arabesques.” And yet, this occasional misfire does not detract from the impact of the strong individual works on display and the thematic links indicated by the curatorial framework. If cosmology is the study of the universe, and if the universe is by definition everything, then this nebulous “everything” always risks dissolving into pure spectacle. This is a fate that Universal Code repeatedly courts, yet escapes by virtue of a keen sense of the absurdity in its framing concept.
- Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World, trans. François Raffoul (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 50. See also Raffoul’s introduction to Nancy’s text.
- Gregg Perkins, “Josiah McElheny,” Art Forum (2006), http://artforum.com/archive/id=12036.
- Here, I am thinking of theosophist thought as it was mined by key modernist figures such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and Joseph Beuys, as well as the importance of Zen Buddhism for John Cage, Marina Abramović, and others.
About the Author
Milena Tomic is working on a Ph.D. in art history at University College London.