Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Surface, No Support
Robert Linsley

When art tries to build a relationship with science the greatest failure it can risk is to become an illustration of a scientific principle. At its best, when it avoids the illustrator’s role, modern art plays freely with images provided by science, and so its relationship with science is metaphorical, properly improper, and not bound by any correct understanding of the matter it takes up. But today, developments in theoretical physics have intensified this allegorical or metaphorical game to the extent that it might be possible to say concretely that art and science really are doing the same thing. Now art can overcome the secondariness of illustration and its game of tropes and analogies may have a genuine significance for science; it is the first time since the age of Humboldt and Goethe that such might be the case.

I would like to start metaphorically. Quantum mechanics has discovered that when particles such as photons are created in empty space, they always appear in pairs. In a classic thought experiment, we can postulate two such entangled photons formed just outside the boundary of a black hole. One falls in and is lost forever while the other flies in the opposite direction out into space. We can observe the escaped particle, but to us it appears as something random, as an increase in the entropy of the universe. We can’t account for it because half the information we need to understand how it got there, namely the other particle, is missing and cannot ever be accessed. Now take the surface of a picture as analogous to the surface of a black hole. The calligraphy of Jackson Pollock’s work, the tangle of lines and splashes, is then a kind of writing that can’t be read because the marks that would make it cohere into an intelligible sign are missing, they’ve disappeared behind the picture plane, which is a mechanism for the loss of information.

Many art historians would demur, because they don’t believe that Pollock’s abstractions were ever meant to be read in such a literal way. In fact, in some quarters, to assert the absolute abstractness of his work is a moral necessity. I don’t deny the point, or the need to hold firm to the principle of abstraction, but I suggest that this is not a nuanced understanding of Pollock. Actually, there is a long tradition, which predates surrealism, that sees many aspects of nature—cloud shapes in the sky, the song of birds, the sound of wind in tree branches, the tracks of termites in a piece of wood—as a language of signs. We may not expect this language to give us an intelligible message, although this can happen in fairytales, but at least we can have the intimation of a meaningful whole. Sometimes the feeling that a meaning exists is enough to satisfy: it isn’t always necessary to know precisely what it is. Or we may feel that we do understand what is expressed, but simply cannot translate it into ordinary language. Pollock’s work definitely has a root in this tradition. But as a great modernist artist he also knows that he cannot simply transcribe the language of nature, that he has to invent a pictorial language that acquires expressiveness from our capacity to see a language in nature and aesthetic strength by emptying out the meaning from such a language.

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About the Author

Robert Linsley is an artist currently teaching at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He has an upcoming exhibition at Felix Ringel in Düsseldorf.

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