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.

If a loss of information equals an increase of entropy, we could say, with respect to art, that a loss of information equals a loss of meaning equals innovation. In fact, that could be one very economical gloss of the history of modernism. But, to return to the analogy of the black hole, we can observe that the lost information is the allegorical dimension of any modernist painting. We know it exists but we can’t see it, and we may hope that we never will, because as long as it remains lost the picture retains its expressive power and historical significance. In actuality, great works of art do give up their stored information and lost meanings over time. Art history is proof of that. But then black holes also eventually decay and release their trapped particles. This doesn’t happen literally, but the energy radiated by a black hole (and there is some) accounts for the mass that has entered the event horizon, so the total entropy balances out. In any case, the allegory of a work is what we cannot immediately possess, even as its invisible existence gives space to the work, space that it needs in order to function as art.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about space in abstract painting. When I say that the allegorical dimension is a spatial dimension, I don’t mean this metaphorically. All abstraction has space, and the famous doctrine of flatness, usually associated with the critic Clement Greenberg, does not help to clarify the situation. However, some contemporary science might, and along the way bring us to a closer and more concrete relationship between the two very different activities of art and science.

A large part of the universe remains outside of the limits of our knowledge, and scientists have a name for this—they call it the hidden region. For example, we can have no idea what is going on in a solar system ten light years away because the radiation that carries that information has not reached us. All the space between that distant star and us belongs to our hidden region. Ten years from now the boundary of our hidden region will have moved, and we will receive that information. Scientists illustrate this situation with a diagram of two cones joined at their apexes, which is our present. As we look further into the past, the region that we know about grows larger—that is one cone—and we can project an increase of our knowledge into the future—that is the other. However, the universe is large enough that there are places that we will definitely never know about, no matter how long we wait, so the hidden region is a real physical location. Furthermore, the event horizon of any black hole is also the boundary of a hidden region, hidden for anyone at any location in the universe, and so the properties of that particular surface are paradigmatic of the limits of all knowledge.

The key discovery is something called the Bekenstein Bound. It states that the amount of information inside a black hole is proportionate not to the volume it encloses but to its surface area. This is a completely counterintuitive and shocking result, and it implies that what can be known about any space is limited by the amount of information present on a surface. It should be immediately obvious that science has unknowingly moved closer to art, for modernist abstraction is nothing if not a meditation on how much information about objects, spaces, and their relative movements any surface can bear. Actually, the artistic parallels lie much deeper, and a restriction to the modalities of painting doesn’t really do them justice. I want to move beyond painting while keeping present the necessity for a surface, which necessarily has the consequence of allowing us to reimagine what painting is and how it functions.

Two artists who can help with this project are Gordon Matta-Clark and Fred Sandback. Both take up surface as the intrinsic limit of both painting and sculpture and then continue those two activities by constructing surfaces invisible and intangible, yet strongly present.

Matta-Clark projects simple geometric solids, such as cones and cylinders, through real space filled with solid matter, namely buildings, and then cuts away the area notionally taken up by the shape. The cone itself has no actuality, and is only recognizable by virtue of what remains around it. Sandback stretches lengths of coloured yarn across the gallery space to frame out what appear to be very substantial flat transparent planes; nevertheless, viewers, however strong an impression of a plane they may receive, can step right through.

Both artists project illusions of planes into real space, the social space that we all share. The political implications of this lie somewhere in a consideration of the social meaning of illusion, of semblance, otherwise the dialectic of appearances, yet that is outside the purview of this essay. More germane is to observe that this kind of work is attempting to do one of the same things that theoretical physicists are also trying to do, namely to reconcile two contradictory truths. On one hand, we know that the universe is continuous, that no surfaces are impermeable on every level and that all distinctions between objects and states are contingent; on the other, when we open our eyes we see a universe of discrete objects all with bounding surfaces that reflect light. On the deepest level the universe is a flux of relationships, yet it appears to be a dance of proximity between self-contained light reflecting bodies. This contradiction can be illuminated by a closer look at a black hole.

The centre of a black hole, the source of its gravity, is called the singularity, but the event horizon is the surface of a larger shell that lies around that point. The size of the event horizon depends on the size of the black hole, and there can be considerable space between the outside limit, the boundary beyond which we cannot see, and the hole itself. Now imagine an observer floating somewhere just outside the event horizon of a black hole. Then imagine that another observer has decided to investigate the black hole for himself, and that he crosses the horizon to see what’s inside. From the first observer’s position, he simply disappears the instant he crosses the horizon. No signal, no message, no cell phone call can ever reach the observer outside; she cannot see him gesture or hear him speak. But from his point of view nothing has changed at all. He can still see all the same stars, the same spaces. He can see the observer outside, and receive any message that she sends him. Until he reaches the singularity he will notice no difference at all. This wonderful paradox, that a surface of infinitesimal thickness could produce such a dramatic asymmetry, gives scientists a lot to think about. And so it should us.


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.

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio FOut Now