There is an ongoing love-affair between artists and the devices, diagrams and theories of the sciences. From Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of proto-helicopters to Olafur Eliasson’s visualisation of light spectra and water vortices, the shared visual space of art and science is a rich resource. The exhibition “Eppur Si Muove” (And Yet It Moves) at the MUDAM in Luxembourg juxtaposes historic scientific instruments from the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris with 130 works by artists ranging from Panamarenko to younger positions including Alicja Kwade. While the intention was to create a “dialogue between the arts and sciences”, the exhibition’s achievement lies in highlighting how artists cannibalise other visual fields to return a language that, though rooted in other contexts, is entirely its own. If a key definition of art is that it should be “purposive without purpose”, as Kant had it – in contrast to the objects of science, astronomy or other, more pragmatic fields – then this exhibition is replete with such purposiveness, underlining the double life of the machine.
The exhibition is framed around three major chapters, “Measuring the World”, “Matter Revealed”, and “Inventions Applied”, each filling a floor of the I.M. Pei designed museum. A sound piece by On Kawara looms large on the ground floor, with its focus on “Measuring the World”, with male and female voices reciting mythical dates. Other works focus on the measurement of space: in a room with the “standard metres” from the Musee des Arts et Metiers, meet their Land Art counterparts: Christoph Fink transposed his travels through Istanbul, Montreal and Jerusalem on to ceramic plates with their own cartographic systems of rivers, air journeys and roads (“Mouvement #85”), a subjective record of distances travelled. Elsewhere in that section, Attila Csörgö renders Pythagorean geometrical transitions as delicate motorised balletic forms: tetrahedral spin into cubes which transition to octahedral.
A key object in the basement (“Matter Revealed”) is Trevor Paglen’s “Non-Functional Satellite”, a large silver orb surrounded by computer screens spewing out data on temperature and pressure. Sited as it is in the museum, this data remains constant, and of little information value. Paglen is busy raising funds to shoot his satellite into space, where it will perform a few orbits of the earth before burning up in the atmosphere. Set against early images of the Northern Lights (“Aurora Borealis”, 1872) and models of orreries – early models of the solar system – the effect is striking: Paglen’s model points to the current use of satellites for surveillance and military purposes, while the pastel-hued romanticism of early astronomy carries traces of the sublime.
The wide-ranging exhibition offers throughout a rare opportunity to experience the juxtaposition of very different mind-sets: that of the Enlightenment rationalist and the postmodern cynic, trying to reclaim subjectivity in a sea of data.
Text by Jeni Fulton
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