THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
“It is Two Minutes to Midnight,” an exhibition of virtual reality (VR) experiences, PHSCologram (pronounced skol-o-gram) sculptures, and more conventional art on display at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from May 11-19, was a deliberately didactic show on a topic of the highest seriousness—namely, the catastrophic potential of nuclear weapons, climate change, and the other destructive forces unleashed when technology is unconstrained by ethics. This put it in an interesting position at the intersection of representation and reality (to the extent that physical reality can be sussed out from the simplifying abstractions and frequently conflicting narratives of science, politics, and history).
The show featured the work of Ellen Sandor and her (art)n collaborators, 3D modeling expert Diana Torres and architect Azadeh Gholizadeh. Some work was created with the help of computer engineer Carolina Cruz-Neira and her laboratory, The Emerging Analytic Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The show emerged through a partnership with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Most works were inspired by the illustrator who created the Bulletin’s iconic Doomsday Clock, the late Martyl Langsdorf (Martyl). Like many early Bulletin associates, Martyl was closely connected to the development of the atomic bomb. Her husband, Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., took part in the Manhattan Project before joining the fight against nuclear proliferation.
The first PHSCologram that viewers encountered in the exhibition, CRISPR-Cas9: A Ray of Light, was not actually inspired by Martyl or nuclear weapons. It was instead inspired by the revolutionary new gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. As Sandor explains in an accompanying video, her interest in CRISPR-Cas9 was motivated by the possibilities it represents for her autistic grandson; he was the one who named the piece “ray of light.” She and he both feel that the technology offers him hope, at least in the long run. In addition to offering hope, however, CRISPR-Cas9 raises difficult ethical questions and reasonable concerns about unintended consequences. This makes it very like nuclear technology and the fossil fuel-burning technologies to which climate change is generally attributed, which also have their advocates and demonstrable benefits. In conversation, Sandor acknowledged that the Bulletin is more concerned with the harmful potential of CRISPR-Cas9 than she.
From a curatorial perspective, CRISPR-Cas9: A Ray of Light felt shoehorned with the pieces inspired by Martyl, which were visually, experientially, and thematically consistent. Recent events on the Korean peninsula suggest that the nuclear threat remains grave enough in and of itself to warrant a single, focused treatment. Moreover, the show’s Martyl tie-in would have been reinforced by that approach. Considered by itself, however, the piece is visually striking and, as intended, dense with information that grows more comprehensible the longer it is contemplated. The three-panel PHSCologram display sits atop a twisting plastic base that represents the DNA double helix. Sandor, Torres, and Gholizadeh explained that they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the piece was both visually interesting and scientifically accurate. This emphasis on precision can seem paradoxical at times; however precise the representation may be, it is still a representation of an abstraction or, horror of epistemological horrors, merely a useful metaphor nested within other useful metaphors that bear no absolute correspondence to reality.
Martyl, Have a Nice Day, 2002, Ellen Sandor & (art)n; Keith Miller, Pete Latrofa, Janine Fron, Digital PHSCologram, 30 x 40 inches. Image courtesy of Ellen Sandor.
Many of the other pieces in “It Is Two Minutes to Midnight” are most effective when the visual metaphors within them remain precise, both in relation to their referents and with respect to the mental and emotional response they seem intended to elicit. Have a Nice Day, co-created in 2002 while Martyl was still alive, stands out as a particular success. In it, the PHSCologram technology serves the formal and thematic elements of the image rather than the other way around. Two small versions of the clock, perhaps meant to evoke the moon and the sun, hang in a twilit sky above a muted desert landscape resembling Martyl’s Tent Rocks. The triangular, two-dimensional geometry of the weatherbeaten rock formations is extended forward toward the viewer in the PHSCologram’s third dimension. The rocks finally end at an enormous, translucent Doomsday Clock, which lends the image an even more fearful symmetry. In this blend of representation and metaphor that challenges the two-dimensional conventions of its antecedents, this work feels like a distant, post-apocalyptic cousin of Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). Martyl’s Doomsday Clock—big, simple, urgent, and memorable—metaphorizes the viewer’s sudden awareness of nuclear weapons’ destructive power within the appropriately dry, desertified scene of their nativity; I myself experienced something similar while driving through Alamogordo, New Mexico, near the site of the first nuclear tests.
The other PHSCologram sculptures are less informative and evocative than the VR tour (Have a Nice Day II: VR Tour Through the Doomsday Clock) from which they were excerpted. The subtle menace that pervades Have a Nice Day, a product in part of its formal simplicity, does not emerge from the hyper-dramatic jumble of Have a Nice Day II. At a certain point, the viewer has reached a state of (literal) metaphorical saturation. The PHSColograms begin to seem like randomly selected picture postcards dispatched from a land of visual metaphors.
VR Tour Through the Doomsday Clock, Detail, 2018, Ellen Sandor and (art)n: Diana Torres and Azadeh Gholizadeh; Carolina Cruz-Neira, Jason Zak, Tanner Marshall and Jaimes Krutz, George W. Donaghey Emerging Analytics Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; William Robertson, Co-Founder/CTO Digital Museum of Digital Art; Special thanks to Janine Fron; Voiceover by Rachel Bronson President and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; In Memory of Martyl.
In fairness, Have a Nice Day II is more intelligible after the aforementioned VR tour, which takes the viewer through a landscape created using aerial photography of greater Los Alamos. The Bulletin’s Rachel Bronson narrates as the viewer navigates a Doomsday Clock timeline from 1947 to 2018.
As a creative recapitulation of the Bulletin’s online timeline, the piece is certainly educational and, at times, moving. It also reflects the depth and breadth of Sandor’s and her husband’s art collection. I was not the only viewer impressed by how far back the hands of the clock moved during the late 1980s and early 1990s with the passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and similar achievements at the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, and as the title of the exhibition indicates, our species is now as close to the brink as ever, at least according to the Bulletin.
Over the course of the VR tour, the play between metaphor and reality is carried out in the vocabulary of editorial cartoons, which are, in general, unapologetically didactic and, at times, convincing. At one point, for example, the viewer watches as a three-dimensional globe is drained of water; the viewer can then peer inside it. Experienced alongside Bronson’s calm recitation of the facts, the 3D Los Alamos-esque landscape, the pulsing soundtrack, and a range of distant Southwestern backdrops modeled on Martyl’s paintings, this visual metaphor is appropriately dramatic and grim. It also showcases VR’s potential as a vehicle for artistic expression. However, not every visual metaphor meets the high standards of exactness or, indeed, gravity that this subject matter demands. For example, a scene in which a bear nuzzles an eagle is meant to represent a hoped-for reconciliation between Russia and the United States. However, it looks more like an outtake from the short-lived Adult Swim cartoon Xavier: Renegade Angel.
Its occasional missteps aside, the show deserves credit for providing viewers with an imaginative education on humankind’s ongoing history of de- and re-nuclearization. Unfortunately for the human race, the timing was perfect.
Nathan Worcester is the assistant editor for the New Art Examiner and writes for various publications. He has a B.A. from the University of Chicago.
CRISPR-Cas9: A Ray of Light, 2017, Ellen Sandor & (art)n; Chris Kemp; Diana Torres; Azadeh Gholizadeh; Jennifer Doudna; The Doudna Lab: RNA Biology, UC Berkeley; Megan Hochstrasser; Innovative Genomics Institute; UC Berkeley. Special Thanks to Caleb Sandor Taub. PHSCologram Sculpture 33 x 33 x 62 inches. Image courtesy of Ellen Sandor.
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