Art vs. Science 

Matthew Barney’s a bore; the Hubble Space Telescope’s a blast

Thursday, Jun 19 2003
Photos by Chris
Winget (top) and NASA

The poet W.H. Auden once said that hanging out with scientists made him feel like a shabby curate. Or like a witch doctor at a convention of neurosurgeons — I forget the exact wording. But I recalled the remark while watching a recent 60 Minutes segment on the Hubble Space Telescope in which Dr. Mario Livio, who heads up Hubble’s science division, told reporter Ed Bradley that the images of the solar system produced by the telescope “are in some sense the most fantastic artworks of our time.”

While it’s doubtful that Dr. Livio is correct in his assessment — close up, the universe has an unfortunate tendency to look like bad psychedelia — it was fascinating to hear what he and the other scientists had to say. And I couldn’t help comparing this with the boredom, verging on stupefaction, I’d experienced a month earlier while watching Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, interview the conceptual artist Matthew Barney on WNET (The Cremaster Cycle: A Conversation With Matthew Barney). And this, mind you, coming from a person so unscientific that he was asked to give up chemistry, physics, biology and math in school. For the teachers’ sake. They simply couldn’t take it anymore.

Why is the conversation of “cutting-edge” artists so often dull and insipid? Having slogged through my fair share of mind-numbing interviews with avant-garde favorites like Bill Viola and Charles Ray, I’ve often wondered about this. And I found myself pondering the question anew while watching Kimmelman interview the man he called (in the Times) “the most compelling, richly imaginative artist to have emerged in years.” Some sort of genius, in short. And given the obvious ambition of his five Cremaster movies, not to mention the epic scope of his recent show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a genius on a grand scale as well.

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Fine. Perhaps he is. But Kimmelman failed to transfer his enthusiasm from the medium of print to screen. Listening to Barney drone on about the dreamlike mythology underpinning his installation at the Guggenheim (something to do with a football field in Idaho, a bathhouse in Budapest and the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles), Kimmelman looked not so much interested as determined to remain awake. One sympathized. “The trouble with dreams,” as Auden also said, “is that other people’s are so boring.”

You’d think, given his Cocteau-like dabbling in multiple forms (sculpture, drawing, photography, film . . .), a wiz like Barney would occasionally come up with a potent aphorism or an insight that made you sit up and say, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that!” Or even something mildly strange, like Cocteau’s “L’oiseau chant avec ses doigts” (the bird sings with its fingers) in the film Orphée. Not a chance. About life itself he has nothing to say. Instead, he explained Cremaster’s homemade symbolism and ruminated at length on his choice of sculptural materials, which include pearl tapioca, high-density polyethylene and prosthetic-grade plastic. It was about as exciting as listening to a man who builds model airplanes discuss his favorite brand of glue.

Around and around the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp artist and critic tramped, stopping to discuss a crudely theatrical photograph here, a sculpture made out of Vaseline there. Their characteristic posture was to stand with arms folded and head slightly to one side, as if they’d come to an art-world equivalent of a mutual non-aggression pact. Kimmelman wasn’t going to ask any interesting questions, and Barney wasn’t going to provide any interesting answers. Instead, they were going to take it out on you, dear viewer, by boring your socks off.

No matter how interesting the topic, the tedium level remained constant. My favorite moment was when Barney, who has a thin, monotonous voice, described the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini as “a kind of model of how a kind of self-restraint mechanism could be looked at as a creative tool.” Then there was the bit where he recounted a research trip to Ireland. “I went through a number of pubs in Dublin,” he told Kimmelman, “looking for a way to understand the way partitioning works within the bar…” (As a description of a pub-crawl, this was novel.) Only twice in the program did artist and critic perk up. The first time was when Barney mentioned the cheerleaders (sex!) from Boise, Idaho, he uses in one of the Cremaster films. The second was when Kimmelman brought up the scene in which Ursula Andress (sex!), who also appears in Cremaster, emerges from the ocean in Dr. No. Great bod, was the consensus.

During the 60 Minutes segment on the Hubble telescope everyone looked interested in what was being discussed, interviewer included. Why? Perhaps it’s just the difference between inner space and outer, having rules and not having them, self-indulgence and discovery. (Kimmelman’s rave in the Times, tellingly, was entitled “Free To Play and Be Gooey.”) But, given how conceptual artists like Barney love to dwell on their choice of materials and talk about “process,” imagine how much he’d have to say if he came up with something like “The Hubble Space Telescope as a Conceptual Art Project.” The Hubble, we learned on 60 Minutes, is the size of a Greyhound bus, flies 400 miles above the Earth while moving at a speed of five miles a second, and captures light in its lens that began traveling through the universe more than 13 billion years ago. By the time the light has been transformed into an image, however, the picture it displays shows the universe as it appeared when the light started its journey — turning the telescope, in effect, into a time machine. Now that’s process.

Contrast all this with the mumbo jumbo on offer at PBS. “This material is a holdover from the projects that came before Cremaster,” Barney told Kimmelman, referring to the tapioca he used for some of his sculptures, “that were kind of a meditation on a fictitious metabolism. It’s basically looking for a way to regenerate its energy by creating a metabolism between complex carbohydrates and sugars but adding these materials like Vaseline and prosthetic plastic into a fictitious metabolism.” Kimmelman nodded sagely. Viewers nodded off. As a friend of mine said, “I was going to go to Barney’s show — until I saw that interview.”


The Cremaster Cycle, as described by Kimmelman and Barney, sounded arbitrary to the point of madness. The Hubble, on the other hand, documents a kind of madness (an infinite succession of galaxies) that is terrifyingly real. One discovery it has made possible, according to Adam Riess, a 32-year-old astrophysicist interviewed on 60 Minutes, is that the universe is expanding rapidly. As a result, future inhabitants of Planet Earth may not be able to see the stars at all. “The interesting implication of this work, if it’s true,” he said, “is that we will sort of be alone on an island, because all the lights around us will blink out.”

And then, as one small example of the universe’s expansion, he showed an image on his computer of an exploding star. The picture of the star — a small, jewel-like object floating in what looked like a luminously blue David Hockney swimming pool — was actually quite beautiful. It was, you might say, art. Certainly it was “a found object,” though discovered billions of light-years away by someone at NASA rather than on the sidewalk by someone in SoHo.

“So far the United States has invested ... about $7 billion in this Hubble project,” Bradley said to Livio at the conclusion of the program. “In your opinion has it been worth it?”

“Is it worth it?” Livio repeated incredulously. “It has given us the universe! This is cheap.”

Such a direct question followed by so direct an answer was what one would have liked more of from Kimmelman and Barney. Instead, art was treated in the way religion once was — as something whose inner workings may be explicated, but whose overall relevance or value must not be disputed. There would be no Ed Bradley to ask Barney if the show was “worth it,” or to suggest that the whole thing might have been overhyped. Barney was treated with kid gloves. But perhaps he needed to be. As Auden realized, it’s tough being an avant-garde artist in an age when scientists, not artists, are making all the breakthroughs.

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