By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|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 Minutessegment 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.
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 OrphÃ©e. 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 Cremasterfilms. 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 Minutessegment 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.
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