Do We Fit in All This?

A summer exhibition in Toronto grapples with science, religion and the meaning of life

June 25, 2009 | Sarah Milroy

This is the time of the year when people find themselves lying back and gazing up at the stars overhead, or noticing the succinct design of a blade of grass, or realizing just how long it really takes for the light to seep out of the sky at twilight. And questions arise: Where do we human beings fit in this big picture? Is there a pattern to creation that the human imagination can glimpse? And is it through science, religion or art that we can best seek the answers?

This summer's exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto, titled Universal Code: Art and Cosmology in the Information Age, brings together artists who engage in this kind of philosophical grappling. Organized by Power Plant director Gregory Burke, the show blends emerging and established international artists in a way that seems timely but not trendy. This is a chorus of old souls singing, often in new artistic languages.

The show opened with a bang, or a least an extended noisy fizzle, with a fireworks piece by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans. A passage of writing by the 17th-century German astronomer and physicist Johannes Kepler, from his treatise Harmonices Mundi, was affixed to an outdoor facade of the the gallery, and it ignited for a brief and spectacular combustion before dying away - a metaphor, perhaps, for how our systems of thought can act as temporary beacons in the darkness of ignorance. (the text reads: "On the origins of the harmonic proportions, and on the nature and difference of those things concerned with melody.") Kepler aimed to reconcile religious belief with the scientific discoveries of his day through musical theory, imagining art as a companion system of thought.

Inside the gallery, Evans pursues the source of knowledge further with another wall text drawn from the writings of 20th-century astronomer Siegfried Marx. The advent of radio astronomy in the 1960s promised a clearer picture of distant galaxies, Marx wrote, but instead it revealed that many clusters of light believed to be galactic systems were in fact, flecks of dust, dandruff and other detritus affixed to old photographic emulsions. So much for brave new worlds. These are observations that incite humility, pulling the rug from beneath our sense of human mastery.

Henrik Hakansson, from Sweden, explores another kind of mystery in his work Monarch:The Eternal (2008), a large screen cinematic projection of a blue sky swarming with thousands of monarch butterflies. Shot in Michoacan, Mexico, the film invites us to ponder the monarchs' migration, a cycle that takes them from Canada to Mexico and back again every four years. It takes many generations to complete the circuit, a sequence of short life spans -- butterflies customarily live from four to six weeks, but one mega-generation lives eight months, long enough to complete the southerly return voyage in its entirety. How does this happen? What are we missing here?

Spanish artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, meanwhile, observes another kind of atmospheric migration in Wild Shear (1997), a two-channel video installation documenting cloud movements above the U.S./Mexico border.

While mankind draws his lines in the sand, aggrandizing himself with delusions of control, nature makes mockery. In these images, clouds blow in both directions simultaneously, with Manglano-Ovalle speeding up the tapes to reveal a seething transformation: brilliant white clouds at a rolling boil against the bright blue sky.

Looking to the heavens provides the subject, too, for L.A.-based Canadian artist Jed Lind and Scottish artist Katie Paterson, who both explore the limits of our technological grasp of the beyond. For Better to Burn Out No.1 (2008), Lind mounted his camera in a tripod in the wilderness of the American West, setting it to revolve for three hours beneath the night sky with the shutter open. The resulting spiral of light that he records, which calls to mind the rings of tree growth, arises from the rotation of the earth beneath his camera. Lind reveals the stars, but also the unseen forces that drive our endless orbital journey. Maybe solid ground isn't so solid after all.

Katie Paterson's installation Earth-Moon (2007) also gives you that lonely planet feeling. A grand piano stands in the gallery playing a fragmented version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. On closer investigation, you learn that Paterson translated the sonata into Morse code, transmitted it to the moon, harvested the reflected signals that bounced back, and then translated them back into notes that the instrument performs, player piano-style. But the resulting performance has many gaps and errors, and you find yourself thinking about the missing notes that are still out there traveling through space. Like moonlight -- the second-generation reiteration of sunlight -- Paterson's work arises from the phenomenon of reflection, wringing new meanings from one of mankind's oldest inspirations.

Several works attempt a fusion of different world religions but they come off as simplistic. The South Korean artist Kimsooja is showing a trio of illuminated jukebox speakers (they also call to mind roulette wheels) from which emanate early Christian song, Buddhist chanting with bells and cymbals, and Arabic ululations (all of which is, admittedly, strangely relaxing to listen to). And Algerian-born Adel Abdessemed has created an animated sequence of abstract forms in God is Design (2005), suggesting the ornamental motifs of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all run together and intermingled with what look to be diagrammatic representations of human cell development.

But these works strike an apolitical note-with their erasure of cultural difference and historic conflict-offering a kind of mini-holiday from postcolonial meltdown that feels unfocused.

By contrast, the video projection Island Universe (2008), by U.S. artist Josiah McElheny, is sharp as a tack; it moves in and out of focus in precisely ordered ways that provoke a host of speculations. A visual drama in multiple acts, the video takes as its subject the dazzling modernist glass ceiling chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, designed by Lobmeyr in 1965.

Visually, the lights suggest a concurrent scientific concept: the Big Bang Theory of cosmic creation. A artist best known for his delicate sculptural installations in glass, McElheny has shot the glass-and-metal chandeliers as they rise and fall on their hydraulic pulley systems. Wielded by unseen forces, they blaze and then dim again beneath a heaven of gold leaf.

At times these objects seem like spaceships, or undersea creatures rising and falling in the tides. Most often they look like stars or galaxies. In some sequences, the image blurs and then returns to focus, our view fragmenting into dials of colored light before returning to order. Using glass (the camera lens) to regard glass, the artist crafts a metaphor for our predicament. As humans, we are of the thing that we regard. What we see is beautiful, this work seems to say, but how we see, and how we strive to understand, is equally so.

The Globe and Mail, 2009