Discussing In the Holocene, a recent exhibition at the List Visual Arts Center, curator Joao Ribas invoked Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the work of philosophers John Dewey and Paul Feyerabend, poet Paul Valery, and MIT Nobel laureate in physics, Jerome Friedman. This diverse pantheon of thinkers attests to Ribas’s longtime fascination “with how art relates to and informs other disciplines.” It was a preoccupation which recently was on rich display at the List. In the Holocene was an effort, says Ribas, “to bring art and science together in a way that shows what kinds of questions each are concerned with, and how they might complement each other.”
The exhibition featured visual art and objects from the late 19th century through current day, along with film and music presentations, all supporting the notion, suggests Ribas, that “art and science share an interest in finding out about the world, in knowledge and observable phenomena, while subject to different logics, principles of reasoning, and conclusions.” A few samples of In the Holocene’s wide range: children’s building blocks devised by Friedrich Fröbel (the German educator who invented kindergarten), which illustrate how color, shape, and form all abet learning; and “Aesthetics as a Way of Survival,” in which Germaine Kruip documents the elaborate mating rituals of bowerbirds, whose males construct elaborately and colorfully decorated arbors to attract females. A neon Fibonacci sequence by Mario Merz adorned the exterior of the Center, which also hosted screenings of films depicting an alternative model for life on earth, and performances of Iannis Xenakis’s mathematically derived music.
Ribas has a special fondness for the historical convergences of science and art, revealed in such exhibit displays as Georges Vantongerloo’s 1940s-era representation of matter and the movement of particles. Ribas notes that while both science and art might inform each other, and advance by way of disruptive insights, artists are not bound by the methods of scientific experimentation and deploy “a different set of criteria” for investigating such things as matter, time, perception, consciousness, and personhood. Art may function as a “space for a kind of speculative form of science,” he says. One example in the exhibit: an original edition of playwright Alfred Jarry’s turn-of-century work on “pataphysics,” the playful name for a science beyond physics and metaphysics.
In a sense, the entire exhibit worked as speculation, Ribas says, taking its theme from the 1979 Max Frisch novel, Man in the Holocene, which chronicles the preservation of present-day artifacts in the face of a world-ending deluge. “We’ve become the dominant agent on earth, even though our time of occupancy has been so very short…What will the record of human presence look like?” asks Ribas. In the exhibition, artist Trevor Paglen answered this question bleakly: space junk in orbit.
While Ribas hopes In the Holocene amply demonstrated the contributions art makes to investigations of the physical and natural world, it was no academic exercise. Rather, Ribas wanted to offer List visitors an experience that resonated, and would spur viewers to “think richly and critically about the relationship between art, science, and technology.”
This wasn’t a stretch at MIT, he imagines, an “environment in which people are not only at the peak of their curiosity, but also at the passionate center of their own interest in finding out why, or how, or what. That to me describes an artist as much as a scientist, or the brilliant students I’ve met at my time at the List.”