The Beauty of Science

Chris Titterington
Like the best artists Wenyon & Gamble are concerned to create work that gives visual pleasure. Indeed, within current aesthetic conventions, many of their pictures are identifiably beautiful. Beyond the attractive surface however, and in a crucial way, the work would seem to be about ideas. Here I must make it clear that by this I mean much more than the usual sense in which all work could be said to be about ideas. Indeed, this work is much more than conceptual – its sheer beauty is a guarantee of that. What I mean is that the thing that stimulates them, the thing that seems to empower them to make the work, is their basic perception of the world of ideas – specifically those ideas encoded within the field of human activity we now call science. Thus the beauty of their work is less a depiction of the beautiful phenomena of the world that science investigates, less this, than an equivalent for the beauty of the ideas themselves – ideas that have become associated – even coextensive – with such phenomena during the historical unfolding of physics. This beauty then is the beauty of theory or of knowledge. But even this description may merely be a half truth however, for I suspect that their work's beauty is also an equivalent for their own experience as perceivers of the world of ideas and its loveliness, and the light in their work thus seems to be a reflection of their own minds – minds 'lit up' by the mental processes they survey in the history of science.

Perhaps this perception accounts for their preoccupation with libraries – particularly the library of the Royal Greenwich Observatory formerly at Herstmonceux, and the library of Tsukuba University in Japan. In the recent work
Bibliography for instance, the books themselves become phenomena very like the natural phenomena their texts may describe or explain: just as the bubble chamber path is a trace of the passage of particles in space, words become a visible trace of where ideas have been. Significantly, in this connection, their choice of optical phenomena to use in the work seems often to be associated with the intellectual achievement of a well-known scientist. It is almost as if the details of human history are of primary importance – the discoverer transcends the discovered. In some works that historical figure is Isaac Newton, in others George Airy. What seems fundamental to each of these works is that the visual form of the light phenomena described in each work appears to become an equivalent for the mental pattern of the mind that discovered it. Now this clearly relates to a whole area of epistemology that has been debated throughout the history of philosophy – the question of whether the world can be separated from the artifacts of the perceiving mind? Such questions would seem, however, not to be the primary concern of these pictures. In a revealing sense I would suggest that the pictures relate to an area of esoteric imagery that was produced during both the late seventeenth century and late nineteenth century – precisely the periods of Newton and Airy. Here I mean the quasi-scientific, mystical images of the type exemplified by the work of Robert Fludd, or by John Varley Junior's watercolours made for the Theosophist Charles Leadbeater.1 The fact that these figures are associated with mysticism should not discredit them – their grasp of science may have been imprecise and have lacked rigour, but they understood something that in modern times is often missed, or suppressed – namely the insight that subjective experiences – ideas – are real phenomena (if one can use the word 'phenomena' concerning the non-material, subjective aspects of the world). Accordingly, the images Fludd and Varley produced attempt to picture this missing mental component of nature. In science, subjectivity is so rigorously avoided that in many ways it is made to seem an illegitimate or illusory part of the world, and their images were an attempt to redress this imbalance.

Wenyon & Gamble's pictures may work on many other levels –including the obvious one that they illustrate the beautiful and singular properties of light – but I can think of no level on which they operate better than the level of envisualisations of mental phenomena. If these artists are interested in the history of ideas, then they are interested in mental aspects of the world as they existed historically. Like geological ages, like species of plant or animal, like stages of biological evolution, even like events of human history, these ideas occurred – were real, and in their actuality gave rise to actual and vital effects. Indeed, what better visual form for the subtle mind of Isaac Newton – its complex harmonies and shifting inquisitive dynamics during his light experimentation, than Wenyon & Gamble's
Newton's Rings or their equally beautiful and mysterious The Fringes of the Shadows of the Knives? I believe that Newton himself would have understood this turning away 'from the beauty of the cosmos'2 inwards towards the beauty of the human endeavour named science; for Newton was less completely involved in hard science, with its emphasis on pure phenomena and knowledge for its own sake, than we would like to believe. Even if we discount the fact that he was involved in alchemy and hermetic philosophy, we are left with the deeper truth that his religion ensured that he was heavily anthropocentric.3 For him, scientific knowledge still referred primarily to the human subject, and was thus not only a tool for human use in our dealings with the physical world, but a vehicle in the spiritual life of mankind – a tool for salvation.

Holography and Ornithology

A telling anecdote concerning holography's position within contemporary art theory involves the exhibition which (at the time of writing in April 1993) is currently showing at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. This is the work of the American artist James Turrell. Amongst the light environments and models of his crater observatory project, are four holograms. Most people who see them would not know it, though, for the pieces are almost without the illusion of the third dimension and what is more, Turrell has more or less concealed the fact that they are holograms – certainly the labels make no mention of it. To do so would probably have risked condemning the works to almost automatic disqualification from being taken seriously.4 Artists have not been slow in recognising that the holographic technique carries with it a number of undesirable associations in the contemporary mind. These are roughly that the work is gimmicky in nature and badly made, and that the maker is likely to be only demonstrating the technique. Wenyon & Gamble have been all too aware of this situation but have chosen to confirm their allegiance to the medium while somewhat distancing themselves from other holographers.

Although holography was invented in the 1940s it has only become a viable medium since the development of a powerful, coherent light source – the laser – in the 1960s. Holography's effective birth then came at a time when art was enjoying a brief but highly charged love affair with science and technology. Indeed, as Margaret Benyon's show at the Lisson Gallery in 1970 perhaps demonstrated, holography was born into a welcoming world. However, as the utopian progressivism of the sixties was abandoned, holography fell victim to commercial exploitation and the attitudes I have described above. Worse still, apart from the work of artists like Bruce Nauman and Benyon herself, many of the early practitioners were largely attracted to the medium for its technical novelty, and the holograms they produced ultimately disappointed the larger art community. As far as celebrity goes, holography enjoyed a revival of sorts in the late 1970s and early 1980s: not only were there cheaper lasers and even colleges teaching holography, producing a new generation of artists, but the currency of certain theoretical views of the nature of the universe and of man, and which used holography as a central metaphor, gave the medium a certain vogue. These theories were enshrined in the work of physicist David Bohm and neurologist Karl Pribram. Indeed in the pages of Revisions magazine, philosopher Renee Weber interviewed and hosted conversations with these two men and also embryologist Rupert Sheldrake – conversations where holography was used as a means of envisualising their ideas, and a new buzz-word was invented: the Holographic Paradigm.
5 In respect then of its intellectual credentials, holography took on, for a while, a feeling of the cutting edge of the new. Lastly, holography has enjoyed a brief celebrity in the aesthetic style of certain melancholic postmodernists – artists such as the painter David Salle and photographer Frank Majore. Here the work mimics the look of early holograms – a kind of realism married with a strange feeling of absence – in red or green monochrome.6

It must be apparent by now however, that this discussion of holography's place in the artworld is deeply flawed in its basic premise. For one thing it furthers the misapprehension that there is a history of holography. Well perhaps, indeed, there is – if one looks for one; if one builds one, but the connections made between the practitioners in such an enterprise are generally superficial and tend to obscure the less easily identifiable concerns of the individuals themselves. In many ways I am reluctant to place Wenyon & Gamble in the context of holography altogether. As I said at the very beginning of this piece, they are creative individuals who happen to work with light and photographic media in a way that produces images bright in colour and with interesting illusory properties. These happen to be holograms. As the artist and bird-watcher Barnett Newman once said – "art history is for artists, as ornithology is for the birds".

Chris Titterington is Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London [at time of publication (1993); since 1989, the author has worked as an independent artist under the name
Christopher Bucklow ]

1. Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms, Theosophical Society, Madras, 1978 (originally published in 1901). The Spiritual in Abstract Painting 1890-1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986, is a good general source for the whole esoteric tradition.
2. Wenyon and Gamble, In the Optical Realm, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1991, p.3.
3. For Newton's esoteric interests see: F.E. Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton, Cambridge, Mass., 1968.
4. For a longer discussion of holography in this context see my essay, The Hidden Art, The Creative Holography Index, Munich, vol I, no 1, p 1-8
5. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Arkana, London, 1983; Karl Pribram, What the Fuss is all About: The Halo-graphic Paradigm and other Paradoxes, Shambhala, London, 1982; Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life Fontana, 1981.
6. For a discussion of this see my Light into Art, New Scientist Magazine, 117 no. 1598, London, Feb 4,1988, p66-68
Titterington, Chris. 1993. 'The Beauty of Science'. In Volumes / Wenyon & Gamble, p4-8. London: Photographers' Gallery. From the catalog to Volumes, an exhibition of holograms by Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon at The Photographers' Gallery, London, 28 May to 24 July, 1993. Published by The Photographers' Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7HY, ISBN 0 907879 381, editor David Chandler
©1993 the authors and The Photographers' Gallery