Art critic, Dr. Jerry Cullum, discusses the origins of “From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again,” a show that he will be curating at whitespace featuring works by various artists. The opening reception will be Friday, July 6 and run through August 4, 2012.
From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again
a show about the world’s interconnections, and the cultural and biological barriers to comprehension of them
presented at Whitespace Gallery July 6 – August 4, 2012
curated by Dr. Jerry Cullum, whose essay follows
i. an autobiographical preface
It may surprise some people to know that “From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again” has its origins in the late Dr. Robert Detweiler’s senior seminar on literary criticism, a long, long time ago.
In my paper for that seminar, I wrote that we were now on the verge of a theory of human existence that would explain how the people and places that surround us (what the anthropologists call “culture”) shaped and were shaped by our minds and bodies (then customarily divided into “psychology” and “physiology”). I thought that a great deal could be learned through a new approach to the imaginative constructions of human beings, whether these imaginative constructions were called “science,” “art,” “architecture,” “scholarship,” or “society.” I also thought it would be really easy to start at the level of things like “language and symbolization” and end up at the level of, say, how a piece of architecture gets built and paid for and why it gets built the way that it does. That’s how twenty-one-year-olds think about life.
After two years of graduate study, I had added the complicating notion that the whole planet shapes and is shaped by the responses of human individuals and institutions. It seemed obvious that our continued survival depends on our understanding the interconnections stretching from the planet and the universe to the mind that thinks about all of this and about what needs to be done regarding any part of it.
It also seemed obvious that attaining an adequate understanding of all of this was quite a job. The obstacles to it ranged from the distractions of earning a living to the near-impossibility of learning all the academic disciplines that go into a reasonably comprehensive comprehension, not to mention the difficulty of determining the right methods of research once the disciplines and their interconnections have been scoped out sufficiently. (The subsequent road to the Ph.D. degree only reinforced this realization.)
These many years after I started thinking about all this, human beings have gotten much further along with the newly refined analysis of how the mind deceives itself, or how its biological limitations lead us astray (this is now mostly the academic turf of “the cognitive sciences” or “neurology”). We had already realized a great deal about how our economic and social situation can move us in misleading directions (this topic shifted gradually from the several social sciences to become the territory staked out by the interdiscipline called “cultural studies”).
My sense is still that verbal and visual and performative art can have a great deal to say about all this, if only by setting up experimental or experiential situations that shock us out of our usual ways of looking at the world, and making us think about it in new directions. I also believe that the individual academic disciplines have much too high an opinion of themselves when it comes to their ability to explain how the world actually operates. As a cognitive scientist remarked at the Neuro-Humanities Entanglement Conference that Barbara Maria Stafford organized a few months ago at Georgia Tech, most of the sciences that are relevant to the enterprise of wider understanding are still in their infancy.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have a playroom in which sciences in their infancy can enliven the sometimes stodgy world of settled artistic practices, and vice versa.
Welcome to “From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again.”
ii. a guided tour of the exhibition…uh, no, scratch that idea
I wrote about three thousand words explicating the exhibition and its assumptions, then realized that no one other than myself would ever want to read it.
And since the exhibition is meant to unsettle our presuppositions, I realized I was undermining my own efforts.
So instead, let’s hit a few highlights.
The exhibition begins on the grounds that form the environment of Whitespace Gallery. Kelly O’Brien’s site-specific installation is one element. There are also installations in the outlier galleries of Whitespec and the plant house on the far side of the house, by the visiting artists from São Paulo: Hugo Fortes, Sissi Fonseca, Rachel Rosalen, and Rafael Marchetti. What else out there might be an unmentioned part of the exhibition or only an unintended addition, I leave for you to decide.
In the gallery, a two-part sound piece by Dick Robinson (based on his improvisation with Pedro Rivadeneira) forms an aural background that sets the tone for the exhibition by making resonant statements dissolve into relationships of signal to noise that…well, again, you can finish that observation.
Cosmology makes its first brief appearance with Karley Sullivan’s depictions (from literal to openly mythological) of some of the 160 moons of the solar system. It collides quickly with culture in Mike Germon’s collages, and again in Terri Dilling’s visual analogies for the chemical assemblies out of which living forms may have first arisen.
Julianne Trew’s punning “Photodisintegration” symbolizes our present perceptual predicament with images that might be microscopic or telescopic, biological or geological, or all and none of the foregoing at the same time. This baroque view rhymes with Ann Stewart’s spiky chart of cognitive complexity, or Bethany Collins’ black-and-white symbol of our unspoken and unthought-of racial complications. The comprehension of such collisions of world and society is not made any easier by our own biochemistry, which Julie Sims symbolizes as a volcanic landscape of the brain.
And that more or less gets us through one gallery, in case you were wondering.
The second gallery is largely devoted to one test case of a larger system that we seem incapable of contemplating in all its literal and symbolic contexts.
Since a recent Emory University seminar considered “Water as an Ethical Medium,” it seems interesting to juxtapose Seana Reilly’s representation of the formulae and processes of fracking with Todd Murphy’s resonantly archetypal photograph of one of the icebergs of that are the consequence of the increasingly rapid dissolution of the glaciers of the Antarctic. Anyone who ordinarily finds it impossible to picture the symbol-strewn “Narrow Road to the Far South” without also pondering the potential degradation of the Pennsylvania aquifer is already well underway towards overcoming within themselves the mental limits that this exhibition addresses. (Hint: No, I don’t usually do that, either.)
So why not juxtapose this pairing with Marcia Vaitsman’s landscape formed from successive television images of the Japanese tsunami? And having thus introduced the topic of the various media that mediate our perceptions of the world’s waters, why not move on to Henry Detweiler’s framed QR codes that can take the possessors of smartphones to the webpages from which Karley Sullivan drew the information that informs her drawings of those moons of the solar system?
As Beth Lilly’s documentary photograph of a note to herself says, “the story is trying to tell the story.” The story can never finish telling a tale that includes itself.
Yet we have no choice but to keep trying: to dare to know, which is the meaning of the Latin maxim that is represented in Harris Dimitropoulos’ mapping of the sound waves of the spoken words “Aude Sapere.” And that is a lesson reinforced by Chelsea Raflo’s videos and Terri Dilling’s painting-and-video combination.
Our incorrigibly unruly imaginations may still get it wrong, or more deeply right, depending on what happens and how we read it. Which is why the exhibition also includes Nikki Starz’ unishark, a mash-up of mythic opposites enclosed in a metal cage that also alludes to the vitrine that encloses one of the most famously outrageous latter-day artworks, Damian Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde.
And that’s the show, folks. Or is it? Look, think, and decide.
Midsummer Day (Northern Hemisphere) / Feast of St. John Baptist 2012