Sunday, October 5, 2008
The Big Picture
By ALIX BROWNE
Published: September 26, 2008
The same week that scientists at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva were getting ready to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, the artist Josiah McElheny was conducting a test of his own ideas on the Big Bang theory at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City. Inspired by the Lobmeyr chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House and informed by logarithmic equations devised by the cosmologist David H. Weinberg, McElheny’s chrome, glass and electric-light sculpture “The End of the Dark Ages” is part of a four-year investigation into the origins of the universe. What began with “The End to Modernity,” a sculpture commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, will culminate next month in a massive installation titled “Island Universe” at White Cube in London. “I had this quixotic idea to do modernized versions of the Lobmeyr chandeliers as sculpture with secret information behind it,” says McElheny, who upon first encountering these “gilded age/space age” objects immediately thought they looked like pop renditions of the Big Bang.
According to McElheny, physicists continue to struggle with the question “is the world this way because it must be, or is it just random?” In 1965, the year that the Lobmeyr chandeliers were designed, it was suddenly evident that our world is not in fact the center of the universe. This idea that there could be an infinite number of possible narratives was becoming popular not just in science but also in literature and art — so why not in interior design, too? As it turns out, Wallace K. Harrison, the architect for the Met, having rejected the original design for the chandeliers, gave Hans Harald Rath of Lobmeyr, the Vienna-based glassmaker, a book about galaxies and sent him back to the drawing board.
“The End of the Dark Ages” is a scientifically accurate model: the shortest rod represents 100 million years, the longest about 1.3 billion; the clusters of glass stand for galaxy formations, the lights for quasars. Still, McElheny is less concerned with the conceits of exact science than the limits of reason and knowledge. (The White Cube show proposes a “multiverse” and “speaks to what Kant describes so well as an endless world made of imperfection, complication and specificity.”) “Politically, I’m against finding the single answer,” McElheny insists. “I’m more interested in what these questions mean to our sense of who we are.