Saturday, September 12, 2015

At the Royal Academy yesterday I found myself quite moved by Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Celestial Navigation). The work is about levels of abstraction – not abstraction in the sense of non-figurative art, but abstraction in the sense that a map is an abstraction of a terrain (unless those are the same thing?) At the most abstract, we have the balls in the glasses: a binary value, like voltage in a memory cell. (Either the glass has a ball in it or it doesn't. Other works in the same series include some empty glasses.) Then the numbers in the back of the cabinet, which may be astrological tables. Then the star chart. Then the flags and pushpins on the length of driftwood, which are indicators, not quite objects in themselves. And finally the drawer at the bottom, which, with its ridge of sand, bears the closest resemblance to an actual landscape, except that the little spheres and cones scattered around still feel more symbolic than real.

But all these levels of abstraction live together in the same box. Hierarchy is forgotten. Examining it, I was reminded of Max Tegmark's mathematical universe theory, which proposes that "our external physical reality is a mathematical structure." In other words, there is no very profound difference between a constellation and an astrological table, because the constellation is itself just numbers. This seems to me exactly the argument of Untitled (Celestial Navigation). Of course, Cornell died too long ago to have heard of the mathematical universe theory – or the computational universe theory, or the simulation hypothesis, or the holographic principle, or any other modern heterodoxy that suggests reality might have its foundations in a realm much more abstract and depthless than the one we think we see. But here, in 1958, that intuition is felt.

Then again, when I went to the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, I became adamantly convinced that Twombly's paintings are about the process of evolution by natural selection – even though they have titles like Bay of Naples and Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor. So it's possible I'm a bit too preoccupied with science when I look at art.

No comments: