Cover photo: Beat Takeshi Kitano, The Kitano Sewing Machine ‘Hideyoshi’, 2009. Cardboard, cloth, metal, paint, and polystyrene. 320 x 380 x 240 cm.  Commission for the exhibition Beat Takeshi Kitano, Gosse de painter, 2010. Acquisition 2013.

Decidedly reflecting Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain’s ethos of promoting a close network with artists, as well as its multidisciplinary approach, this exhibition brings together 31 international artists including heavyweights Cai Guo Qiang, Moriyama Daido and Christian Boltanski, as well as its newly discovered Chinese artists such as Gao Shan, Hu Liu and Li Yongbin. Cai Guo Qiang’s works shown in this exhibition were his gunpowder-produced large-scale drawings White Tone (Fig. 1), The Vague Border at the Edge of Time/Space Project and in a nod to the exhibition’s technological tangent, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too (Fig. 2) As a testament to the esprit d’corp and the strength of the art ecological network within Fondation Cartier, Christian Boltan executed his idea of turning the entire fifth floor terrace of PSA into a spectacular installation of flags, all designed by artists, scientists, philosophers and friends of Fondation Cartier. (Fig. 3).

Fig. 1. Cai Guo-Qiang, White Tone, 2016. Gunpowder on paper, 400 x 1,800 cm. Commission for the exhibition The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016. Acquisition 2017. 

Fig. 2. Cai Guo-Qiang, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, 1993. Gunpowder on paper. 305 x 403 cm. Acquisition 1997.

Fig. 3. Multiple artists, based on idea by Christian Boltanski, Draw Me A Flag, 2018. 

But, it’s to the exhibition’s thematic focus on technology, science and big data that I wish to zero in on. I noted with delight and surprise the hybridized art-science works by several artists.  These artists didn’t just incorporate scientific and social science research into their visual expression, they made the science the core content of the artwork.
This post thus continues my current focus on technology in the visual arts, which started with my blogpost about Lee Bul on utopian modernism. As such, I selectively discuss the several artworks that grapple with technology and big data in this exhibition. However, it should be noted that even with the more traditional art forms (e.g. Marc Couturier’s sketches of nature and foliage (Fig. 4), or Isabel Mendes da Cunha’s pottery and ceramics depicting women in ceremonial clothing – Fig. 5, or Beat Takeshi’s zoomorphic vases – Fig. 6 or his more fantastical animal creations), the majority of the artworks employ large screen video, use filmic constructions and engage in graphic design, blurring the boundaries between art and film, art and graphic design, art and technology, painting vs. video art.  Additionally, many of the featured artists have held retrospectives at the Fondation Cartier in previous years, or created pieces specifically commissioned for the Fondation’s collection, reflecting an art ecology and symbiotic nexus that found its way into the development and artist collaborations of further art projects showcased in this exhibition. Many of the artists themselves manifest a multi-faceted approach, drawing upon a myriad of disciplines and backgrounds.

Fig. 4. Marc Couturier, Les Dessins du troisième jour, 1991-92. 40 graphite drawings. 31 x 24 cm each. Acquisition 1992.

Fig. 5. Isabel Mendes da Cunha, Untitled, c. 1970-80.  8 painted ceramics. 80 x 30x 25 cm each. Acquisition 2012.

Fig. 6. Beat Takeshi Kitano, The Animal and Flower Vases, 2010. 8 painted ceramics by Cleto and Alessandro Funari, various dimensions. Gift of the artist, 2010.

For example, to start us off, Beat Takeshi Kitano is not only a film director, he’s also a TV personality as well as a painter. One of his works in this exhibition is his monumental hybridised steam engine-cum-sewing machine: The Kitano Sewing Machine “Hideyoshi” (see cover photo up on top).  Kitano built what looks to be a steam engine contraption that shows a truncated foot on a pedal while a piece of cloth runs through the needle of an affixed sewing machine at the top. It references both the steampunk genre and magical realism with its gigantic foot, while drawing attention to Kitano’s imaginative vision, originally shown alongside the ensemble of other whimsical and eclectic creations at Kitano’s solo show for Fondation Cartier.
Marc Newson’s background is in design, and he first approached Fondation Cartier with an idea for a design project of modular chairs that could be assembled into a dome (called Bucky, de la chimie au design). His work in this exhibition, a sleek silver-coloured futuristic jet that he named Kelvin 40 (Fig. 7), appropriating British physicist Lord Kelvin’s name and combining that with his own age, blurs the boundary between design prototype, art and sculpture. Like several of the other pieces in this exhibition, this work too was first shown at the artist’s solo at the Fondation Cartier in 2004.

Fig. 7. Marc Newson, Kelvin 40, 2003. Aluminum and mixed media. 226 x 814 x 800 cm. Commission for the exhibition. Kelvin 40, 2004. Acquisition 2004. Installation view. 

Mathematics is given singular focus in Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret’s Au Bonheur des Maths (Fig. 8), first created for the exhibition Mathematics, A Beautiful Elsewhere in 2011. It uses a video interview format to allow nine real-life scientists to talk about maths: not what their research or projects are about but what they love about it creatively.  While not novel, it’s refreshingly entertaining to listen to high-functioning intellectualism devolve into gushing enthusiasm.

Fig. 8. Raymond Depardon & Claudine Nougat, Au Bonheur des Maths, 2011. 35 mm fim transferred to and projected in HD video, 33′ Commission for the exhibition Mathematics, A Beautiful Elsewhere, 2011, Acquisition 2012. Video Still.

Jean-Michel Alberola also chose to focus on mathematics in La Main de Cedric Villani (Fig. 9), again a video work that shows the mathematician Cedric Villani (a French mathematician known for his work on partial differential equations, Riemannian geometry and mathematical physics) writing the proof for the conjecture de Cercignani.  As his hand rapidly scrawls across a green board, a complicated mathematical equation unfolds, and chalk dust flies underneath the hand’s maneuverings, like sparks from a sharp blade; the metaphor is not un-apt, given the singular focus here on a disembodied hand.

Fig. 9. Jean Michel-Alberola, La Main de Cedric Villani (la conjecture de Cercignani), 2011. Colour video, 9″. Commission for the exhibition Mathematics, A Beautiful Elsewhere, 2011. Acquisition 2012. Video still.

I particularly loved The Great Animal Orchestra (Fig. 10) a collaboration between Krauss and the British collective UVA that used a recording device not only to capture the nature soundscapes of seven landscapes known for their bio-ecological diversity such as the Amazon basin, but also converted the sounds into a visual sonogram that scrolled across a large video screen, its electronic dips and swells almost resembling city landscapes. Predictably, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ designations show the diminishment of bio-diversity sounds after intensive logging activities, particularly in birdcalls, and more poignantly, shows how ‘selective logging’ (touted for its lesser impact on the environment) nevertheless shows a reduction in sounds, though the topography may not appear scarred.

Fig. 10. Bernie Krause & United Visual Artists. The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016. Video and sound installation, 84′ Including a film by Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougat. Commission for the exhibition The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016. Acquisition 2017. Above: Poster outside the sound installation. Video still.

One might say these messages are too on-the-nose, too politically simplistic; yet, more complex scenarios are unfolded in Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s immersive collaborative project: Exit (Fig. 11)Miller Scofidio and Renfro are American artists and architects. For this project, they took on the idea of French philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio about migration impact; the data, collected from over one hundred global sources, correlates global human migration flows with economic, political, environmental and social issues. The soundtrack, the rolling Earth that intervals the data, all work towards a sense of urgent pertinence. A number of others were involved, such as statistician-artist Mark Hansen, artist-designer Ben Rubin, and architect-Artist Laura Kurgan, not to mention a core team of artists and scientists, a team-collaboration in the true sense of the word.  I also love all the hyphenated identities, and the fact that the project wasn’t just shown in white cube space, but also for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris in 2015. The visually-stimulating information analyses were divided into the following six categories: Population Shifts: Cities; Remittances: Sending Money Home; Politial Refugees and Forced Migration; Rising Seas: Sinking Cities; Natural Disasters; and finally, Speechless and Deforestation.

Fig. 11. EXIT, 2008-15. An idea by Paul Virilio, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, and Ben Rubin. In Collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith. Immersive six-channel video and sound installation, 45′. Commission for the exhibition Native Land, Stop Eject, 2008. Acquisition 2012. One of the video stills I managed to capture. 

Big data and visual presentations, however visually mesmerising, may raise the question: how is this art? If one were to take a photo of a microscope, and give it a referential and suitably literary title, would that make it art? It’s an age-old Duchampian question, and perhaps hackneyed, to which a tongue-in-cheek answer could be: anything is art if it’s made with artistic intention or gone through an artistic vision and process, or to come at it as cart before the horse, anything is art if exhibited in white-cube space – the end justifies the means. It obscures the deeper question: how then are we to gauge such new media art? Even the terminology for how one might describe this sort of art is still in flux: are they to be called ‘new media’ or electronic or digital art or ‘extended media’? They also raise a range of related questions: how to take into account the dynamic play between art and science as systems of perception and information? What should their relationship be to traditional media art when juxtaposed or exhibited together? What is the artist’s responsibility regarding accuracy, agency, disclosure and responsibility towards a wider world when the data raises important social issues? What market values within the art ecological system should these works generate? But even more fundamentally, the investigative and creative processes engaged for science versus art are different: what are the feedback loops, are they even reconciliable? Have we considered how fusing the two isn’t a simple matter of cobbling big data and visual presentations together? What ineffable ‘visual expressiveness quotient’ does science bring to artistic processes? Also, science, unlike art for art’s sake, almost always is undertaken for epistemological or empirical or morphological purposes, and how does this skew the meaning of artistic intention?
Thames & Hudson published Art + Science Now in 2010, which began looking at Western artists who mobilise science, technology and data as core focus within their art projects, and it’s a fascinating study. Stephen Wilson, in his Introduction to this volume, has this as food for thought: cultural impact as a way to gauge artscience works.  

He says:

General cultural impact is perhaps the hardest to assess. It may be that a broad interest and literacy in science and technology is critical in a techno-cultural society. This kind of literacy helps the citizens of democracies make wise science-related policy decisions in connection with such tough issues as bioengineering and pollution…Even more pervasive is a faith that widespread knowledge about areas of such practical and philosophical importance makes for a vibrant, adoptive culture. Science-related arts are seen as useful in making information come alive for general audiences.”

In other words, it’s the Kantian argument,  later expounded by Ruskin, that art ennobles the soul and fulfils a critical function in the betterment of thought and cultivation of the general good.  Besides, it’s nothing new. Leonardo Da Vinci called it ‘deep seeing.’ A beautiful elsewhere indeed.
As conclusion, I offer up Moebius (not to be confused with the Möbius strip – a surface with only one side and one boundary), the master of fiction and science-fiction graphic novels. For this exhibition, Moebius created a 3D animated movie, called La Planète encore, adapted from his graphic album designed in 1990. In the film, what looks to be a father and daughter duo arrive at a green planet, and discovers its strange inhabitants, and rather than colonise it, they leave it alone. An unthinkable proposition for our world today.

Fig. 12. Moebius, La Planete Encore, 2010. 3D animated film, 9″. Commission for he exhibition Moebius-Transe-Forme, 2010-11. Video still.

Details: Although this exhibition is now past, this blogpost hopefully acts also to record and document the exhibition for those interested in art and technology synthesis. Photo credits are all mine.