The Universe and Art

Seen and Unseen

The most interesting part of William Kentridge’s first Charles Eliot Norton lecture last week concerned the effects of a solar eclipse. He described how to watch an eclipse take place without looking directly at it: If you cut a small hole in a piece of paper and hold that paper flat above a table or other flat surface, you can see the circular spot of sunlight gradually become overtaken by the shadowy reddish crescent of the eclipse.

Kentridge had a revelation when he discovered that each and every spot of sunlight in his studio, including the irregular patches that had filtered through leaves, had its own red crescent—for 65 patches of light, there were 65 differently contoured crescents. Of course, he knew that anyone in Johannesburg with a paper viewer would see the same effect. But the unexpected manifestation of this omnipresence in his studio set Kentridge on a flight of realization about the endless proliferation of views and angles and projections that each object we encounter implicitly offers to the world.

This point brought to mind the role of the cosmos—that is, the universe—in art. On the one hand, it seems absurd to ignore the fact that the earth is a tiny thing occupying a negligent part of something mind-bogglingly vast. On the other hand, trying to include some sense of the universe in artwork seems like a fool’s errand, even willfully blind to art’s essential task, which is to grapple with human experience. But to focus only on the latter, by far the historical preference, is to lose the opportunity for a real challenge of form and scale.

Say what you will about Damien Hirst’s simultaneous international showing of his assistant-manufactured spot paintings (some critics called it a facile prank), but that exhibit does address the universe, proposing a vast new world of identically random spots, one painting with many windows across the globe. In a similar category are the earthworks of artists like Robert Smithson, or Nancy Holt, his lesser-known collaborator, whose tunnels and tubes for viewing the sun or the scenery are right in line with Kentridge’s eclipse experience. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, of the giant environmental installations, modify the landscape by more ambitiously material means.

The extremely active French street artist JR brings an exciting synthesis of these ideas—all the more appealing because his pieces are up in major cities everywhere, and you can easily find them if you look. (He just completed a collection of pieces in Los Angeles for his “Wrinkles in the City” project, and he is responsible for the huge black-and-white photograph of squinting eyes that occupied the prime mural location on Houston at Bowery in New York City all of last summer.) Like Hirst’s spots, JR has found a style that he uses everywhere, making a single, global-scale artwork. He celebrates the texture and expression of the human face with huge black-and-white photography that he tightly pastes onto buildings, his images wrapping over drainpipes and sills like a projection.

His best work may be in the favelas of Brazil, where an entire neighborhood would become a dynamic, multi-layered canvas, with hundreds of photographs of eyes spanning across even more buildings. His work is about transformation on a huge scale, a kind of urban earthworks—but it also has a humanitarian mission, a desire to draw attention to neglected people and places, earning him praise and the prestigious TED prize in 2011. In its sense of community responsibility and activism, JR’s work represents the best of a certain kind of street art.

Kentridge’s eclipse-inspired revelation provides not only a lesson in perception and assumption, but also a further look into how art and everyday life are intertwined. Those little bits of light in the studio, each reflecting a distant solar event, are a powerful reminder of our relationship to the universe. Conversely, JR’s artwork starts at the large scale, entire cityscapes, and shrinks down to focus on individual human faces. Both make a case for expanding the context of art, its reach, and its display and demonstrate once again the heightened consciousness that comes from seeing art as the elemental structure of life.

—Columnist Molly E. Dektar can be reached at mdektar@fas.harvard.edu.

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