Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

July 20, 2007
…When he gave a speech to an international relations group, in which he denounced arms-control compromises and advocated complete disarmament, his audience seemed to treat him as celebrity entertainment. “The propertied classes here (in America) seize upon anything that might provide ammunition in the struggle against boredom,” he noted in his diary.

Sounds like what Peter Schjeldahl, in his article about the Venice Bienale (The New Yorker, June 25, 2007) so aptly describes as, “our money-fevered, intellectually disheveled global art world”--where the propertied classes are not only arming themselves against boredom, but making pots of money in an unregulated market characterized by a lot of mutual hand-washing. The editorial about Damien Hirst's shark at the Met in today's Times says it all. I guess one shark deserves another--except we're the losers.
July 10, 2007
One evening in Berlin, Einstein and his wife were at a dinner party when a guest expressed a belief in astrology. Einstein ridiculed the notion as pure superstition.

How scientific is that, I wonder, to hold a strong opinion about something with which you’ve had no direct experience? From Einstein, yet. But that’s modern science: if it doesn’t fit the paradigms they've made up, then it can’t be possible. Hence the medical profession’s skepticism about homeopathy and acupuncture, and why it chooses to forget that Jung used astrology in his practice. During Nixon’s trip to China in the seventies, photographers sent back images from China showing patients with needles stuck in them smiling and waving during surgery. Did it change the practice of anesthesia? Not a bit. And then there are those people who, on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever, apparently believe that hot air blown from a machine actually dries your hands.
July 6, 2007

Alexandra and her Saarinen Womb chair (see Making it hers, below) reminded me of another modernist icon, the geodesic dome, specifically the house my friend, Einar Thorsteinn, designed and took me to see last October when he and his wife, Manuela, gave me a tour of what they called “alternative Iceland”—as if all of Iceland isn’t “alternative.” Einar, who was a protégé of Buckminster Fuller, is an architect, mathematician, designer, and artist, who I met at Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin when I was researching my Art in America article about Olafur. Einar collaborated with Olafur on his second show in New York, and is the muse behind Olafur’s elaborate geometry. His numerous side projects include working on the design of a mobile moon station for NASA and, looking ahead to a time when the earth could become uninhabitable, making plans for a domed city for Iceland—at the presentation for Olafur’s upcoming survey show at MoMA, the curator described Einar as a “visionary”. Einar tells me Einstein’s theories have been long superseded by one Burkhard Heim, and I have the feeling that me talking to Einar about Einstein is like someone who’s just discovered art talking to me about Andy Goldsworthy.

Our road trip to the Icelandic hinterlands had to be put off for a day because of high winds that made it impossible to drive, apparently not an unusual occurrence. But the next morning dawned sunny and glorious. My previous two trips to Iceland were in the winter when sun was hardly an issue, but this time I was glad I brought sunglasses, which Einar explained you need in Iceland because the sun comes at you from a very low angle and is therefore always in your eyes. The sun’s lowness also creates long shadows, which lends extra drama to the already dramatic moss and lava-rocked landscape.

The domed house, near the village of Hella (108 km from Reykjavik and close to the Ring Road) is visible from the road, appearing as a curiously regular grassy hill with windows in it. Getting closer you can see that inside the dome is a house and a garden—the earth and grass covers the house part, keeping it warm no doubt, while the glass over the garden makes for a greenhouse-like micro-climate. What’s funny is that the façade of the house inside the dome is hardly contemporary, but like a traditional Icelandic abode. With its painted red siding and white trim around the lace-curtained windows, it reflects the decorating tastes of its inhabitant, a woman in her seventies with a passion for gardening and tchotchkes—the place is rife with cement gnomes, while a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David graces the exterior garden.

Einar tells me that his purist architect friends aren’t amused by the incongruity, but he thinks its great, as do I. As with Alexandra and her Womb chair, it demonstrates that the owner is not making a style statement, but loves it for its own sake. This is Einar on top:

June 27, 2007
My father was an engineer who was also an inspired photographer, but he had too little confidence and was not in the right milieu to realize himself in the artistic arena. It’s always been clear that my brother got the engineering genes while I got the artistic ones. If you consider our family, the article that recently came out in the Times about how first children are smarter and more dutiful is bullshit; my brother, younger, is much smarter and has led a much more normal (“responsible” is the word our parents would have used) life than I have. He always excelled in school, whereas I failed algebra and had to take a remedial class where I was the only girl in a roomful of hoods (at New Trier High School we pronounced that “hoooods” to rhyme with “dudes”). I got 900-something on my verbal SATs and 350 in math. The administration thought there could be a mistake. I knew there wasn’t.

If you asked my father to explain something, like “How does television work?” he’d give an interminable explanation accompanied by an elegant diagram drawn on one of the yellow pads that were always at hand. I was much more into the diagrams than the explanations, but my brother took everything in and ended up designing computers for IBM (a sign in his office read, “My job is so complicated even I don’t know what I do”) and now creates aerial surveillance software for the City of Tucson, complete with Web cams, which means he really is Big Brother.

This is a long way of getting back to the subject of “thought experiments,” which Walter Isaacson, whose book I’m reading about Einstein, has finally explained on page 138:

He calculated the properties of two light pulses emitted in opposite directions by a body at rest. He then calculated the properties of these light pulses when observed from a moving frame of reference. From this he came up with equations regarding the relationship between speed and time.

The result was an elegant conclusion: mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing. There is a fundamental interchangeability between the two. As he put it in his paper, “The mass of a body is a measure of its energy content.”

Thus: energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light.

It makes me want to study physics. Almost.
June 22, 2007
I’m reading Walter Isaacson's book about Einstein, which means I’m writing about Einstein, which is most likely more about Einstein than you ever wanted to know, or you'd also be reading it. This may be the first book I’ve been hooked on since I read The Devil in the White City in England last summer, an indication of how traumatic all that buying, selling, renovation and moving here, there, and everywhere was because if I don’t have a good book going and music I’m addicted to (currently, still, the Silversun Pickups, along with new Arcade Fire and Cat Power) I don't feel fully alive.

A long biography like this one is fun because it just goes on and on, so that I lead my life for a while, then Einstein’s life, then mine again, then his, etc. What’s most interesting is the random coalescence of personality traits, experiences, and opportunities that made Einstein’s achievements possible—being born into a family who had an electrical business and were always applying for patents, working in a patent office (the only job, it seemed, he could get) where he learned, more than ever, not to take anything for granted (“When you pick up an application,” his boss instructed, “think that everything the inventor says is wrong”), being too rebellious for academia, being interested in philosophy as well as science, having close friends with whom he could talk endlessly and work out his ideas. If any one of these things and more had been missing, our world might be very different.

But even though this book is incredibly detailed (down to what Einstein ate when he was with his friends—sausages—and how once they gave him caviar, which he’d never had, as a special treat, and he was so busy talking he didn’t notice) Isaacson goes on about how Einstein formulated his ideas and then says—poof!—he published a paper. Here's a man who's working in a patent office, has no significant contacts, and he publishes a paper that sets the scientific establishment on its ear. How? Where? Did he have a blog? Those of us whose work has to do with publishing would like to know. Also Isaacson is always referring to “thought experiments” as if we all know what thought experiments are and how they work (well, maybe you know and actually perform them all the time, and I'm just out of the loop).

But I’m quibbling. I’m enjoying the insight into another field, the way I always love listening to shop talk among musicians, chefs, or last weekend, two poets arguing the merits of fellow poet Jorie Graham (who I just learned from Wikipedia is the daughter of sculptor Beverly Pepper and gets the Graham part from having married into the publishing family).

So I’ll leave you with this tidbit: “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way," Einstein said, "but intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

The romantic mythology around the creative act would have it otherwise, but the truth is, yes, we do all this hard work, and intuition is the payoff.
June 16, 2007
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science….To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches only indirectly….

From the new biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson.

I like this idea of Einstein's that mystery is an emotion.