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Art, Science, and the Sacred

As a physicist, some of my most interesting and creative conversations have been with artists. While it is always possible to discuss technical issues with fellow scientists, I have always found the company of artists to be particularly stimulating, often leading to conversations that explore fundamental issues in new ways. It could be said that artists and scientists are looking at the same ground, the same landscape, but from quite different perspectives. They employ diverse skills and work from quite different backgrounds. When the very best scientists and artists dialogue together, they have the chance to discover ways in which they can illuminate each other’s points of view.

Science for its part is concerned with both permanence and transformation. It asks: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the world the way it is? How it is that things move and change? And what veiled ground lies behind transformation and change?

Science asks about the ultimate nature of the matter of the world and in what arena this interplay of matter and energy takes place. It asks about the nature of space and of time. Is space the container of the universe or is it generated, along with matter and energy, out of something deeper? Several physicists, for example, are currently working on what they term ‘pre-space.’ That is a set of relationships—lying prior to quantum theory or relativity—out of which space, time, matter, and energy emerge. (Some would even include ‘information’ as an active principle in the universe.)

Discussions about the role and nature of space also take place in the arts. In some cases, as with perspectival painting, the work of art ‘portrays’ space. It creates a naturalistic illusion of a three-dimensional space in which various objects have their existence. But there is also the icon that is far from naturalistic but is rather a container for the sacred, a vessel, and a delineation of sacred space. This notion of sacred space is also found in architecture. Within a cathedral the eye is drawn to the infinite—the point of focus, which is the altar, or upwards to heaven. Within a mosque, by contrast, each person kneels like the primordial Adam at the moment of creation. Each is the center of the world, for infinity is to be found within.

Within the twentieth century also grew the notion that the surface of the painting, that which is held within the frame, becomes the arena of art. It is a space of action, one that refers to nothing outside itself for its validity.

Medieval Art

If one goes far enough back into the past one reaches that early medieval period in which artisan, artist and alchemist were all working together as assistants, or midwives, assisting nature to reach perfection. Just as the alchemist carried out the work within a sealed container, so too the artist worked, and still works today, to make manifest within the confines or container of the work itself. Similarly the religious quest, the soul’s journey, is carried out within the confines of a container, that of sacred symbolism and ritual.

Some years ago, I moved from North America to settle in the small medieval village of Pari, not far from Siena in Italy. My wife and I had chosen Siena because of our love of Sienese art—that flowering of Duccio, Martini and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti that occurred before the Renaissance. In that period art and religion were deeply integrated. Art sought to manifest an essence of sacred issues—the Madonna and Child, the crucifixion or the lives of the saints.

In these works, space and action are deeply integrated. Space is rich and enfolded with time, so that different events in time coexist, as do different angles of seeing. In Duccio’s Madonna Enthroned—the altarpiece for Siena Cathedral—one has the sense of simultaneously viewing the throne from different angles. This rich sense of space recalls the image of the circles within Dante’s Divine Comedy in which this densely packed metaphor is not only the circles of heaven but also the orbits of the sun and planes around earth, the walled circle of the city and the inner self.

All this was to change with the Renaissance in which ‘man’ became center of the cosmos, the measure of all things, and individual human beings—rather than archetypes—became the subjects of paintings. Perspective, a Renaissance invention, created a remarkable illusion of space but at the cost of separating space from time so that events are captured in a single frozen moment. The contemporary painter, David Hockey, has suggested that perspective arose out of attempts to portray the crucifixion, that special historical moment in which all eyes are drawn to the central figure.

One could perhaps see, in a metaphorical way, the relationship between space in physics and in art that flowed from this period. Just as the portrayed scene was subsumed to a single rule of perspective—technically projective geometry, so too the cosmos was reduced to Newtonian laws of motion and force. In place of a living, organic universe we found something akin to a magnificent machine. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli argued that Newtonian science had banished spirit from matter and that is would only return within his own time. By secularizing space and banishing time from painting, by reducing time to a parameter in Newtonian physics, we had also banished the eternal and the sacred from our world.

Time returned to painting with Cézanne, an artist who looked at and questioned the world with all the fervor of a great scientist. Cézanne wrote of sitting by the bank of the river and watching his ‘little sensations,’ sometimes turning his head to one side, sometimes to the other. Each glance brought a new sensation and cast into question what had been seen before. What Merleau-Ponty had referred to as ‘Cézanne’s doubt’ is ever present in these paintings, with each brush mark calling into question the illusion created by its neighbors. Time is rich in Cézanne and at the same time he felt his paintings were an expression of the consciousness of nature.

Contemporary Art

But let me move to more contemporary artists, those with whom I have had particularly rewarding discussions.

Antony Gormley is a sculptor whose work deals with the space within the body. It is a space, he says, that lies beyond dimension, beyond judgment. It is the darkness within the body. In turn, his sculptures are concerned with that which lies beyond representation, with a space beyond that of normal occupation, one that transcends the physical space in which bodies rest. Gormley refers to the Theravada Buddhist tradition in which love can be radiated or transmitted without the need for an object. His work becomes a catalyst that allows this love to be registered within what he terms the darkness or the inner space of the viewer’s body.

The work itself appears to be casts of the body done in the medium of iron. But there is no attempt at surface representation, no displaying of muscle, expression and so on. Rather these pieces act as catalysts to enable the viewer to register something about the space within his or her own body.

A few years ago I organized a meeting of artists and scientists in London. During the afternoon Basil Hiley, collaborator of the late David Bohm, and I were speaking of pre-space. That hypothetical set of algebraic relationships which some physicists hope would be the ground of a new physics; one out of which would emerge matter, space and a dynamical sense of time. Gormley joined in the conversation, expressing his own views on space. Later he produced a massive work called Quantum Cloud, which is mounted by the river Thames. The piece is constructed out of metal rods that, by being welded in relation to each other create, the illusion of a person in space—or possibly a cloud in the form of a person. Here a dialogue about the way art and science were each seeking a fundamental ground led to the production of a new work of art and, in this sense, a new way of relating to the world.

Anish Kapoor’s work is contemporary of Gormley. Both live in London and both deal with the transcendent and unnamable but in quite different ways. Kapoor’s work is informed by a number of traditions. He has read the works of Gaston Bachelard on the poetics of space and the psychoanalysis of fire. He is aware of the Hindu traditions, such as Holi in which people throw pure pigment over each other. All this is reflected in his art. Kapoor’s sculpture has been described as ‘beautiful,’ a term that has largely gone out of fashion in the artwork. Put another way, it is an attempt to express the sublime within the work itself, while Gormley’s work could perhaps be said to point to the sublime within.

Many of Kapoor’s pieces involve the expression of the void, a hollow in the work that has been over-painted with so many layers of pure pigment that it sucks in light. Standing before this void one loses all sense of depth or dimension. In the face of such a work one may even begin to question one’s only ontology, or state of existence. Kapoor has used the term ‘endarkenment’ for those works in which the initial impression is not so much aesthetic but deeply physical, felt in the solar plexus. Other works treat the via positiva—pieces that are radiant white or made of stainless steel polished to such a high degree that form and surface dissolve into endless reflections. Pairs of mirrors reflect each other. A cavity in a granite block is polished to such a point that it appears to have become animated with dancing, ghost-like reflections of the sky. If Gormley can speak of the Theravada tradition of the transmission of love, Kapoor would refer to the alchemical tradition and posit that in some of the greatest works of art an actual change has occurred to the matter of the piece. We too can change before them. The sacred in Western art is not confined to some medieval historical period of faith but is ever-present and particularly alive today.

Gormley and Kapoor also cause us to ask, ‘Where is the art?’ Does it exist in the piece itself, or in a realm beyond that piece—in some space where viewer, artist, intention ad work co-exist? In a many ways this resonates with the questions posed by quantum physics about the ultimate nature of matter, or what could be better called ‘quantum reality.’ It asks if matter could be said to have ‘intrinsic properties,’ independent of any classical observer. We can observe an electron at one instant at A and in another location, B, some milliseconds later, but it is not legitimate to infer that the electron possessed a path, or that it traveled from A to B. Quantum reality is not of this nature, all we can say is that the theory allows us to correlate the results of different measurements and that the old idea of an objective reality has been replaced by one that is participatory.

A related question, that of the relationship of the corporeal artist to the world, matter and the artwork, has been asked by Janine Antoni, a contemporary American artist. Antoni had spoken of the existential gap that exists between the artist and the world, one that in some way must be bridged. In one sense this is an actual physical gap, that separating portion of space between artist and object. But it also exists at a deeper level as the gap between inner and outer, subject and object.

Antoni’s work is about a mutuality of submission of artist to matter and matter to the artist. In one piece Antoni worked day after day, for several hours each day, grinding two stones together. The artist became the servant of the work through her exhaustion; at the same time the two rocks were forced into contact, each molding the other to produce the final form. In earlier pieces she worked by licking and gnawing. In a sense seeking to incorporate the matter of the piece into her own body—exploring the dialectic relationship between self and other.

Again there is an attempt to transcend, to move beyond limitations, to enter that space that lies both between and beyond. It could be said that there is a deeply spiritual side to this quest, this need to transcend and to move beyond the categories of matter, psyche and spirit that have so limited us over the last two centuries. It is also the desire to understand matter at a level that moves beyond the purely descriptive, rational and didactic. That is to know the essence of the world, its inner dwelling. It is to consider matter as the repository of spirit. It is to see a work of art as a possible container for the sacred.

Science and Limitation

A few decades ago the world heard of the great promise presented by Artificial Intelligence and the so-called Fifth Generation computers. Machines would be created that could duplicate most of the tasks that human beings do; we would have intelligent conversations with these machines, they would spontaneously learn about the world and respond in appropriate ways, they would display emotions, feel and one day exhibit autonomous conscious behavior.  While there have been some advances in certain areas this dream seems even more remote today than when the idea of thinking machines was proposed by Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and others at the 1956 Dartmouth conference.

It is possible that AI has proved so intractable because the same deep questions about the nature of consciousness, incorporation and what it means to be human have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks. Science has only made small inroads into these issues. It is possible that progress may require a more cooperative effort, a form of dialogue between art, philosophy and science and the ancient wisdom traditions. From one perspective science has come a great distance, from another it remains in its infancy as a way of truly knowing the world. Science still has to come to terms with the qualities of things, with what Pauli speculated was ‘the irrational in matter’ and ‘the subjective in physics.’ The composer John Tavener has spoken of ‘the one simple memory.’ This was a period when the artist, artisan and alchemist all worked together in the world of the sacred. Maybe Pauli was right when he wrote of the ‘resurrection of spirit’ in matter; maybe that time is close when science, art and the sacred will enter into a deep and sustained dialogue.