The unfashionable genius of William De Morgan

Visiting Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery for New Scientist, 28 May 2018

William De Morgan was something of a liability. He once used a fireplace as a makeshift kiln and set fire to his rented London home. And as a businessman he was a disaster. The prices he charged for his tiles and ceramics hardly even paid for the materials, never mind his time.

At the turn of the 20th century, when serious financial problems loomed, only a man of De Morgan’s impractical stripe would resort to writing fiction. But the tactic paid off. No one remembers them these days, but the autobiographical Joseph Vance (1903) and subsequent novels were well regarded at the time, and hugely popular.

Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery wants to tell the story of this polymathic artist but (like De Morgan himself, one suspects) it keeps disappearing down intellectual rabbit holes. De Morgan’s father was the freethinking mathematician Augustus De Morgan, whose student Francis Guthrie came up with the four-colour hypothesis (whereby designing a map, so that countries with a common boundary are differently shaded, requires only four colours). His whimsical tiled fire surround for his friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might have inspired that author’s nonsense verses. Other ceramic projects included the tiles on a dozen P&O liners. Ada Lovelace was a family friend.

On and on like this, until it dawns on you that none of this is an accident, the show’s endless rabbit holes are its point, and fashioning a man like William de Morgan – a mathematically inventive painter of pots, for heaven’s sake – would today be an impossibility.

With all our talk of STEAM and “Sci Art”, the sciences and the humanities are more isolated and defended against each other (“siloed” is the current term of art) than they ever were in De Morgan’s day. And the world itself, as a consequence, is a little less capable of sustaining wonder.

Fusion and freedom
Like Maurits Escher, half a century later, the ceramicist De Morgan drew inspiration from natural forms, and rendered them with a rigor learned from studying classical Arabic design. This fusion of the animate and the geometrical was best expressed on plates and bowls, the best of them made, not in a fireplace, but in the rather more sensible setting of Sand’s End Pottery in Fulham.

De Morgan’s skills as a draftsman were extraordinary. He could draw, free-hand, any pattern around a central line that would have perfect mirror symmetry. Becoming expert in lustreware, he painted his designs directly onto the ceramic surface of his pots and plates, manipulating his original sketches to fit every curve of an object.

It fits De Morgan’s somewhat disorganised reputation that lustreware should have become unfashionable by the end of the century, just as he perfected it.

Even now, it takes a few minutes’ wandering around the Guildhall Gallery for the visitor’s eye to accommodate itself to these objects: so very Victorian, so very hand-done and apparently quotidian. Make the time. This show is a gem, and De Morgan’s achievement is extraordinary. Among these tiles and pots and plates are some of the most natural and apparently effortless fusions of artistic proportion and mathematical rigor ever committed to any medium.

M C Escher: “Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Leeuwarden-Fryslan, one of the less populated parts of the Netherlands, has been designated this year’s European Capital of Culture. It’s a hub of social and technological and cultural innovation and yet hardly anyone has heard of the place. It makes batteries that the makers claim run circles around Tesla’s current technology, there are advanced plans for the region to go fossil free by 2025, it has one of the highest (and happiest) immigrant populations in Europe, and yet all we can see from the minibus, from horizon to horizon, is cows.

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition.

Escher, who died in 1972, is famous for using mathematical ideas in his art, drawing on concepts from symmetry and hyperbolic geometry to create complex tessellated images. And the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden has gathered more than 80 original prints for me to explore, along with drawings, photographs and memorabilia, so there is no possibility of my getting bored.

Nor is the current exhibition, Escher’s Journey, the usual, chilly celebration of the man’s puzzle-making ability and mathematical sixth sense. Escher was a pleasant, passionate man with a taste for travel, and this show reveals how his personal experiences shaped his art.

Escher’s childhood was by his own account a happy one. His parents took a good deal of interest in his education without ever restricting his intellectual freedom. This was as well, since he was useless at school. Towards the end of his studies, he and his parents traveled through France to Italy, and in Florence he wrote to a friend: “I wallow in it, but so greedily that I fear that my stomach will not be able to withstand it.”

The cultural feast afforded by the city was the least of it. The Leeuwarden native was equally staggered by the surrounding hills – the sheer, three-dimensional fact of them; the rocky coasts and craggy defiles; the huddled mountain villages with squares, towers and houses with sloping roofs. Escher’s love of the Italian landscape consumed him and, much to his mother’s dismay, he was soon permanently settled in the country.

For visitors familiar to the point of satiety and beyond with Escher’s endlessly reproduced and commodified architectural puzzles and animal tessellations, the sketches he made in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s are the highlight of this show. Escher’s favored medium was the engraving. It’s a time-consuming art, and one that affords the artist time to think and to tinker. Inevitably, Escher began merging his sketches into new, realistic wholes. Soon he was trying out unusual perspectives and image compilations. In Still Life with Mirror (1934), he crossed the threshold, creating a reflected world that proves on close inspection to be physically and mathematically impossible.

The usual charge against Escher as an artist – that he was too caught up in the toils of his own visual imagination to express much humanity – is hard to rebuff. There’s a gap here it’s not so easy to bridge: between Escher the approachable and warm-hearted family man and Escher the grumpy Parnassian (he once sent Mick Jagger away with a flea in his ear for asking him for an album cover).

The second world war had a lot to answer for, of course, not least because it drove Escher out of his beloved Italian hills and back, via Switzerland, to the flat old, dull old Netherlands. “Italy, the landscape, the people, they speak to me.” he explained in 1968. “Switzerland doesn’t and Holland even less so.”

Without the landscape to inform his art, other influences came to dominate. Among the places he had visited as war gathered was the Alhambra in Granada. The complex geometric patterns covering its every surface, and their timeless, endless repetition, fascinated him. For days on end he copied the Arab motifs in the palace. Back in the Netherlands, their influence, and Escher’s growing fascination with the mathematics of tessellation, would draw him away from landscapes toward an art consisting entirely of “visualised thoughts”.

By the time his images were based on periodic tilings (meaning that you can slide a pattern in a certain direction and have it exactly overlay the original), his commentaries suggest that Escher had come to embrace his own, somewhat sterile reputation. “I played a game,” he recalled, “indulged in imaginary thoughts, with no other intention than to explore the possibilities of representation. In my work I give a report on these discoveries.”

In the end Escher’s designs became so fiendishly complex, his output dropped almost to zero, and much of his time was taken up lecturing and corresponding about his unique way of working. He corresponded with mathematicians, though he never considered himself one. He knew Roger Penrose. He lived to see the first fractal shapes evolve out of the mathematical studies of Koch and Mandelbrot, though it wasn’t until after his death that Benoît Mandelbrot coined the word “fractal” and popularised the concept.

Eventually, I am missed. At any rate, someone thinks to open the gallery door. I don’t know how long I was in there, locked in close proximity to my childhood hero. (Yes, as a child I did those jigsaw puzzles; yes, as a student I had those posters on my wall) I can’t have been left inside Escher’s Journey for more than a few minutes. But I exited a wreck.

The Fries Museum has lit Escher’s works using some very subtle and precise spot projection; this and the trompe-l’œil monochrome paintwork on the walls of the gallery form a modestly Escherine puzzle all by themselves. Purely from the perspective of exhibition design, this charming, illuminating, and comprehensive show is well worth a visit.

You wouldn’t want to live there, though.

Fakery at the Science Gallery, Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

Ceiling Cat is watching you make art

Visiting 😹 LMAO at London’s Open Data Institute for New Scientist, 2 February 2018

On Friday 12 January 2018, curators Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes left work at London’s Open Data Institute confident that, come Monday morning, there would be at least a few packets of crisps in the office.

Artist Ellie Harrison‘s Vending Machine (2009; pictured below) sits in the ODI’s kitchen, one of the more venerable exhibits to have been acquired over the institute’s five-year programme celebrating data as culture. It has been hacked to dispense a packet of salty snacks whenever the BBC’s RSS feed carries a news item containing financial misfortune.

No one could have guessed that, come 7 am on Monday morning, Carillion, the UK government’s giant services contractor, would have gone into liquidation. There were so many packets in the hopper, no one could open the door, say staff.

Such apparently silly anecdotes are the stuff of this year’s show, the fifth in the ODI’s annual exhibition series “Data as Culture”. This year, humour and absurdity are being harnessed to ask big questions about internet culture, privacy and artificial intelligence.

Looking at the world through algorithmic lenses may bring occasional insight, but what really matters here are the pratfalls as, time and again, our machines misconstrue a world they cannot possibly comprehend.

In 2017, artist Pip Thornton fed famous poems to Google’s online advertising service, Google AdWords, and printed the monetised results on till receipts. The framed results value the word “cloud” (as in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth) highly, at £4.73, presumably because Google’s algorithm was dreaming of internet servers. It had no time at all for Wilfred Owen: “Froth-corrupted” (Dulce et Decorum Est) earned exactly £0.00.

You can, of course, reverse this game and ask what happens to people when they over-interpret machine-generated data, seeing patterns that aren’t there.

This is what Lee Montgomery has done with Stupidity Tax (2017). In an effort to understand his father’s mild but unaccountably secretive gambling habit, Montgomery has used a variety of data analysis techniques to attempt to predict the UK National Lottery. The sting in this particular tale is the installation’s associated website, which implies (mischievously, I hope) that the whole tongue-in-cheek effort has driven the artist ever so slightly mad.

Watching over the whole exhibition – literally because it’s peeking through a hole in a ceiling tile – is Franco and Eva Mattes’s Ceiling Cat, a taxidermied realisation of the internet meme, and a comment on the nature of surveillance beliefs (pictured top). “It’s cute and scary at the same time,” the artists say, “like the internet.”

Co-curator Freeman is a data artist herself. If you visited last year’s New Scientist Live you may well have seen her naked mole-rat surveillance project. The 7.5 million data points acquired by the project are now keeping network analysts busy at Queen Mary University of London. “We want to know if mole-rats make good encryption objects,” says Freeman. Their nest behaviours might generate true random numbers, handy for data security. “But the mole-rat queens are far too predictable… Crisp?”

Through a mouthful of salt and vinegar, I ask Freeman where her playfulness comes from. And as I suspected, there’s intellectual steel beneath: “Data is being constantly visualised so we can comprehend it,” she says, “and those visualisations are often done in a very short space of time, for a particular purpose, in a particular context, for a particular audience. Then they acquire this afterlife. All of a sudden, they’re the lenses we’re looking through. If you start thinking about data as something rigid and objective and bearing the weight of truth, then you’ve stopped discerning what is right and what is wrong.”

Freeman wants us to analyse data, not abandon it, and her exhibition is an act of tough love. “When we fetishise data, we end up with what’s happening in social media,” she says. “So many people drowning in metadata, pointing to pointers, and never acquiring any knowledge that’s deep and valuable. There should be some words to express that glut, that need to roll back a little bit. Here, have another crisp.”

Just experience it

Visiting mumok, Vienna’s museum of contemporary art, for New Scientist, 23 December 2017

Visitors to Vienna’s spectacular Natural History Museum may discover some taxidermied exhibits smothered in black gloop. This is artist Mark Dion’s The Tar Museum, and it is part of Natural Histories: Traces of the Political, an art exhibition about nature and politics, most of which is in the nearby museum of contemporary art, mumok.

Those venturing across the Maria-Theresien-Platz will not be sorry. Or not at first. Early on, there is charming, sometimes beautiful documentation of work in the 1970s by the Romanian Sigma group. Inspired by research in bionics and cybernetics, mathematician Lucian Codreanu and his fellows applied scientific method to their observations of the rivers and woods of the Timisoara hunting forest. Doru Tulcan’s abstract sculpture Structuring the Cube makes something surprisingly organic, suggestive of the workings of a crayfish’s eye, from a tiny vocabulary of rods and triangles. Meanwhile, Stefan Bertalan’s Structure of the Elderflower earns its place by virtue of its exquisite draughtsmanship. This being the 1970s, the Sigma group also enjoyed a lot of more-or-less undressed mucking about, and became a focus of dissent against Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

The other artists, groups and movements in this show rarely achieved as direct an engagement with the natural world.

Many pieces here index human activity through changes in the environment. The models and photographs of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s Debrisphere record how landscapes have been altered for military purposes. More often, though, the art focuses on how nature encroaches on human settlement. In Arena, Anri Sala records the decayed state of Tirana zoo, with feral dogs occupying a space meant for people, while the zoo’s “wild” animals languish in cages.

Nature’s eradication of human traces can’t come quickly enough in some cases. In 2003, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka visited Auschwitz and filmed deer grazing by the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. A wall board observes that, in 1942 (when Bambi was released), “while cinemagoers were shedding tears about the emotional story of a little deer, the ‘final solution’ and the murder of millions of people was already being planned”. This is silly: would the world be any better if Bambi’s bereavement left us unmoved?

It gets worse. Exquisite allegorical frescoes by 18th-century artist Johann Wenzel Bergl are “recognizable as strategies of absolutist picture propaganda”. And back with Dion: one installation capturing “the lifestyle and self-image of the prototypical ethnographer of colonial times”, isn’t even that, according to the curators, but alludes “to our own imagination of that ethnographer”.

I left feeling rather as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have felt if, instead of freely stepping through the mirror, she had been shoved through it from behind by a gang of goonish anthropologists.

Natural Histories is a portal into a world where history, politics, horror, guilt and the natural world are sewn together. It is well worth seeing, but I wish the curators had shut up.

Technology vs observation

Losing my rag at the Royal Academy for New Scientist, 13 December 2017

When the schools of London’s Royal Academy of Arts were opened in 1769, life drawing — the business of sketching either live models or the plaster casts of worthy sculptures — was an essential component of an artist’s training.

As I wandered around From Life, an exhibition devoted to the history as well as the future of the practice, I overheard a curator explaining that, now life drawing is no longer obligatory in Royal Academy art courses, a new generation of artists are approaching the practice in a “more expressive” way. The show’s press release claims even more: that life drawing is evolving “as technology opens up new ways of creating and visualising artwork”.

There was little of this in evidence when I visited, however: two-and-a-half of the three virtual-reality experiences on offer had broken down. Things break down when the press turns up – you might even say it’s a rule. Still, given their ubiquity, I’m beginning to wonder whether gallery-based VR malfunctions are not a kind of mischievous artwork in their own right. In place of a virtual sketch, a message in an over-friendly font asks: “Have you checked your internet connection?” At least Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s wild mobiles of the 1960s had the decency to catch fire.

How can new technologies like Google’s Tilt Brush and HTC’s Vive VR platform bring artists into a more intimate relation to their subject — more intimate than might be achieved by, say, standing a metre away from a naked stranger armed only with a bit of charcoal?

Jonathan Yeo has had a stab at the problem, using Tilt Brush’s 3D painting tech to fashion a sculptural self-portrait. The outsize bronze 3D print of his effort — an assemblage of short, wide, hesitant virtual “brushstrokes” — has a curiously dated feel and wouldn’t look out of place in a group retrospective of 20th-century British sculpture. As an advert for a technology that prides itself on its expressivity (videos of the platform at work usually resemble explosions in a paint factory), it’s a curiously laborious piece.

On a nearby wall hang Gillian Wearing’s photographic self-portraits, manipulated using the sort of age-progression technology employed by forensic artists. In this way, Wearing has captured her appearance 10, 20, 30 years into her future. It’s an undeniably moving display, and undeniably off the point: life drawing is about capturing the present moment, which leaves Wearing’s contribution resembling those terms and conditions that appear at the bottom of TV advertisements – Other Moments Are Available.

Yinka Shonibare (best known for his ship-in-a-bottle sculpture on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square) comments on the show, rather than contributes to it, with a 3D VR conceptualisation of a painting by the 18th-century Scots artist and dealer Gavin Hamilton.

Hamilton once sold a Roman sculpture to a collector. Shonibare has scanned a plaster cast of this Townley Venus, then placed it on a plinth in a largely imaginary VR garden (you catch only a glimpse of this space in Hamilton’s painting). He has covered its plaster-white surface with batik designs (referring to common sub-Saharan African fabric, though it was originally a Dutch export) and as a coup de grâce, he has stuck a globe on Venus’s torso in place of her head. The point is that we can never copy something without to some degree appropriating it. Whether you like what he’s done will depend on whether you like art that makes a primarily intellectual point.

In a gallery environment increasingly besotted by (and bested by) technology, such acts of cultural orienteering may be necessary; they’re certainly inevitable. The new work gracing From Life at least attempts to address the theme of the show, and its several failures are honest and interesting.

Still, I keep coming back to the historical half of the exhibition — to the casts, the drawings, the portraits of struggling young artists from 1769 to now. Life drawing is not obligatory for artists? It should be obligatory for everyone. If we never learn to observe honestly, what the devil will we ever have to be expressive about?

Art, Science and the Truth

Here’s something for the evening of Thursday 27 April 7-10 pm.

Designer and trouble-maker Leila Johnston has invited me to join Katharine Vega (chroma.space) and Dr Sean Power (Trinity College, Dublin) at the Site Gallery in Sheffield to ask whether art, science and belief are “branches of the same tree” as Albert Einstein once said, and what happens when some of those branches begin to crack?

Full details here.

 

Hot photography

Previewing an exhibition of photographs by Richard Mosse for New Scientist, 11 February 2017

Irish photographer Richard Mosse has come up with a novel way to inspire compassion for refugees. He presents them as drones might see them – as detailed heat maps, often shorn of expression, skin tone, and even clues to age and sex. Mosse’s subjects, captured in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, don’t look back at us: the infrared camera renders their eyes as uniform black spaces.

Mosse has made a career out of repurposing photographic kit meant for military use. The images here show his subjects as seen, mostly at night, by a super-telephoto device designed for border and battlefield surveillance. Able to zoom in from 6 kilometres away, the camera anonymises them, making them strangely faceless even while their sweat, breath and sometimes blood circulation patterns are visible.

The results are almost closer to the nightmarish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch than the work of a documentary photographer. Making sense of them requires imagination and empathy: after all, this is how a smart weapon might see us.

Mosse came across his heat-mapping camera via a friend who worked on the BBC series Planet Earth. Legally classified as an advanced weapons system, the device is unwieldy and – with no user interface or handbook – difficult to use. But, working with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Mosse has managed to use it to make a 52-minute video. Incoming will wrap itself around visitors to the Curve Gallery at the Barbican arts centre in London from 15 February until 23 April.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the man who shaped biology and art

Biomorphic portrait of D'Arcy Thompson

Darren McFarlane, Scarus, Pomacanthus, 2012, oil on canvas. (University of Dundee Museum Services © the artist)

Even as geneticists like Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky were revealing the genetic mechanisms that constrain how living things evolve, Thompson was revealing the constraints and opportunities afforded to living things by physics and chemistry. Crudely put, genetics explains why dogs, say, look like other dogs. Thompson did something different: he glimpsed why dogs look the way they do.

For New Scientist, 1 February 2017

An enormous shape-shifting artwork – run by bacteria

anywhen_tate_its_nice_that_4

Visitors to Philippe Parreno’s vast installation at London’s Tate Modern, Anywhen, get a carpet to lie on while the vast Turbine Hall shimmies and pulses around them. And they’re going to need it: Parreno’s grey machine is triumphally futuristic, an interior so smart it has outgrown any need for occupants. Anywhen is thunderous, sulphurous, awful in its full archaic sense.
for New Scientist, 19 October 2016