The Art Machine

Artists who win Audemars Piguet’s commissions are invited to the company’s headquarters in the Swiss town of Le Brassus, and seem to fall quickly under their patron’s spell. Art history is not short of examples of this sort of arrangement going horribly wrong. But then, not every patron is a watch-maker, whose employees must couple art and science, mechanism and craft..

Skipping merrily about the Vallee de Joux for New Scientist, 30 June 2018

The genius of making a little go a long way

Visiting Illuminating India at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 10 October 2017

One can taste the boosterism in the air at London’s Science Museum as it introduces its two-gallery exhibition, Illuminating India.

There is a cafe serving excellent Indian street food. Someone next to me used the word “Commonwealth” without irony. Would there have been such a spirit without Brexit? Probably not: this is a show about the genius of another country that very much wants to project Britain’s own global aspirations. Any historian of Anglo-British relations will give a sardonic smile at this.

When you visit (and you should), try to look around the smaller, artefacts-driven gallery first.

This room tells the stories of Indian science – stories plural because there can never be one, linear account of how such dissimilar and contesting cultures struggled and more or less succeeded in understanding and exploiting a space of such extraordinary complexity.

Naturally, since India has a past to boast of, pride of place goes to its indigenous cultures. It was the Indus valley civilisation, after all, whose peoples fashioned standardised weights around 4000 years ago: items that indicate high levels of arithmetical literacy, communication and trade.

And there are reconstructions of Ayurvedic surgical instruments described in records dating back to around 500 BC. Also on show is a 1800-year-old document containing the first example of the use of zero. Wonderfully, radiocarbon dating pushed the document’s age back by 500 years just before the exhibition opened.

It is a measure of the wisdom of the curators that such an illustrious past isn’t allowed to overshadow India’s more recent achievements. For example, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s early-20th-century crescograph, designed to observe plant growth at a magnification of 10,000 times, reminds us why he is often called the father of modern Indian science.

Another winning object is Chandrasekhara Raman’s spectrometer. Raman was the first Indian to win a Nobel prize, for physics, in 1930.

And what of that other great empire far to the north? Well, there is a map of George Everest’s career-defining Great Trigonometrical Survey of India – the teamwork of 70 years distilled on a single, meticulously drawn map. And nearby are details of a recent collaboration between Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK and the Indian Space Research Organisation on the Earth-surveying NovaSAR satellite.

Some of the deeper, darker questions about Anglo-Indian relations are posed in the second, photographic half of the exhibition.

There, the anthropometric photographs of Maurice Portman make a depressingly silly impression next to the respectful, revealing and entirely unlicentious photographs Ram Singh took of the women of his own harem: powerful political players all, who shaped the country through marriage and allied treaties.

It is hard to say why the split nature of Illuminating India works as well as it does. It has something to do with the way the rooms handle political power.

India’s science, from its ancient stepwells that gathered monsoon waters to the bureaucratic and algorithmic marvel that is today’s tiffin tin-based lunch delivery system, has been driven by the complex needs of a massive population making a living.

Similarly, its doing-more-with-less style of innovation is reflected in everything from the world’s cheapest artificial leg (the Jaipur leg, made of rubber, plastic and wood) to the world’s cheapest Mars-orbiting camera.

Visitors to Illuminating India will leave thinking that technology may, after all, be making the world a better place, and that what people do is ultimately more influential than who they are.

Marine life is rubbish

“The aim of my work is to create a visually attractive image that draws the viewer in, then shocks them with what is represented,” artist Mandy Barker explains. “This contradiction between beauty and fact is intended to make people question how their shoe, computer, or ink cartridge ended up in the sea.”

A short feature for New Scientist, 22 April 2017

How to fix a shadow

fox-talbot

HE WAS a man of some accomplishments, but drawing eluded him. So while on honeymoon in Italy in 1833, William Henry Fox Talbot adopted the camera lucida, a tracing device, to help him sketch scenes. “The idea occurred to me,” he later wrote, “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.”
for New Scientist, 9 April 2016

The past is like Baltimore: there is no there there

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THE past can’t be re-experienced. It leaves only traces and artefacts, which we constantly shuffle, sort, discard and recover, in an obsessive effort to recall where we have come from.

In this New Scientist review (4 April 2015), I got to write about how we invent the past. Highlights include a crying Indian and the biggest nuclear disaster you’ve never heard of.

Supersize me

Anyone wanting a bloodless, contemporary vision of hell should visit Bermondsey, off London’s south bank, and boutique coffee shops that compete to pun on the word “espresso”, and smashed and discoloured prepubescent seventies nudes on old shop signs made modern antiques, and clothes made of 3D-printed string, and Pop-Up Shopping Events, and White Cube.

White Cube, with its high-gated, cobblestone forecourt expressly CAD-designed to accomodate the public executions of the future.

White Cube, passe and oppressive in the same breath, if you can call it a breath: one last, cripplingly painful act of agonal respiration as you wrench open the door and

image

You’re in. Andrea Gursky is a German photographer whose large-scale photographic work perfectly conveys the human toll wreaked by buildings like this one. (The show’s on until 6 July.) A small, silhouetted human form seeks (and does not find) shelter from the brazen walls of an overlit cathedral-sized faux-gold microwave oven. The stairs and atrium of some presumably pleasant, publicly funded arts venue are collaged into a grotesquely outsize (always outsize) overlit (always overlit) Piranesi dungeon. Spiderman and Batman stand slightly out of kilter before collosal, oversimple seascapes and cityscapes, overwhelmed by the scale of things, turned to clowns.

Imagine turning on an extremely expensive wall-sized television and watching cancer developing in your own lung. This is not an oppressive show, so much as an oppressed one, and your abiding impression of the artist – assuming you can put aside his considerable reputation and the seven-figure prices fetched by his canvases – is of an intellectually sanctioned Roger Dean on a truly epic downswing.

And out.

And look – no, really look at this bloody travesty of a street. The sad and important thing about Gursky is not that he himself is sad, but that he is very obviously right.