scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Art Review

Artists experiment with science in the ‘Holocene’

Rashid Johnson’s “Electric Universe” of black soap, wax, vinyl, wood, book, brass, incense, shea butter, and space rocks.

I am, of course, very grateful for science, not to mention deeply indebted to it, and I do find it mind-bendingly interesting at times. My only problem with it is that it spends so much time telling us things that are either bleedingly obvious or simply unhelpful.

If, for instance, I hear one more explanation of common social behavior that resorts to evolutionary theory, I will fall asleep. And how helpful really is it to know about deep time and deep space? I still have to pick up the kids at 2:30 p.m.

It’s not just me. Scientists themselves wrestle internally with the cool, disinterested stance that underpins their calling. Unless there’s money to be made, new ways to prolong life, or an improved capacity for war-mongering, people seem to feel free to ignore their most pressing discoveries. It must be infuriating. The science of climate change is but one example.

As a consequence, scientists often have art envy. They envy art’s capacity to communicate directly to the emotions. Art can sidestep the laborious requirements of rational deductions from demonstrable evidence and go straight to the gut, telling us things we need to know.


But many artists, too, have science envy. They grow weary of the vague, stormy, and ineffectual realm of the emotions. Emotions — especially fear — can impose terrible limits on the human capacity for speculation and discovery.

Many artists admire this capacity so much that they make art openly in the spirit of science. Sensing common ground between science and art, they work from the premise that something went fundamentally wrong when the two fields were rent asunder.

All this is admirable, unimpeachable. But in pursuing such a course, artists risk falling between stools. They also risk marginalization in both fields: Art lovers cannot abide their snubbing of pleasure and beauty, while scientists look over their shoulder and find their efforts laughably undisciplined or indulgent.


The List Visual Arts Center — an art gallery embedded in one of the world’s most famous centers of scientific inquiry, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — is a great, and in some ways a provocative, place to show this kind of art. It’s doing so in a show called “In the Holocene,” organized by List curator Joao Ribas.

The exhibition features work by 46 artists. Among them are such famous names as Joseph Beuys, Berenice Abbott, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt, Man Ray, On Kawara, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Joan Jonas, as well as somewhat more obscure figures like Leonor Antunes, Roger Caillois, Helen Mirra, and Georges Vantongerloo.

Among the works are films that hew close to the disinterested documentary tradition; sculptures that seek aesthetic and even spiritual values in mathematics; and paintings and audio pieces that remind us of the many profound truths uncovered by science.

The artist On Kawara, for instance, reminds us of the head-splitting reality of deep time with an audio piece called “One Million Years.” It consists of alternating human voices reciting the names of years in succession: “961,709 BC,” “961,708 BC,” et cetera. It’s a sound, a mantra, that you hear in the background throughout the show, and it has the great merit of helping put things in perspective.

Other works shared affinities with Kawara. A beautiful 16mm film by Ben Rivers, installed in a makeshift hut in the foyer outside the List gallery, offered for me the most poignant summary of the situation — and in a sense, of the whole show.


The film is filled with quiet, contemplative footage of nature (along with evocative sounds), and of an elderly Scottish man who has made a life for himself in the woods. He has invented simple technologies in a problem-solving spirit, and he ponders the mysteries of life and the counterintuitive complexities of modern science.

“How come it’s like this? How did it get like this?” he asks as he reflects on evolution. “It has taken so very, very long.” And a moment later: “Some things happen very, very slowly. And yet other times, things happen very fast. Like for instance, man’s brain. It evolved very quick. And it’ s just trouble. It’s trouble.”

Daria Martin’s 16mm film “Sensorium Tests.”

How true. (The show’s title, by the way, is the term for our current geological epoch.)

Overall, “In the Holocene” falls slightly between stools itself, I’m afraid. The subject — artists who explore art as a speculative science — is simply too large. After all, what artist hasn’t felt that her way of comprehending the world is not somehow akin to a speculative science, delving into the nature of things?

“As an account of the world,” asks the gallery brochure, “can art expand the potential of scientific exploration?” The answer is yes, of course. But not much in this show really advances the question. If the very existence of art, the immemorial human need for it, testifies (as I think it does) to the inadequacy of science as an explanatory model, it would be interesting to think about what specific needs art answers. Instead, a great deal of the work here simply falls into the category of science envy.


We see a film, by Germaine Kruip, called “Aesthetics as a Way of Survival,” that shows footage of a bowerbird arranging objects in front of its nest, or bower. It’s wonderful to watch. But by demonstrating that a sense of beauty plays a part in evolution, Kruip tells us nothing we didn’t already know.

The decision to include two children’s toys by Friedrich Froebel designed in the early 19th century for the purposes of learning mathematics was similarly delightful. But again, the notion that mathematics has an inherent beauty is fairly banal.

It’s also hard to square with the exhibition’s stated aim (again, from the brochure) of shifting “the understanding of aesthetics away from conventional ideas of pleasure, beauty, or taste.”

Pointing out the aesthetic dimension in mathematics only reinforces the conventional tendency to associate aesthetics with order, proportion, balance, and reason. What about the potential for beauty in disorder, dissonance, and chaos? (“In a work of art,” wrote Novalis, “chaos must shimmer through the veil of order.”)

Art, like religion, has always been deeply involved in questions that go beyond beauty. A big part of its purpose, surely, is to show up the limits of human perception and of the systems of knowledge that are built on those perceptions.


A portrait by Francis Bacon, for instance, can reveal to us the insufficiency of scientific accounts of human psychology (“chemical imbalances”? How feeble!). An installation by Olafur Eliasson can remind us of the veils of cultural bias that obscure and distort our view of nature, whether we approach it from a scientific, a romantic, or any other point of view. And a Greek sculpture of the minotaur can remind us that certain things will never be explained away or disinfected by the sunlight of reason.

This show has plenty of moments that veer excitingly into irrationality. A book by Alfred Jarry, who invented the pseudo-philosophy of “pataphysics,” is displayed, as are screen prints reproducing Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings. John Baldessari sings the 35 sentences that make up LeWitt’s 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” and Man Ray explores his interest in the irrational aspect of mathematics in his 1973 sculpture “Non-Euclidian Object.”

There’s a lot of juicy stuff to reflect on. But far from advancing scientific inquiry, many of the artists here seem to be merely toying with it. In doing so they expose themselves to ridicule from more honest brokers. Their speculative systems devolve into woolliness and wish fulfilment.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at