We think of imagination as limitless. It is not. It can come up against its own limits very quickly, and when it does, it simply sputters out, like the end of a celluloid reel.
When that happens, we sometimes invoke an old aesthetic category, the “sublime.” The sublime occurs when the mind conceives of an idea that the imagination can present no example of. Infinity is an obvious example. Absolutes of size (big or small) also qualify.
And then there are those concepts — deep time, deep space, nuclear annihilation, and so on — that flirt with the sublime: We may be able to imagine them, but they are very hard indeed to get our heads around, and we feel our imaginative capacities breaking apart as we try.
This is a roundabout way into a review of a brilliant new show by the Italian artist Rosa Barba at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. But it seems necessary because the show itself — which is terrifically satisfying to eye, ear, mind, and heart — is about the distance between what can be known and what can be imagined.
Its title, “The Color Out of Space,” is shared by the most recent work in it. Unlike the other pieces, all of which use the obsolescent medium of celluloid film, “The Color Out of Space” uses high-definition video to project images of outer space onto a wall.
What results visually, however, is in fact less crisp than the earlier whirring and flickering celluloid projections, because it is filtered through a series of colored glass panels. Accompanying audio, which splices together the voices of scientists, artists, and writers all reflecting on the universe, helps us understand why: Astronomers use methods equivalent to these glass color filters to bring out the different colors of planets, which would otherwise all look white and blurry to the human eye.
That’s just one instance of the compromised, distorted, and partial methods we depend on to observe the universe. Since our observations require light, and since light traverses space at a limited speed, through phenomena that bend or distort it in innumerable and unknowable ways, what we are able to observe of the universe is not only, by the time we see it, in the far-distant past, but garbled in manifold other ways, too.
“And so,” as the lucid voice of one scientist explains, “we see the universe in a very funny way.” Or as another offers — subtly surpassing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — when you look at the universe, “you’re looking at a shadow of something that doesn’t exist.”
Barba was born in Agrigento, in Sicily, in 1972. She has featured prominently in the past two Venice Biennales. Her work is not only about the sublime, but also about obsolescence. In the same way that other artists might use driftwood or mangled car parts, she uses an obsolescent technology — celluloid film — to make moving “sculptures” that draw attention to the poetry inherent in outmoded ways of seeing.
One work, for instance, consists of a swaying, vibrating film projector hanging by long loops of celluloid. It projects a rectangle of flickering light onto a wall that is adjacent to a large tinted-glass window.
Another equally mesmerizing work consists of two projectors facing each other on the floor. Both project bright monochrome rectangles onto a small screen that stands between them. Where the colors overlap, new colors are created. It’s a work that obviously relates to the colored-glass filters in “The Color Out of Space,” but it is also a thing of wonder and beauty in itself.
Barba likes her works to operate in these two ways: as things in themselves, and as poetry, metaphors, incitements to thought. Nearby works do still more wondrous things with motors, celluloid, and light.
If outer space triggers one manifestation of the sublime, another is triggered by the disconnect between our contemporary urban lifestyles — paved streets, plumbing, shopping centers, tidy gardens, cafes — and the unseen immensity of the industries that make these lifestyles possible: oil drilling, mining, power stations, undersea cables and networks of radio towers, electrical grids, chemical manufacturing, container shipping, all on a mind-shattering scale.
Barba deals with the late capitalist-industrial sublime in two major works here. One, “Time as Perspective,” shows pumpjacks nodding away in the west Texas desert. This (mostly) bird’s-eye footage of a technology that seems close to redundant is accompanied by a sort of postindustrial white-noise soundtrack, and interspersed with snippets of text that coax the mind into considering space as a function of time.
A second, more ambitious film, “Somnium,” shows wintry footage of industrial harbors and snow-covered shores on the North Sea, immediately invoking a chilling version of our present-day industrial sublime. Voice-over fragments connect this present with a futuristic, J. G. Ballard-like scenario of environmental pollution on a distant planet, and a literary past — the film was inspired by a 17th-century novel by Johannes Kepler, often regarded as the first work of science fiction.
Time, space, obsolescence, and beekeeping are all combined in this strange cocktail, but the film itself feels surprisingly simple and clear. It’s very arresting to look at.
MIT, of course, possesses its own kind of sublime: the marriage of scientific enquiry, technological innovation, and corporate and military might, often outstripping the ability to imagine consequences.
The institute’s dazzling record of innovation is, of course, continually being overtaken by obsolescence, which is part of what makes it so stimulating to see Barba’s provocative work there.
The Color Out
At List Visual Arts Center through Jan. 3. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the first name of the author of the novel “Somnium.”