History is written on walls. Scuffs and cracks tell stories; information about aesthetics, civic planning, and trends in design can be read in surface materials. “On Exactitude in Science,” a mostly smart and intimate show organized by guest curator Dina Deitsch at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, mines walls (and sidewalks, and stoops) for some of their secrets.
The show’s title comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s parable in which cartographers create a map of an empire so detailed that it matches the empire’s own scale. It’s a simulacrum, unwieldy and useless for charting one’s way.
The artists here often deploy full-scale evocations of place. They also deal specifically with surface: a brick wall’s roughness, the cracks in a sidewalk. Emphasizing the tactile over the visual, they distance themselves from our frequent immersion in digital worlds. Their works anchor us with touch, even as they conjure history, loss, and conflict.
Jennifer Bornstein once worked as a security guard at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. The beloved space closed in 2004; Dia subsequently opened across the street. In 2014, Bornstein went back and took wax rubbings of her former workplace before the building was renovated. These elegiac records of cracks on the floor, the freight elevator door, and more recall gravestone rubbings. They feel ghostly — the last traces of something now lost.
Tangible and legible as they are, they nonetheless roam boldly into abstraction, with their textures and grids, with found gestures used intentionally, such as the downward trajectory of “Floor Crack.” Unlike floors and walls, a ladder is not flat, but Bornstein’s “Ladder” nonetheless records its subject in two dimensions, with legs splayed along the sides of a rung that reads “Danger.” Tilting and radiating, this ladder becomes something else, part grid, part star.
Details most of us ignore take on mythic proportions in this show. Elizabeth McAlpine explored the sidewalk outside her London studio using film and photography for “A journey around a noise machine; A journey around a noise machine: Score.”
She rubbed film over the sidewalk cracks, and the result screens from an old projector in a vertical rush of smudges and blobs. She built a big needle and traced it along those cracks, playing a grumbly sound, and capturing the process on video.
Like Bornstein, McAlpine took rubbings of the sidewalks, from which she made double-sided photograms. These she folded at the cracks, and turned into sculptures.
All compel us to experience McAlpine’s sidewalk more deeply than we probably have ones we know ourselves. One of the sculptures, “Pieta,” droops against the wall in an exaggerated echo of Christ’s body in Mary’s lap. The textures are wondrous: darkly fluid along the sides, star-studded along the top. Who knew a sidewalk offered such beauty?
Traces of the city take on a political charge in Jumana Manna’s works about an East Jerusalem neighborhood where Palestinians live. Her “Unlicensed Porch” series re-creates stoops. There’s been no urban planning in that area of Jerusalem in decades, but builders still stick to a British master plan devised nearly a century ago requiring construction in limestone, called Jerusalem Stone, to maintain the city’s ancient aesthetic.
Manna’s stoops look slapdash but sturdy. The limestone is often a veneer over plywood; stoops sit on lumps of concrete. There’s irony, despair, fortitude, and a sense of history’s weight in them.
Her video “Blessed Blessed Oblivion,” takes off on Kenneth Anger’s 1963 film “Scorpio Rising,” a homoerotic look at a biker gang. Manna follows East Jerusalem men as they get shaved and soap up their muscle cars. The talk isn’t political — it’s all girls and cars. Manna’s camera delights in sheen — the surface of skin, of chrome, the surface quality of machismo posturing — the video veers away from the show’s focus on the architecture, and feels out of place.
Performance artist Asli Cavusoglu will lead an architectural tour on March 5, “Words Dash Against the Façade,” based on an ancient means of fortune-telling — reading buildings. Audio is available through earphones in front of the SMFA — a melodic invitation to the performance. There will be some history, some fantasy, some music. If walls can’t talk, they still have much to teach us.
Installing art at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts always entails contending with Le Corbusier’s forms and dictates: The concrete columns and walls, the sleek Modernist rigor. Architects Silvia Benedito and C. Alexander Häusler have come up with a delightful installation, “Pneuma(tic) Bodies,” that gently pokes fun at all that rigor.
Three oversize balloons, egg-shaped and bigger than any person, made of thin, translucent panels of plastic taped together and powered by fans, tremble and waft in the gallery. Extraordinarily delicate, sensitive to the atmosphere, they respond to drafts set off by passersby and by doors opening and closing. One balloon nosed toward me like a curious dog, then wandered a couple of feet away.
Black paintings intended to depict a person’s reach hang on the walls, and counterbalance the airy balloons. But the balloons work perfectly without them, playfully jibing at Le Corbusier’s utter seriousness, and bringing some levity to the place.
On Exactitude in Science
At School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway, through March 6. 617-369-3718, www.smfa.edu/exactitude-science
Silvia Benedito and C. Alexander Häusler: Pneuma(tic) Bodies
At Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Feb. 21. 617-495-5666, www.ccva.fas.harvard.edu