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16.2. – 7.3.2011, Espace315, Nouveau Festival du Centre Pompidou
a project by Christoph Keller
The aether is an elusive concept, both a classical element and a substance. In philosophy it represents the absence of absence, that is, the impossibility to conceive the void. In science it represents an element and a medium, incapable of change and subtler than light. The aether is also the fifth element, which had no qualities and per definition could never be exactly conceived nor physically proven.
However ancient its roots, the aether is, notwithstanding, the medium of modernity. Its dismissal as a scientific concept – in the aftermath of Einstein's relativity theory – marked the moment when the natural sciences finally broke free from the pervasive occultism, which still besieged 19th century research. This territory left vacant by science was soon reoccupied by art. Thus the fall of aether corresponds to the rise of the modern scientific condition and its rational world-view, the obverse of which is the sublimatory function thereafter assigned to cultural expression. That is, the death of aether is the birth of modern art, together with all the irrational powers it unleashes.
By electing aether as its central concept, the present exhibition proposes to tackle the ambivalent relation of art and science, with art both adhering to scientific models as well as offering an experience that transcends its sheer materiality.
Aether, one could say, is the unknown.
But how can the unconceivable be conceived?
The answer is multifold: From Plato's fifth element to Descartes one can find a multitude of philosophical-theological and scientific theories of aether. Several natural philosophers, like Giordano Bruno, Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton, whose works are fundamental for today's science, based their theories on the assumption that aether was a given.
Parallel to the rise of the enlightenment an abundance of esoteric theories of aethers appear. In pre-revolutionary Paris the healer Franz Anton Mesmer's posited an ethereal "fluidum" which supposedly served as the medium for his psycho-physical "Animal Magnetism". Further, many scientific circles and literary salons had strong affinites with remote and alchemist aether-conceptions and speculations. The French artist and passionate 19th century astronomer, Étienne Léopold Trouvelot made stunning interpretative drawings of what powerful telescopes later revealed from outer space, before photography was developed enough to do the job.
Likewise, the romantic writers Edgar Allen Poe and Friedrich Hölderlin as well as the late Immanuel Kant were aetherists who wrote lengthy poems and treatises about it.
Then of course there is the concept of the "luminiferous ether", a concrete subtle matter, whose existence was heavily disputed throughout the 19th century yet defended by prominent scientists like James Clerk Maxwell, Henri Poincaré and Nicola Tesla until finally disproved by the experimentum crucis of Michelson and Morley in 1887.
Yet, however often banished and disproved, the aether kept reappearing and reemerging, as a concept of continuity or contingency, which binds together the microcosmic and the universal. Be it in Wilhelm Reich's Orgone physics, new age esotherism or - as some claim – even in today's dark-matter or unified field theory - albeit their careful avoidance of the term aether.
Last not least there is also the early anesthetic substance and cheap drug aether, consumed by members of the avant-garde to enhance perception and to escape reality, whose usage was popular when the battle for the aether was still at its height. Some notable artistic experiments which allude to altered states of consciousness, were done by Henri Michaux, Gisèle Freund and Brassaï, inasmuch as the experimental photograms and abstractions of Étienne-Jules Marey.
These explorations lead us, quasi-chronologically, to the contemporary works of Evariste Richer, Claude Leveque, Thomas Ruff, Ugo Rondinone and Wolfgang Tillmans. Or in a more loose note to a vast experimental field, consisting of contemporary art videos and films, which relate to the notion of the Aether, such as the works of John Smith, Mariana Castillo Deball, Joachim Koester, Adolf Wölfli/ Daniel Baumann, David Maljkovic, Cyprien Gaillard.
The centre Pompidou is pleased to invite you to join this journey through an exhibition as a mise-en-scène, whose program thus articulates itself around the question of the Aether in a contemporary discourse, that is: where do we stand now in the beginning of the 21st century, having bypassed the modern condition yet with the fundamental questions of science, reality, transcendence and art still left open.
Christoph Keller, 2011
Aether/ Quintessence - Interview by Jean Marie Gallais, Christoph Keller
first published in CodeCouleur 2010/9 (translated from French)
JMG: What is the Aether? Why did you choose this theme for your exhibition and your invitations to other artists?
CK: The proposition of the aether is thought of as a metaphor for the unknown. Where are we and where are we speaking from? Without doubt, one of the challenges of art today is to try to answer these questions. The aether is the void, the unnamable that is around us. I use the Greek orthography, because the notion of the aether is ancient and has evolved through history. For Platon it is a fifth element, adding to the four known: earth, water, air and fire. Aristotle speaks about an element which ignites all the other elements. This fifth elementary would later appear in the word "quintessence". In the 20th century, two different conceptions of the aether are confronting each other: One sees the aether as a vital energy and the other as an abstraction of the science of physics. For both the aether is tied to the unknown. That's what interests me.
JMG: Scientists are sometimes uneasy when one employs this term, because it has been scientifically proven that such a substance does not exist.
CK: The physicists have a different idea of the aether: A conception that, was valuable in it's time, an important "tool" in the history of science. In the field of art the notion of the aether engages with the unknown in a poetic way. Bringing together those two universes together is interesting to me: when the art speaks about science, it is always with ambiguity and polysemy.
JMG: In this project you also talk about "altered states of consciousness", what is that about?
CK: The aether induces the idea of augmented perception. With the Greek it had a divine connotation, linked to the sky: One enters in communication with it in an altered state. The science of the 20th century has analyzed these states (trance, hypnosis, oceanic self experience, levitation, etc.) to try to find explanation. Today the aether seems at the same time fare away and interior, like one of the bases of our mind. This notion connects two opposite poles of reality.
JMG: Is your education that might explain this affinity for the sciences and the reality?
CK: My studies in mathematics and physics surely contributed to that, but my experience as a visitor and fan of art count for this even more: I don't like to be "manipulated", but rather feel invited to a voyage by or through a work of art. The relation between artist and viewer should be a mutual experience. When art takes the path of an experiment, it values one of it's highest qualities. Proposing an experience, it brings the viewer to a different, an unknown mental state. That's what guides me in this project.
Artists in the exhibition are:
Berenice Abbott, Daniel Baumann, Hannes Beckmann, Wallace Berman, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Louise Bourgeois, Brassaï, Jean-Louis Brau, Érik Bullot, Paul Bush, Mariana Castillo Deball, Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner, Guillaume Désanges, Marcel Duchamp, Ed Emshwiller, Louise et Bill Etra, Emeric Feher, Robert Fludd, Lucio Fontana, Gisèle Freund, Cyprien Gaillard, Johan Grimonprez, Georges Guilpin, Brion Gysin, Anneliese Hager, Christoph Keller, Willy Kessels, Joachim Koester, Svetlana et Igor Kopystiansky, Thierry Kuntzel, Nick Laessing, Claude Lévêque, Len Lye, David Maljkovic, Étienne-Jules Marey, Henri Michaux, László Moholy-Nagy, Laurent Montaron, Man Ray, René-Jacques, Evariste Richer, Ugo Rondinone, Ulrike Rosenbach, Thomas Ruff, Armando Salas Portugal, Semiconductor, Karl Sims, John Smith, Willem van Swanenburg, Wolfgang Tillmans, Fred Tomaselli, Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Tunga, Raoul Ubac, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Adolf Wölfli.