Weird Science

Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary - September 7 to October 20, 2001

exhibition text by curator Christine Sowiak

I love fools' experiments. I am always making them. 

            Charles Darwin 

Doubt everything and believe everything: these are two equally convenient strategies. With either we dispense with the need for reflection. 

            Henri Poincaré

In a small alcove, hiding around the corner of the entrance into Weird Science, a peculiar and somewhat precarious looking assemblage stands perched on a pedestal. Maybe we notice it, maybe we don't. But it notices us. As we pass, a sensor alerts the sculpture and it sparks to life, glowing and vibrating at a hum just on the edge of our nerves. Shock, surprise, amusement ... we scurry into the gallery space with Bad Vibe droning on in the background, reminding us that we made that happen, we triggered its response. 

For every action, there's usually some kind of reaction. What is harder to determine is whether or not that reaction is equal and opposite as we have been led to believe it should be. Why this expectation? The axiom - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - has been adopted from its origins in the laws of physics to become a metaphor within popular culture. It approximates an explanation for human nature, justifying acts of vengeance and retaliation, granting a kind of fatalism to every defensive action or inexplicable act. It's an elaborate way of saying "tit for tat", and science has given us that language. Weird Science takes us to that textual and visual field of play between science and mainstream culture, dallying along the edges where the two collide and overlap in aesthetics and alchemy, weird science and Marcel Duchamp, and all possible systems of belief. 

As much as this conversation is about science, it is anything but logical, sequential or straightforward. Chat lines are established across the gallery floor, between drawings that might be diagrams of molecular structure and digital images that appear to illuminate genetic sequencing, between elegant assemblages of found objects and strangely attractive constructions that are part junk pile, part Heath Kit. The atmosphere crackles with the poignant and whimsical play of ideas and images around science, even as we become aware that science is just one of the debates, and that each individual work in the exhibition is host to its own complex set of propositions. 

It is a strategy that Westbury has deployed in previous exhibitions; presenting a multiplicity of ideas and conclusions involved with a central premise, then luring the viewer with subtle allusions and half-known truths to unravel the connections and questions embedded within. His 1991 exhibition, Read Between the Lines examined language and texts to consider how we read and the cultural forces that inform how we perceive information. Savage Fields of 1992 borrowed its title from sub-atomic physics and applied it to colonialism, to systems of cartography for the division and accumulation of territories. Weird Science presents a collection of work produced over the last ten years, continuing from previous investigations to gather influences and departure points from diverse sources from Scientific American to the Fortean Times. To use the word "continue", however, suggests that Westbury's art follows a clear and pre-determined trajectory of progress. His aim seems more non-linear, achieving above all a sense of balance, consideration and connectiveness much more in keeping his own worldview and beliefs. 

In approaching these works, more specifically in writing about them, there is a certain frustration. The struggle to reveal Westbury's references and the layers of meaning within and between works seems to just feebly pick at the complexity of the whole - the most thorough of autopsies has never located a soul. Constant motion (is the secret to keeping several balls in the air at once) is derived from a diagram found in a science magazine, the title and treatment add additional potential meanings to the singular purpose of an atomic diagram. Similarly States of Matter charts the ever more invisible construction of a brick wall, progressing from the wall through molecular to atomic and sub-atomic structures. Is an invented diagram of an atom more or less real than the brick wall, considering that the brick is fake, fabricated plastic facsimile? The subject matter of the elegant drawing Vial is an object of science, a laboratory tool, but is also an homage to Marcel Duchamp, his ampoule of Parisian air. Crystal Palace #1, #2 & #3 refers to the glass hall built for Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851, a showcase of the accomplishments of a nation at the height of its colonial, industrial and technological powers. The domes are magnificently crafted, but alongside beakers and vials, contain relatively absurd, non-functional, non-scientific items and detrius. The contents are science-like, but point as easily to the non-rational, the magical potions of alchemy and the significance of colours and certain numbers within a Taoist cosmology. Radiometric Field mesmerizes with motion, with the dissonant rhythms of 81 different speeds of 81 different radiometers. Popular knick-knacks descended from "real" science, radiometers never actually proved the theory for which they were invented (the construction of light as particles, not waves) but became useful elsewhere. 

The connections matter. The diagrams, experiments and quotations from the world of science are genuine. Westbury studies the material he borrows, is genuinely drawn to the beauty of these diagrams, engaged with the lives and work of scientists such as Francis Crookes and mathematicians such as Henri Poincaré, Just as valid as the work of scientists, and perhaps more seductive, is knowing their sceptics'. Caught up in a war of words, scientists and sceptics (including cerealogists and ufologists) argue from different extremes of belief: "according to theory, it can't be therefore it isn't" versus "I believe it, therefore it must be." As Poincaré observed, either extreme is easy, both negate the necessity of reflection, of thought, of exchange. Both create the inflexible need to be right. 

Each generation of scientist seems intent on dismissing its predecessors. Perhaps not outright, but the forward trajectory of science dictates that theories must be advanced, proven finite, replaced. Previous generations of scientists become viewed as limited, antiquated, laughable. In a scientific age, there is no one more laughable than alchemists and their quests for magical elixirs and the Philosophers' Stone, that powder that can transform base metals into gold. Alchemists had the unfortunate timing of being pre-scientific, of working in a time before their experiments and theories could be formally classified into chemistry, physics or biology, and of couching the terms of their queries in mystical and magical language. Westbury accords alchemy an unwavering validity; alchemy and its trappings appear outright in works such as The Final Experiment, Lead, Gold, Pb > Au, Uroboros and the Prima Materia triptych, and in subtle guises within others, such as Pick Your Poison and Crystal Palace. The appeal of alchemy is belief even in the absence of proof; belief in the possibility of things, the creation of experiments not to prove a theory but to find one, and the sheer purity of seeking questions based upon nothing but observation. A spiritual dynamic arises with the suspension of both disbelief and faith - an indifference to either places the emphasis on the process, on the asking of questions in the first place and the degree of contemplation on the possible answers. Process is the heart of the matter. It's possible to consider that Westbury's art comes into being because of a process that does not distinguish between all facets of life and work and creation, but holds them in balance, places them within an aesthetic field for contemplation. 

Given the depth to which Westbury investigates his subject matter, that which fascinates him in the shared history of science and alchemy, there can be no surprise at the force of his engagement with the aesthetics of his process. As influenced by the history of art as the history of science, Westbury belongs to a lineage following from the work of Marcel Duchamp. Certainly, it was Duchamp that gave permission for every subsequent artist to use found objects, to create from them new objects by the transformative power of the artistic act, the conceptual intent of the artist. But Westbury's relationship with Duchamp goes beyond any surface affiliation. Less obvious, perhaps, is the importance of Duchamp's fascination with the science and mathematics of his time'. Prior to the first World War, the present chasm between science and mainstream culture did not exist. Burgeoning ideas of electricity, of atomic particles and of radioactivity could be held within the imagination, and conjecture, theorizing and experimenting were graspable human activities and not out of line with art, music, or literature. Then, it seems that science could find the answers to all that troubled and plagued human culture. 

One hundred years later, it is only too apparent that finding such answers is an impossible quest, and that science has created as many horrors as it has hoped to resolve. The Device for seeing the world in a grain if sand is a central work within the exhibition, not only for its inherent summary of premises and processes, but for its manifestation of the premise of Weird Science. A device can be built, theories can be developed, but in the end only difference views of the grain of sand can be seen. Science will never show the macrocosm, the infinite possibilities of a entire worlds of thought imagined in that grain. 

The core of what engages Westbury seems grounded in the clash between the constrained, rational path of the Western world since the Enlightenment - a path of ever greater developments in science, technology, politics and economics - and opposing world views, in particular his own, informed and shaped by Taoist learning. Westbury stands on the edge of systems of knowledge and information, poking them to see what they really mean and how we are to reconcile them with our individual lives. It's all about process and possibility. Of all the possible choices, what are we to believe?


1.     The periodical Fortean Times savours the anomolies rejected or discredited by science, publishing "news, reviews and research on strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents," covering crop circles to conspiracies. The magazine maintains the scepticism of Charles Fort, who doubted scientific explanations as he observed that scientists argued according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence, and that inconvenient data was suppressed, ignored, discredited or explained away. (Editorial statement from Fortean Times: The journal of Strange Phenomena, number 148 (August 2001)). 

2.     There can not be a more thorough or fascinating discussion of this relationship than Linda Dalrymple Henderson's Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and related works (Princeton University Press, 1998).

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