Weird Science

exhibition review by Sandra Vida

published in FastForward, vol. 6, #44 - October 11 to 17, 2001

Tim Westbury takes delight in bringing together things that are usually separate and distinct. Take, for instance, his thesis for his Cultural Studies degree at Trent University, which explored the parallels between the evolution of pop culture and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

In Weird Science he attempts to merge scientific history with spiritual aspirations, and, surprisingly, it works. 

Like a few other artists before him (Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry), Westbury is fascinated by science's contraptions and theories but is suspicious of its omnipotence and its sometimes deadly consequences. He is also drawn to scientific skeptics, and those who propose wacky theories about UFOs and parallel universes. He even makes reference to alchemists, who laboured in an era before science and religion split up, and who tried (if only metaphorically) to make gold out of lead. 

The artist can pinpoint the exact moment when he began to question the verity of western progress: while viewing a French journalist's photographs of the My Lai massacre that took place in the Vietnam War in 1967. That moment of shock led Westbury to take a more cynical look at the lineage of scientific discovery. 

Westbury graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1989, and his production and exhibition record since then is impressive. Weird Science brings together 10 years of Westbury's art, offering a series of bizarre assemblages and intriguing wall works that are subtly linked and interrelated. As we wander through this whimsical laboratory, Westbury draws us into his own world in a playful way, delivering his critique obliquely. 

One of the first pieces to catch the eye is a "field" of radiometers, those little glass globes with the black and white flags that spin giddily when light hits them.

Westbury's use of outmoded science in this case is intentional, giving viewers the benefit of hindsight to view machines that are obsolete, having been surpassed in the all-consuming race to make new discoveries. 

The most compelling device he has created was inspired by the poetry of William Blake - "to see the world in a grain of sand." From bits and pieces of debris scrounged from junkyards and second-hand stores, Westbury set about constructing a machine to do just that. It has a long string of lenses and tubes and spheres, and actually contains a grain of sand and a holographic image of the globe. It appears to begin working when a viewer approaches, but aside from its appeal as an object, it obviously comes no closer to explaining the universe than Blake's poem. 

A more ominous machine at the entrance to the show hums threateningly as viewers enter - its title is "Bad Vibe." Another sculpture titled "Sutra" brings together castoff stands, metal grills and a small light bulb with a glowing buddha inside. Westbury presents the juxtapositions, viewers make their own conclusions. 

We have become accustomed to thinking of the truth as something that can be explicitly stated, especially by scientists. Tim Westbury suggests that truth is a much more subtle commodity, emerging through unexpected associations that arise when contemplating a range of possibilities in the area between science and other forms of experience. 

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