“At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. (…) Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
Albert Einstein, 1931
Science and the arts might seem irreconcilable, but this was not the case at a time when knowledge was more limited. This season’s two main exhibitions foreground scientific research as an artistic approach and subject. More specifically, they look at physical or abstract scientific models representing natural phenomena. Marina Gadonneix and Patrick Coutu, each in their own way, challenge the models they encounter. And their research suggests that, in science as in art, objectivity is unattainable. The similarities between the two disciplines are numerous: research, experiments, studies, devices… Einstein would add imagination to this list. And what if instinct was one of the force fields that control the universe?
In her body of work titled Phénomènes [Phenomena], Marina Gadonneix documents the devices used by laboratories to model potentially catastrophic natural events. These reconstructions depict nature under controlled conditions, and become the standards against which future natural events are compared. For example, the Saffir-Simpson scale, used to measure hurricane intensity, is based entirely on wind speed. But some believe it should include a sixth category to reflect the increasing magnitude of recent storms. Photography, which grew out of scientific advances in chemistry, has long been used as evidence of reality, well beyond the subjectivity of illustration. By documenting and decontextualizing the simulation of a phenomenon, Gadonneix makes its referent elusive and uncertain. The process of scientific modeling—of reducing ungraspable phenomena to a more comprehensible scale—is therefore subverted. It would appear that these paradigms are condemned to obsolescence, anyway, as evidenced by reproductions in 19th century science books, and the Martian scenery of science-fiction films.
In The Attraction of the Landscape, Patrick Coutu looks at mathematical diagrams that depict natural phenomena: abstract, disembodied models that apply to physical realities. He is particularly interested in the forms these diagrams take, and what they might suggest. For example, Lorenz’s attractor, founded on the study of atmospheric movements, resembles the wings of a butterfly. Coutu intervenes in the initial algorithm to generate new forms, which end up having almost nothing in common with the natural phenomenon to which they refer. These works become like fictional models of potential realities, especially since the materials with which they are made are at odds with the formula in question. For example, bronze does not grow, nor does glass flow. Coutu’s work, whether two- or three-dimensional, stems from extensive material research and scientific understanding, and a mastery of technique. Their scale unfolds in relation to the body in such a way that mathematical abstraction is embodied, but still elusive.
Does nature follow rules that scientists manage to decode, or do scientists impose their own rules onto nature? Either way, attempts to undermine the natural order of things—for example, by extracting elements that have been buried for tens of millions of years and dumping synthetics in their place—has created the catastrophic conditions we know today. Does the solution lie, as our collective imagination and science often suggest, in unchartered territory? What is certainly striking in these two bodies of work is that the human figure is nowhere to be found.
Exhibitions texts and wall labels
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View of the exhibition The Attration of the Landscape by Patrick Coutu. At the forefront: Récifs (2015), Musée d’art de Joliette, 2019. Photo : Romain Guilbault