AN AESTHETICS OF PHYSICS Talking with Matthew Ritchie about drawing and the inversion of consciousness
by Bridget Goodbody
Matthew Ritchie is an artist who thinks like a physicist. You're just as likely to get him talking about quantum mechanics as, say, Jackson Pollock, an artist with whom he is sometimes compared. The conversation is infinitely more complex when physics dominates, as Ritchie's artistic goal is to chart new territories of representation- which can be as difficult to conceptualize as outer space itself-in order to develop what could be called an aesthetics of physics.
Ritchie began his artistic investigation of the cosmos in the mid-1990s. On a gridded piece of paper, he listed all the tools he had at his disposal to understand the world among them science, sex, and solitude. This two-dimensional map quickly transformed into a creation story that charted the origin and history of the universe from the big bang to the present and soon thereafter morphed into large and often interactive, site-specific installations. One of his most recent works covers the roof and upper hallways of a federal courthouse in Oregon designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.
Physicists have long struggled, to little avail, to visually represent their theories in an accessible, transparent manner. How, for example, to represent quantum physics' concept of the space-time continuum-the idea that everything can be everywhere at any time? Or the tenets of string theory physics' latest, yet unproven, concept about the origin and evolution of the universe, which asserts that the cosmos consists of invisible loops of energy? For Ritchie, who sees the whole universe as one big experiment, art presents an equally strange and abstract space of investigation.
Bridget: I'm here to ask you about drawing, but it seems like a strange question to ask an artist whose goal is to explode traditional categories of art.
Matthew: Like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg, I'm interested in creating my own self-generated meaning system. To me, a drawing is a small version of a painting, which is a small version of an installation, which is a small version of everything else. My work is explicitly involved with the notion that all drawing, all painting, and all sculpture are about lots of things.
Well, there certainly are a lot of things happening in your work, and you've got a big story behind it, which is not so easily perceived by viewers not intimately familiar with it.
Trying to make my artistic investigation legible from a mark or a drip strikes me as irrelevant. Which is more important: the fact that we can understand a wave particle or the momentum of light or whether or not we see the world? When I make a line with a frictional edge that looks kind of like a butter, I'm trying to slow down the viewer's eye. The speedy marks, usually drawn with a marker pen, are intended to generate faster speeds of looking at things. Neither is about traditional modes of representation. For me, making art is a way to examine the limits of perception.
I find it really interesting that all architecture starts as a blueprint; in order for a building to be understood as three dimensional, it has to first be flattened into a colorless, linear framework. But where is the stuff behind the walls? We know it's there, but we can't see it! What I'm really interested in is the invisible things that hold everything together.
Whenever I walk through your installations, I'm struck by how my eye is constantly creating imaginary, invisible lines to make sense of the overall space. Do you try to create this kind of experience intentionally?
Well, I'm not trying to choreograph people's experience. My hope, rather, is that my work represents an idea of total freedom,that it's a place where viewers " recognize that they can occupy any space at any time.
Well, speaking of being in at least two places at once, you've been experimenting with parallels between physical and virtual space by using computer programs to make drawings. What's that like?
The computer is a funny drawing tool. It talks back to you. It creates statements that you could never ever come up with in a planar space because its programs exist in a coded space, which is composed of hundreds of millions of numbers. You can also use the computer to lay the tenth frame of an animation sequence over the first one, so what starts as evolutionary ends up revealing the past and present simultaneously.
You're describing a brave new world.
Our era is totally unique. It is the first time in history that an external agency, our machines, can evaluate the physical properties of reality and record them. Information is everywhere. What we're experiencing is a complete inversion of consciousness.
New York, NY