Thursday, 19 August 2010

It's Only a Matter of Time...

There is a bed at the end of the line. Two pillows side by side, the top sheet turned down. Inviting you to slip between cool sepia sheets. All you have to do, is take the Y bus to CERN, and there it is. A bed. Ready for you. Nakedly present. That is if you notice it at all. The billboard next to it warns in Gothic Germanic script – Es ist nur eine frage der zeit. It is only a question of time.

‘Is it art? Says Josef. ‘I don’t know what art is anymore.’ He puts his head in his hands, in mock despair.

Josef is a mural artist from Texas. He is painting the side of the building which houses the mighty ATLAS detector at CERN. The paints he is using are appropriately made by a company called Lascaux - recalling those earliest marks of humankind.

He has had a day when the art/science question has turned him inside out. I have them too. Just when you think someone understands what you are saying and doing, it all goes upside-down again. It’s been suggested to him that he does a chalk drawing on the ground after he has finished the mural, and that would be a great piece of art, showing the inner workings below ground. He has been shown a sample of what is wanted. Art it aint. Communication it is. It is such a steep hard mountain climb to explain this, so he tells them he doesn’t have the skills. Leaves it diplomatically at that.

What Josef is doing, is taking time on. The artistic tradition and history. That’s what matters. His painting is all about engaging with the history of the mural as the means of depicting and commemorating great and significant events. Think Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Diego Rivera’s Mexican revolutions. Those caves in Lascaux. What is more significant in science at CERN than the collisions at a project which has been over 50 years in the making? Where once there were green fields under the Jura mountains, there is now a whole town, with its bank, post office and travel agency and with hundreds of scattered buildings in a fractal pattern. And all the way along the 27km underground ring, there are mighty detectors, such as ATLAS and CMS, LHcB and ALICE, which can see the invisible. So no wonder Josef wants to mark this moment. And no wonder it is art, because it engages with the tradition of what has gone before and makes science and technology fit for artistic purpose.

‘It’s a Felix Gonsalez–Torres’, says Josef, finally getting off his bike. We both sigh with some kind of relief and look at it, long and hard. Right here at the bus stop under the mountains. In this fractal pattern mock-town. ‘This is art.’ And so the bed turns out to be. So ironic that it is here at CERN, where no-one, but Josef and I, give it a passing glance. So ironic also because of the words on the poster – it is only a question of time. Only last week the Russian press proclaimed that when the LHC is at full speed, it will be the first time machine on earth and we will be able to travel back to the past. How artful is that?

And now suddenly there are beds everywhere. I notice them springing up on billboards on the Route de Servette as I travel back on the tram into Geneva. That same bed. With pillows suggestively blunted as if two heads have laid on them recently. That same deftly turned down sheet, cooly inviting you in. And all the while, these beds mingle with adverts for insurance and investment banking and the ubiquitous watches - those badges of time. The beds are a playful interjection of art between the balance sheets of everyday commercial life in Switzerland. The Fondation Beyeler in Basel, is showing a major Felix Gonsalez-.Torres retrospective, and has playfully let this dead artist loose throughout Switzerland without any fanfare.

The other day Josef pointed out to me another form of time travel – and artistic intervention. This time between the sheets of science. The way art can take you places you never imagined. He tells me about the octagonal Gunbaid Kabud tower in Iran is covered in beautiful tiles in incredibly complex geometric patterns. The tower dates from 1197AD. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that their mathematics was finally understood by the great British physicist Roger Penrose. An example of science imitating art perhaps? Or messages from the past?

Just as I start noticing these new beds, roadside, as the trams snake through the city, the bed at CERN just as suddenly disappears. Only leaving the warning words beside it. It’s only a question of time. I am waiting for those words to vanish too…but maybe they never will

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