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The re-creation: a Spencer Finch installation at MASS MoCA.

Do You See What I See?

By Nadine Wasserman

Spencer Finch: What Time Is It on the Sun?

MASS MoCA, through March 31, 2008

Some time in mid-2008, the first high-energy collisions are expected to take place in the Large Hadron Collider, the latest iteration of a subatomic-particle accelerator. The aim of the experiments is to re-create conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang by smashing protons into each other that are moving at 99.9999 percent of the speed of light. Particle physicists and cosmologists are anticipating these experiments in the hope that they will confirm theories about what is currently called “dark matter”—the stuff that makes up 96 percent of the universe but cannot be observed directly. It is impossible to view the art of Spencer Finch without thinking about whether the results of these upcoming experiments will influence his work.

The introductory panel to Spencer Finch: What Time Is It on the Sun? explains that the artist “brings us closer to an understanding of the mechanics of perception and representation as well as their limits” and that he focuses on “the shifting nature of the visible world and a yearning for what might lie beyond it.” In his work, Finch couples an artist’s creativity with a scientist’s drive to collect and interpret data. By exploring light, color, time, and memory, Finch makes us aware that human knowledge is limited and that our powers of observation are mutable. One of the pieces that successfully brings together many of Finch’s interests is Abecedary (Nabokov’s Theory of a Colored Alphabet Applied to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). In this large work, Finch uses the colors Vladimir Nabokov associated with certain letters, due to his synesthesia, to translate a portion of Werner Heisenberg’s text. Standing in front of the piece, which comprises 9,251 differently colored dots, the viewer is confronted with the essence of quantum mechanics and ultimately with the enormity of Finch’s task to replicate certain sensory experiences.

Despite the futility of the endeavor, Finch compulsively attempts to replicate what he sees or experiences. He is at his most lyrical in works such as West (Sunset in My Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36-6:06 pm). The full effect of this piece takes 31 minutes and 5 seconds as it replicates exactly the light of the setting sun as he measured it against a wall of his motel room. In order to reproduce the exact light levels, Finch uses nine television monitors stacked three-by-three that each emit a different level of light using stills from The Searchers, which was filmed in Monument Valley. As the stills fade one into the other the light, they emit mimics the twilight as experienced by Finch at the time and date in the title of the piece.

While many of Finch’s works involve direct observation, some are attempts to replicate what he sees from memory. Trying to Remember the Color of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat is 100 pastel drawings of ovals in different shades of pink. For Darkness (Artist’s Studio, December 2003), Finch used pastels to re-create the different shades of black he saw when he turned off the lights in his studio over the course of one month. And 102 Colors From My Dreams is a type of diary of what he saw in his sleep.

Finch is compulsive, but he is not without a sense of humor. When he traveled to Rouen to study the cathedral that inspired Claude Monet to paint 30 canvases of its facade, he found it closed for renovations and obscured by scaffolding. Rather than totally abandoning his plans, Finch took the opportunity to observe the way the furnishings in his hotel roomed changed color at various times of the day. His triptych of watercolors called Interior of Room 4, Hôtel de la Cathédrale, Rouen, May 18-22, 1996, Morning Effect, Noon Effect, Evening Effect, reproduces the swatches of color he observed. There are other works in which he uses observation to humorous effect. For Forty-eight Views of Loch Ness, Finch spent two days taking photographs of the lake in Scotland, never once capturing the famous monster. In The Milky Way he uses Tang to draw the galaxy as it appears on the first of each month at midnight. And Poke in the Eye (Right Eye, Outside Edge, Light Pressure) is exactly what you’d see if you do the same.

Finch’s work is a stimulating mix of art, science, poetry, and theory, and the exhibition does a good job of mixing small individual works with large installations. The only drawback to the space in this instance is that the subtleties of light and color often were lost due to ambient light and the limitations of museum lighting. This is ironic indeed. But in a way, it contributes further to the artist’s point that we can never truly believe what we see.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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