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Friday, July 23, 2010

When science meets art, it gets confusing


Special to The Japan Times

In 1959, British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered an influential lecture titled "The Two Cultures," in which he claimed the divide between the sciences and the humanities was to the detriment of finding solutions to world problems. The Second Law of Thermodynamics was to science what Shakespeare was to the humanities, and each field was ignorant of the other's fundamental achievements.

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"Bees" Project by Susana Soares. COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, KYOTO

Ideally, we would like another Leonardo da Vinci, someone who could bridge that chasm with ease, but art and science do not really have all that much to say to one another in general; instead, they often misunderstand or trivialize each other.

"Trouble in Paradise / Medi(t)ation of Survival," the present offering from the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto is mired in this confusion.

The impetuses for the exhibition are manifold and concern the 130th exhibition of the Kyoto City University of Arts and the realization of the museum's midterm goal as an Independent Administrative Institution National Museum of Art, established 2001, which requires it to work toward improvements for Japanese citizens in addition to cooperating with other museums, universities and research institutions. The show is billed as "transcending" the traditional framework of a museum of art, realizing "challenging" programs and "exploring" the art of tomorrow. Rather, there is very little art to see, and the scientific content is overestimated.

Take, for example, "Dewey's Forest," an experimental project to create a garden in zero gravity. The work has multiple aims, such as re-examining cultural products created on earth and showing how gravity influences other laws of nature. It also attempts to realize such over-reaching concepts as creating respect for "traditional human activity" and raising fundamental questions regarding the true meaning of nature. The problem is, the work does none of these.

What the project representatives Shiro Matsui, Yukihiro Morimoto and Akihiko Inoue do realize is essentially a ring of silver balloon forms containing water and fertilizer, from which a few plants have sprouted during a two month stint in space. It is not much to look at, and is not even impressive when, in projected DVD footage, we see Matsui in zero gravity jumping through this garden as if through a hula hoop, clipping off a hard-earned leaf in all the fun.

Instead of being a project concerned about the survival of the human species in space — with, for example, edible plants or ideas for the production of oxygen — the work appears more geared toward creating a relaxing environment of greenery.

Most of the 12 projects are about vague concepts of experiential learning with a strong emphasis on "play." In "THR—33 (Tea House for Robots)" by roofoftwo and PLY Architecture, we find several mid-20th-century American kitchen appliances, attached to which are wheels and cutesy eyes. The designers propose that when our appliances become smart, we will change the way we live our lives. This may be so, but at least one of the appliances came off its track and could not right itself, so those days are clearly yet to come. Applied science takes over in the devices that are concealed inside a wall. When you smile into a sensor, it determines the degree of your facial expression and the wall modifies its shape to let you look in.

Other works, such as "The Blind Climber / Linus's Walk" by Tomoaki Ishihara and Kodai Nakahara, point toward playground activity, even though children are asked to refrain from participating. The installation is a polyhedral climbing block, which visitors are invited to scale while constantly noting the changing relationship between their body orientation and that of the floor. A conventional climbing wall does exactly the same, however, as do the kind of structures found in children's playgrounds. There are similarites to the bizarre architectures of the recently deceased artists Arakawa Shusaku and partner Madeline Gins, too, yet the distinctions go unmentioned.

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Art exploration: "Aqua Cafe: @KCUA Cafe" by Akihito Inoue. COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, KYOTO

Science and art engage obliquely in Koichi Mori's "Light / Sound / Brain," an experiment in exploring emotional response by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (optical brain imaging) to monitor a subject's change in bloodflow after being exposed to changes in color and sound in the environment. The idea essentially harks back to the shared interest of art and science that began with 19th-century color theory, though this project is counterintuitive as art.

Of the few art offerings, Katsushige Nakahashi and Akihiko Inoue's "Where the Water Flows," in which volunteers will stick together 25,000 photographs, is yet to take shape, and the proposed "Aqua Cafe" for drinking water sounds a little flavorless.

In a final reference-room exhibit, complete with photocopier and bookshelves, we find a volume titled "Why is this art?" But we could alternatively ask, "why science?" when, for the most part, what is on view is a diluted, popular kind. A bold attempt perhaps, and the curators realize enough when they note that the projects are "interim reports" and "ongoing studies," but the fissure between art and science looms as large as ever.

"Trouble in Paradise / Medi(t)ation of Survival" at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Aug. 22; admission ¥850; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m, closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English

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