CATHERINE WAGNER AND HAROLD EDGERTON
by Andy Brumer
(CSU Long Beach, University Art Museum, Long Beach) When the English Romantic poet John Keats penned the legendary line, "Truth is beauty, beauty truth. . ." it seems not everyone agreed or listened. Indeed, in our society of compartmentalized specialists, "truth" has been assigned to the domain of scientists, while the "creation of beauty," popularized and cliched as it may be, remains still the responsibility of artists. This all flies in the face of the fact that artists continue to, and historically always have sought to bridge the gap between quantifiable fact and human subjective responses to them.
Certainly photography, in the way that it captures, however illusionistically, the outside world, has represented a useful and flexible tool by which artists have investigated the link between art and science. The works of contemporary Catherine Wagner and the late Dr. Harold Edgerton explicitly demonstrate this in individual exhibitions that are shown here together.
Edgerton is rightfully considered one of modern photography's true pioneers. He perfected the use of the photo flash, as well as developing a technique in which an action is photographed at a rate of many flashes per second with an open shutter. Edgerton created exposures using strobe flashes exposed to a continuously moving film, thus documenting movement that the human eye cannot itself perceive. With the capacity for capturing the minutae of objects in motion, it is easy to understand how Edgerton's work found broad applications in industry, the military, medicine and commerce. But "The Science of Seeing: New Works from the Collections", a selection of 19 images presented to the University by the Edgerton estate, presents a summary of the aesthetic fallout that arose out of these technical innovations.
Included among this group are such now familiar images as the bullet pass- ing through an apple at 2,800 feet per second and the single-burst image of a coronet produced by a single drop of milk. Edgerton's work joins the "logically" apparent opposites of motion and stasis just as it symbolically expresses the dynamism of physics in photographs that are at once eerie and elegant.
If Edgerton used the camera as a tool to poetically freeze motion in a cerebral celebration of the physical world, Wagner employs photography as a strategy to undermine and question both science's authority and autonomy. "Art and Science: Investigating Matter" includes 28 images, many of which depict the objects or evidence of scientific experiments in their somewhat self-incriminating, chilling and inert materiality.
For example, 86 Degree Freezers presents a picture of stacked and frozen drawers whose contents obviously represent an anonymous scientist's experiments. Genetically Engineered Tomatoes presents several tomatoes, each bearing a tag scribbled with unreadable but obviously coded and meaningful data. Indeed, many of the objects in Wagner's photographs operate as cryptic, even alchemical cauldrons depicting scientifically employed apparatus in the form of containers of one sort or another: drawers, bottles, plant pots, even the "internal" sense of a tomato covered with skin.
In so doing these provocative and stark works infuse the scientific process of investigation with an almost primitive suggestion of narrative, as if to say "inside experiments, the human story is being advanced." In a gallant effort, Wagner tries to enlist our collective imaginations to take greater responsibility in familiarizing ourselves with the content of contemporary science. In so doing we might both avoid becoming passive and alienated victims of white-smocked experts, and become better able to hold scientists accountable for their work, which can and does affect us all.
Harold Edgerton, "Bullet Card",
Harold Edgerton, "Football Kick",
Harold Edgerton, "Antique Gun Firing", gelatin silver print.