Reactor

Fleeting Glimpses of Scientific Knowledge, Turned Into Art

by Kyle Chayka on October 18, 2012

Alejandro Guijjarro, from the series “Momentum” (All images courtesy the artist)

Words and writing, even those you’re seeing here, are an imperfect vehicle for communication. There’s always a disconnect between the writer and their audience; meaning is translated through a medium that’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret. Spanish photographer Alejandro Guijjaro‘s Momentum series proves that point with poignant photos of partially erased chalkboards.

Alejandro Guijjarro, from the series “Momentum” (All images courtesy the artist)

Guijjarro’s compositions are monolithic, depicting wide, dark plains of blackboard that become canvases for strokes of chalk and sweeps of eraser. These aren’t just any chalkboards either — for the project, Guijjarro traveled around the world, visiting institutions that study quantum physics, that abstruse branch of science that dissects the inner workings of the universe. Quantum physics is mechanics on an atomic and subatomic level — the kind of experiments that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN carries out on a daily basis.

The information conveyed on the boards is obscure, of course. There are fragments of formulas and long strings of equations, plus graphs blurred into incoherence. The missing player in the photographs is the lecturer who must have written the symbols and drawn the diagrams, illustrating a lecture that is now lost to history, unlike the record of the chalkboard itself. That, I think, is where the poignancy comes in. Guijjarro’s photographs document knowledge only fleetingly. They don’t explain anything; like ruins, the images simply leave viewers to marvel at what they might mean.

Alejandro Guijjarro, from the series “Momentum” (All images courtesy the artist)

There’s also the poetry of a blank slate. In one of Guijjarro’s most striking photographs, an entire chalkboard has been erased (seen above). A cross between Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” and a Jackson Pollock, the photograph has energy in its blankness.

Joseph Beuys, “Untitled (Sun Slate)” (1974) (Image courtesy moma.org)

The project also reminds me of some other famous art chalkboards, particularly those by German performance art pioneer and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. After his teaching career disappeared in a storm of public controversy, Beuys embarked on a series of public lectures that have become some of his most well known actions. The lectures resulted in a series of left-over blackboards that, like Guijjarro’s photos, retain the traces of something communicated to an audience.

Beuys’s chalkboards, like “Untitled (Sun State)” (1974), are drawings as well as documents. Their diagrams and concepts are more abstract than Guijjarro’s science expositions, but they also have more energy and verve. Beuys is no scientist, but his theories and philosophies are equally grand.

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  • akacocolopez

    Theaster Gates

  • http://www.facebook.com/evertson William Evertson

    Lovely images and rich with potential interpretations. The erased blackboard especially conflated with thoughts I recently read in Scientific American concerning the momentum of anti-science sentiment in the US. Nice comparison to Beuy’s blackboards btw, although I’d add that equations concerning quantum mechanics might also be compared to his performance of “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Hey William, That is a nice comparison with “How to Explain Pictures,” especially given the obtuseness of the information that’s being communicated. I think the erased chalkboard is my favorite visually, but it is a little scary as a metaphor.

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