By Joe Ferguson
Academics and intellectuals like to speak of domains--areas of mental activity and study that are disparate, and thus require specialized attention and training. Students undergo indoctrination by following rigorously constructed and prescribed syllabi and attending classes in different buildings on opposite ends of the campus. Upon graduation students find employment in specific industries with some working in isolated departments in offices or cubicles. At the end of the day people go to the gym, to the grocery store, and then home to park the car in the garage, put the food in the kitchen, and eat dinner in the dining room.
Compartmentalizing life is a psychological defense that separates experience from thoughtful action. This reality was brought home for me when I visited the Ai Weiwei @Large exhibit on Alcatraz Island, a site-specific installation sponsored by the FOR-SITE Foundation. Wei Wei responds to the island’s legacy as a 19th-century military fortress, a federal penitentiary from 1933 until 1963, a site of Native American activism, and now a popular national parks.
Set near the end of the exhibit in the facility’s hospital wing, Illumination is located in an austere psychiatric observation cell used to isolate mentally-ill inmates. I was not confronted by the silence of a decommissioned maximum-security penitentiary, but instead by the recordings Ai Weiwei installed of buddhist monastery chanting and a traditional Hopi Native American tribe song--sounds of peace and freedom in a place not intended to provide either to its forced inhabitants.
Ai Weiwei raised questions about freedom of expression and human rights, particularly to those wrongfully convicted. My science background affected me in a different way.
My formal training is in the health sciences, and I’ve spent many years in health-care settings or institutions dedicated to providing health-care instruction. Knowing that I was in a mental-care facility and understanding the use of music in psychological therapy, I was immediately struck by what I was hearing. In my mind swirled images from textbooks and peer-reviewed journals detailing the powerful affects of melody and rhythm on psychological behavior. I did not experience peace and freedom in the cold, tiled space I was standing--just control and isolation.
If art critic Robert Hughes was correct, “art should make us feel more clearly and more intelligently, providing coherent sensations we would otherwise not have had.” To create that experience, we must contextualize what we see and/or hear. With my background, I thought of behavioral motivation and patient compliance. A physicist or acoustic engineer might have been impressed by the echoing effects of the smooth, reflective surfaces as the sounds of the recordings combined with the reactions of other visitors and bounced around till they became almost unintelligible mumbles. An artist like Jacqueline Gordon might have seen a Deleuzian rhizome--a "image of thought" that apprehends multiplicities.
When we view art is it possible for those of us trained in the sciences to ever not have a SciArt experience? I don’t know if the art and science domains are truly separate, or if that idea is simply a convenient way to organize curricula and chart career paths. I chose science as an academic and professional pursuit because I enjoyed acquiring new, and for me, exciting information about the world I live in. I’ve never seen art as unintellectual or irrational, just another expression of the human mind.
If you go:
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz
September 27, 2014 – April 26, 2015 at Alcatraz Island
Our October issue is live! Read here.