While the Large Hadron Collider was given its first test firing on the 10th, it won’t be until Spring 2009 that the real experimentation kicks in. The goal is to give us some kind of idea about what happened in those first fleeting moments when Life, the Universe and Everything came into being. Inevitably, someone somewhere will write “give us a better picture,” speaking metaphorically of course because no “picture” is probably forthcoming. The results will be processed and considered mathematically, at a level few of us will be able to follow. Scientists and science writers will be tasked with finding ways of representing the findings in a way that is meaningful to the rest of us.
If that sounds an unenviable task, it is all the more impressive then that artists throughout the centuries have endeavored to interpret and depict events occurring on such a cosmic scale. While you’re probably not going to get a chance to go on-site at the LHC facilities, you do have the opportunity to experience an absorbing imagining of origins at the The Contemporary Jewish Museum. The Aleph-Bet Sound Project is spearheaded by John Zorn, who has assembled an impressive group of collaborators to fill the Museum’s Yud Gallery with audio performance that ranges from unrecognizable rumblings to harmonic patterns, all somehow suggestive of reality knitting itself together.
While the museum was still under construction, I’d often make deliberate side treks to examine the work in progress. Grafted to the side of the old power station was this jutting black angle, an upended cube, looking more like something geologic or accidental, a blade-like promontory shaped by the wind or a toppled lintel, than a deliberate architectural feature. Now that one can venture inside, there is nothing accidental apparent in its towering interior. It is broad near the bottom, inviting with benches placed around the perimeter. Its uniform white interior gives it the feel of an open air amphitheater that just happens to have a roof. But all about you angles and diagonals zigzag upward, eventually forming a pyramid where three sides meet 65 feet above the floor. I craned my head back and counted sides several times, losing track over and over again as dizziness overtook me (try it). Windows pierce the angled sides at various places, casting parallelograms of light on the opposing walls (an amazing look at the architecture and the architect can be found over at Fog City Journal).
I was on my lunch break so I arrived in time for the 1:25 p.m. Heaven Show by Jewlia Eisenberg. It begins with odd susurations, drawn out, repeated. It’s air moving through a confined space maybe, wind in a funnel, respiratory exhalations. But unlike our own act of breathing, unconscious, automatic, there is a sense of purpose implicit in the length of each long expiration as if it must be performed exactly to some predetermined specification and at a precise tempo. The thought goes through my mind that it is bent on filling the space of the gallery and then that it reminds me of someone at work on a rubber raft (the Inflationary Period?).
There is indeed a method in mind. The website explains that the Project “acoustically explores the Kabbalistic principle that the ancient Hebrew alphabet is a spiritual tool full of hidden meaning and harmony.” Eisenberg’s piece specifically correlates with the letter “Hei” which we are told in the signage at the gallery “represents the divine breath… (t)he Source of Life breathed the world into existence with the sound of this letter.”
As the recording continues the room begins to fill up with people. Some dutifully find seats but most continue to wander around the space, one man walking along the walls and then stopping to examine the projected shapes of light on the wall, another venturing into the exit hallway just to look around. Through the windows you can see the facade of the building across the street and the top of a tree peeking in. The breaths continue to resound from the speakers on the tracks high above, now seeming more stage voice-like, before they are succeeded by horns which grate like scraping metal, then a chorus or its processed electronic equivalent. There are the twangs of metal strings and something like wind instruments which produce a squeak like air released from a balloon. Soon the distinct, individual details are buried by waves of melody. I cannot tell if one performance has ended and another has begun.
I think we’ve grown so accustomed to visual representations, the depiction of creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling or an explanation of the Big Bang in a scientific illustration, that we’ve forgotten that they are events that could never have been viewed by the naked eye. There is a kind of trust that we project upon images that is fundamentally misleading. When we understand something, we might mutter “oh, I see now.” But just as often, when we want to know more about something we haven’t experienced, we’ll ask “what’s it like?” A scientific illustrator might decide the best way to explain an atom is to draw a tiny solar system, something familiar that stands in for something almost inexplicable. For the artist, the challenge is to tell a story about being using whatever correspondences they can dream up: figurative, abstract, absurd. Artists and scientists both strive to recreate what there wasn’t eyes to see. Aleph-bet brings us what there wasn’t ears to hear. Just as the bent finger of God can symbolize the crafting of Adam, the sounds of “Hei” at the Heaven Show are the reprise of a performance that no one attended, but which built to choruses and melodies which are us; even now the vibrating of superstrings plays on.