I'm intrigued by the many positive reviews of "Ouroborus: The History of the Universe," a six-screen, 3-D video installation by biochemist, philosopher, and video artist Ali Hossaini and the collaborative duo of Blake Shaw and Bruno Levy, aka SWEATSHOPPE, currently on view at the ISE Cultural Foundation. Many write-ups of the exhibition describe the installation as meditative, and excitedly relate the artists' intent to "[tell] the history of cosmic evolution - from the Big Bang to Lady Gaga - by animating over 30,000 images."
In fact, although "historical spiritual illustrations of the cosmos, from vedic yantras, buddhist mandalas, and sacred geometry," are prominently featured on three of the installation's six screens, the effect is less mindful (and certainly not meditative) than it is visually assaultive and superficial. And, though the triptypch "cosmic evolution" might incorporate over 30,000 images, it is best described as a pastiche of generally significant forms rendered insignificant in presentation. As a gallery companion remarked to me, "This isn't communicating anything; it's just a 'Clockwork Orange' brainwashing machine." It's a shame that's true, as Hossaini's accompanying artist statement is insightful and important. I include the full text of his statement below.
"Nowhere is the fragmentation of the human psyche more evident than in how we treat the environment. We know we're pillaging our habitat, but we can't make the leap from knowledge to right action. I attribute this disconnect, and many others, to the factionalizing of culture that began with modern science, industry and art.I agree completely, but Hossaini's collaboration with SWEATSHOPPE has neither shed "light on the complexities and responsibilities of being self-aware" nor integrated contradictions into new levels of experience. Their intent is laudable, but their effort lacking.
I'm not saying we should turn our backs on the Enlightenment. But neither should we take it as dogma - we need to rethink its foundation, integrating our psyche into the cosmos in a way that builds on premodern wisdoms as well as modern science. The Enlightenment freed physics, astronomy and eventually art - think 'art for art's sake' - from tradition, spawning remarkable advances along with deep alienation.
It's time to produce culture in a more holistic, organic way. For now science, art and religion - and I use 'religion' here to mean a generalized psychology - lie in private tracks, each requiring extensive knowledge for appreciation let alone practice. How can these disciplines work together more effectively?
The answer doesn't lie in the rejecting, merging or reconciling science and spirit. Instead we need to create a framework for integrating our experiences of these different realms, and this is precisely what artists can do. Art needs to step out of its self-referential confines, the safe house of galleries, museums and markets. It needs to be Saturday night and Sunday morning, be the new church, and it needs to invade pop culture. Mass appeal is critical.
Most of all art needs to rejoin itself to science. Both embody urges to explore, understand and create, and both have become specialized, mechanized and self-absorbed, given to destructive irony. Art cannot be science, but it can convey the sense of wonder that drives scientists. It can visualize the worlds of science while honoring our sense of self as beings that transcend the mundane.
Our experiences of spirit and matter cannot be reconciled, but they can be represented. And they can be represented in a way that sheds light on the complexities and responsibilities of being self-aware. Artists can rise above the dilemmas of modern life: they can comprehend the contradictions, integrating them into new levels of experience where knowledge, desire and energy meet the limits of human freedom."
Yet Hossaini's statement resonates and, as I left the ISE Cultural Foundation, I recalled Ron Fricke's tremendous film "Baraka." Hossaini and SWEATSHOPPE have inspired me to revisit Fricke's beautiful, moving tribute to transcendent oneness, and to eagerly await the long-awaited sequel, "Samsara." It's hopeful to recognize that sometimes art does step outside "its self-referential confines."