To "explore with
"If I were not a physicist, I would be a musician."
I was close to it, within striking distance, but had to come away with the regret that I could not manage to get to it. I am speaking of an event—to call it simply an exhibition would obviously not be enough—that was unfolding at nearby Pasadena during the days I spent at the San Diego Museum of Art, just two short months ago. "The Universe: A Convergence of Art, Music and Science", the event was called. The title, the sheer scale of it from what I read, and the quality from what I heard, promised great excitement, both visual and intellectual. But I was to be denied this. If I write about it despite this, then, it is because I believe it to have been one of the most meaningful events of its kind.
As many as seven different
institutions, all based in Pasadena, each with a history and a prestige of its
own, had come together to hold it: The Armory Centre for the Arts; the
California Institute of Technology(Caltech); the Huntington Library; the Norton
Simon Museum; the Pacific Asia Museum; the Southwest Chamber Music; and the
Williamson Gallery in the College of Design.
The event was staggered over a few months—one of them ended just recently, in fact—and was obviously spread over all these different locations within the area. But the focus of each segment of it was the same: the universe, that is, some aspect of it which concerns our understanding, our perception of the time and the space we live in; which touches our lives, in other words. The Armory Centre organised an exhibition on ‘Contemporary Artists and the Cosmos’ at the Williamson Gallery which was a show of photographs taken by a single artist, Russell Crotty, ‘The Universe from my Backyard’. Caltech was holding a festival of science-fiction films under the title, ‘The Future of the Universe’ at the Huntington Library. Precious old manuscripts and documents went into the making of the exhibit, ‘Star Struck: One Thousand Years of the Art and the Science of Astronomy’. ‘Creation, Constellation and the Cosmos’, presenting the vision of artists across the ages and in different cultures, was up at the Norton Simon. The Pacific Asia Museum showcased ‘Constructing the Cosmos in the Religious Arts of Asia’ and the ‘Music of the Spheres’ could be heard in the concerts of the Southwest Chamber Music. While all this was going on, at One Colorado, ‘Contemporary Science and Popular Culture’ was being presented regularly, for even the most casual shopper to take something in. In quite a unique way, the new millennium was being ushered in, welcomed.
But why choose Pasadena, the Californian city of only 140,000 souls? To this unasked question, there was a clear answer, at least as perceived by one of the principal organisers of the event. In his view, Pasadena was singularly well suited for this, for here geography and history combined in a manner that was "crucial to the development of the theory of the universe and to its exploration" The high mountains around, and the sunny, dry climate, provide a perfect location for an observatory. It is here that one of the greatest names in modern astronomy, George Hale, moved in, at the beginning of the 20th century, to build a new observatory, and install in it atop Mount Wilson the largest reflector telescope then known. Here, Hale involved himself in the cultural and scientific life of city, founding in the process the now famous Caltech. The celebrated Huntington Library and its Art Galleries, housing the largest collection of British Art anywhere in the world outside Britain, came up partly as a result of his efforts. More followed here, for Hale left a rich legacy, bridging the gulf between the sciences and the arts. Other institutions, like the Pacific Asia Museum, were founded. In this very observatory at Mt Wilson above Pasadena, Edwin Hubble developed the modern conception of the universe and the theory of its origin and expansion. So, there is much here that Pasadena could build on: history, enterprise, vision, resonances.
The event was envisaged as a multimedia, multicultural exploration of the cosmos, with exhibitions, performances, art workshops, panel discussions, films, seminars, gallery talks, music concerts. One has only to go through the book, The Universe & C, (the same title as the event), with its fine essays and many exciting visuals, to form an idea of the fare that was offered. The reach of the European mind, in the 15th and 16th centuries, could be tracked through some wonderful illustrated texts; three of the greatest minds of the 20th century that grappled with abstraction—Kandinsky, the painter, Schoenberg, the composer, and Einstein, the scientist—were presented and explored through their respective works. One could have seen the work of contemporary artists, inspired by astronomical photographs, modern scientific theories, and alternate concepts of our place in the universe; science-fiction films, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Blade Runner, led one to the ever growing, open-ended world of creative imagination. From the Asian perspective, which was brought in at the Pacific Asia Museum, there were early constructs of the cosmos in the religious arts: here were Jain cosmographs and Chinese dragon robes; one could see the Buddha descend from the heavenly regions down a staircase, and gods and demons churn the ocean in a rendering of one of the great cosmic myths of India. Seeing all these riches together must have caused, in its own fashion, a churning of hearts and minds
One of the most absorbing sections of the book I found to be the Time line chart appended at the end, under the tile "Humanity and the Universe". In 16 densely packed pages, it picked out the great milestones: from the development of the solar cult in Egypt some 2500 years BC, through Aryabhata and Copernicus and Newton, to our own times. But also scattered throughout the book were thoughtful, and poetic, utterances. Just two samples: "History can and should function as a discussion about the future that takes place in the past." And Ernst Krenek’s lines in Sestina, the opera:
"As I with measure master sound and time
Shape recedes in unmeasured chance.
The crystal of numbers releases life’s