Alistair McClymont’s Everything We Are Capable of Seeing, the first American exhibition of this British artist on view at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, features artworks that attempt to reveal the beauty in scientific processes [February 1-April 28, 2013]. Raindrops and mini-tornados are created through mechanisms not unlike those found in science museums, but McClymont’s purpose is to show beauty rather than educate. In doing so, McClymont poses a complicated question that remains unresolved by the exhibition: Is a particular kind of beauty manifested not only by scientific and natural reactions, but in presentations or, more tenuously, representations of those reactions?
The works in Everything We Are Capable of Seeing combine the appearance of scientific visuals with the white-walled presentation of an art museum. The most engaging piece, Raindrop (2012), is based on a machine made by the University of Manchester in the 1970s to study rain. McClymont has modified the design to suspend a drop of water mid-air. An attendant uses a syringe to inject water into a wind tunnel before the viewer’s eyes; the resulting droplet convulses and bobs as a flat-bottomed dome due to the wind-tunnel below before zooming off and disappearing. The single raindrop is wholly mesmerizing; everything else in the room falls away, including the clunky mechanism producing the raindrop-effect itself.
Another piece, The Limitations of Logic and Absence of Absolute Certainty (2011), complicates Raindrop by employing a similar principle yet achieving an entirely different effect. Limitations uses fans and a humidifier to produce a mini-tornado, which gives the appearance of substance yet easily collapses into vapor. Unlike Raindrop, Limitations does not expand on the experience of a museum display. Whereas the raindrop causes a tiny point to fill the viewer’s vision, the tornado of Limitations lacks the same captivating effect and remains fixed in the idea of representation.
Both Limitations and Raindrop are used to produce other artworks. The relationship between the originals and their progeny is telling of their relative success. Photographs of the bouncing raindrop become the underwhelming series A Raindrop. Located near the raindrop machine, these photographs cannot shake the sense that they are documentation rather than art. McClymont’s Tornado Drawings, 2012, are more interesting than the tornadoes that caused them. For these drawings the artist placed ink dots, either all black or a series of primary and secondary colors, on a sheet of paper and allowed the path of his mini-tornadoes to pull the pigment, creating a map of the tornadoes’ movements. The resulting marks are wonderfully sketchy and sparse, and the works that use color seem to chart the effect of a prism or rainbow.
The other works in the exhibition, however, seem merely representational and weighed down by their materiality. Two works—Oak Tree (2013), and Prime Bench (2013)—consist of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) laid out in the Fibonacci sequence and a prime number sequence, respectively. These representations are as flat as their materials, and lack the potential beauty and wonder of Raindrop and Limitations. An installation of Untitled (2012), a photograph McClymont took from a plane window, and Inflated Steel Forms (2012), stainless steel sculptures made to mimic the shape of Mylar snack packets in low pressure plane cabins, seem the result of self-indulgent curiosity rather than an exploration of scientific cause and effect.
McClymont seems to be working in the lineage of artist Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose works re-create natural effects like mists and the intense light of the sun within museum spaces and other unexpected settings, as with the four waterfalls he installed in New York Harbor as a Public Art Fund Commission (Bomb has a great interview with Eliasson). Eliasson’s works feel monumental and enact a critique of our relation to spaces both institutional and natural. McClymont’s works, rather than re-creating the sun or an eclipse, aim to represent our experience of viewing and examining these occurrences. This fascination with the process of viewing fixes his works firmly within the institution of a museum, meaning they must work with the predeterminations of that context. A few of the works on view successfully blur the beauty of art with a scientific examination of nature, but many fall short of enlivening either.