artist / participant
Josiah McElheny´s five part sculpture Island Universe (2008) is made from hand-blown glass and chrome plated metal. Two intersecting points of departure shaped it: current theories about the origin of the universe; and a group of chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, designed in 1965 by the Austrian firm of J & L Lobmeyr and purportedly inspired by popular representations of the theory of the Big Bang, confirmed by scientific evidence that same year. While it somewhat resembles a group of chandeliers, McElheny´s sculpture functions as a scientific model of a multiverse. (In place of the Sixties’ notion of the Big Bang as a single originary explosion originating in a specific moment in time, many cosmologists today accept the notion of the multiverse: an eternal expansion of universes accelerating endlessly into infinity.) For McElheny, this cosmological theory offers a model which may be extended to other realms of contemporary thought and life, not least the socio-political.
In addition to the master glass blowers who routinely work with him, McElheny collaborated with different scientists, and in particular astronomer David Weinberg, in creating a structure for Island Universe. From this collaboration came an elaborate set of precise mathematical calculations on which the final design is largely based. While the overall form of each element was inspired by Lobmeyr´s the starburst designs, cosmological data governed each sculpture´s precise dimensions, as well as the number and shape of the glass discs and spheres in the clusters that represent groups of galaxies in that universe; and the lights that stand for quasars, the most brilliant of cosmic entities. As in his previous works, the artist has meticulously controlled production, whether it be the fabrication of the metal armature which he outsourced to an industrial manufacturer, or the highly refined craftsmanship of the glass components made in his studio.
Given his long-standing interest in issues of display and in institutional framing (in the different possible ways of contextualizing a work of art), McElheny eagerly accepted the invitation to exhibit Island Universe in Madrid´s Palacio de Cristal. A glass pavilion constructed in 1887 for an exhibition dedicated to the Philippines, a Spanish colony at that time, the Palacio de Cristal was loosely modeled on both a greenhouse (since its function was to display the colony´s flora) and Joseph Paxton´s landmark Crystal Palace, designed
for the Universal Exhibition held in London in 1851. With its innovative design based on a metal structure sheathed in glass, this diaphanous building embodies a utopian modernist paradigm, its belief in scientific progress, and a rationalist teleological positivism. The framing of Island Universe by this spectacular site serves to question Modernism´s legacy based on a singular progressive linear narrative. For it throws into relief contending metaphysics: a global vision based in colonialist and capitalist hegemony; and a cosmic vision based on a non-hierarchical and a-centric structure in which no place is more privileged, and so the story of the universe might be construed as accurately from any one point as another.
Through the wealth of cultural, historical and formal associations that result from this charged juxtaposition of art and architecture, fine art and design, McElheny continues to explore what has become his primary field of interest in recent years: questioning the normative legacy of Modernism while mining certain of its diverging narratives; and probing the very function of art, its use in a world in which our relation to objects is almost exclusively that of consumers rather than of producers. In so doing he draws on his virtuosic skills as an expert master glass maker, his deep knowledge of the history and craftsmanship of glass making, as well as a wide-ranging interest in design culture, film and literature that includes such notables as Noguchi and Tarkovsky, Borges and Bioy Casares.
Accompanying the installation of his sculpture in the Palacio de Cristal is the presentation of a nineteen minute film, also called Island Universe, 2005-2008, which McElheny shot at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In addition to footage of the crystal marvels that had first inspired him to begin this ambitious project, it includes diagrams for those five among the many possible universes on which he and Weinberg had decided to focus: Small Scale Violence, Frozen Structure, Heliocentric, Directional Structure and Late Emergence. The film is edited to a soundtrack, commissioned from composer Paul Schutze, which includes an audio “portrait” of each of the five models on which the sculpture is based.
Josiah McElheny. A Space for an Island Universe