What is life exhibition, Wexford



The indisputable achievements of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum physics – are segued by this dichotomy: they both make sense and yet contradict each other, which only serves to accentuate the function and value of science.

What Is Life (Wexford Co. Council and Wexford Arts Centre) is a noble and inspiring endeavour to connect the public with Carlo Rovelli’s the ocean of the unknown, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or Lieutenant Commander Spock’s ‘it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.’ Take your pick, because they all cover the same terrain.

And whether the world is curved space in the morning – general relativity – or flat space in the afternoon – quantum physics – reality is never less than interactive, and art offers the multi-disciplinary tools to explore this a little further.

The exhibition, curated by Deirdre Southey and Catherine Bowe, poses the question: what can art contribute to science, and vice-verse? On this evidence, artists stand to gain more, because the essential reality of the endless uniformity of space is that it is impossible to pin down, that it is indescribable.

We have yet to invent the language for what is at the other end of the Hubble telescope, but we are gifted with the imagination to probe. So, What Is Life’s selected artworks engage the viewer with concepts pertaining to the multiplicities of the here and now. Scientific responses nestle alongside each artist’s statement.

There are two strands: terra firma – the work of Fergus Doyle, Gerda Teljeur, Meadhbh O’Connor and John Cullen is rooted in the natural world – and terra incognita – Vera Klute, Bea McMahon, Andrew Kenny, David Beattie and Eleanor Duffin address the amorphous and the metaphysical, from alchemy to the paranormal.

Inspired by Erwin Schrodinger’s famous lectures in Dublin in 1943, the exhibits benefit from the incandescently illuminating interpretation by Cliona O Farrelly, Anna Wedderburn, Liam Hallinan and Colm Fives. As Schrodinger posited that the gene was a molecule of contradiction, What Is Life also poses the question, what is art? Maria McKinney’s dexterity with sculptures, installation and photography demonstrates how art can provide a platform to view a world which science is at pains to understand.

The correlation between art and science is also being explored presently at Sadler’s Wells in London by Wayne McGregor, who has composed 23 dance vignettes determined by an algorithm from his DNA, while the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University are tracing the relationship between artists’ response to space and scientific research, but I can’t vouch as to the efficacy or quality of either.

The wattage of What Is Life in Wexford is slightly diminished by splitting it between two venues, a small quibble, but if – like Hamlet – you believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, this is a show for you.