Machinery of Metaphysical Imagination by Tom Shakespeare 2007

“In life, he suffered from a sense of unreality, as do many Englishmen.”
from Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

We’re not sure what to make of this installation. Is this a collection of toys? Pieces stolen from a museum? The laboratory of an autodidact engineer? We seem to be have returned to the constructions of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy or the designs of William Heath Robinson:

Glasses are placed on turntables; water, wick and a baton are arranged to produce an eerie music. An after dinner trick becomes a strange automaton, an endlessly rotating shriek. A flotilla of finger pointing waterglasses howl in accusation.

Photographic paper is folded into an origami box, which is inflated by the artist. The resulting pinhole camera is exposed to the room, and the image captured on the interior receptive surface. The box is unfolded and the image developed. The spirit of the space is sucked into a two dimensional representation.

Redundant satellite dishes are linked together into a daisy, like a twenty-first century coracle. They rise and fall with the tide, fifteen feet of repeated movement that via flywheel drives an orrery.

Gathered around the space are other instruments: a compass for locating position; a scrying mirror like the one with which John Dee sought to contact angels; an assembly of sextants, armillery spheres and other wrought iron measuring apparatus.

For many years, Matthew Luck Galpin has been rehearsing experiments at the border of physics and metaphysics. The forces of the natural world are always in operation, never stationary: the rotating sun, the swinging pendulum, the turning lunar cycle. By recruiting the universe to his artwork, Galpin reminds us that even in the twenty-first century, we still inhabit the same world as the ancients, as Archimedes and Newton. He takes us into the void with science and with magic.

For an era which has passed from the electronic to the digital and now to the virtual, Galpin reinstates a naturalism based on human scale and immediate connection. We can see how these things work, when and if they work. Cause and effect is clear. Nothing is hidden, and everything is accessible to our understanding. We have been here before. Here is an alternative history of how science might have been.

But in allowing us to witness breakthroughs in mechanics and optics, Galpin is not mimicking the instruments which can be viewed in any museum of science and technology. His pieces are not exact, not literal, not clockwork at all. The orrery is a muddy axle with a globe on top, not a finely honed brass structure of rods and cogs. Such devices operate more like a symbol or an emblem of past enquiry and present connection. The artist is engaged on a mission of calibration and measurement which is more like a shaman’s exploration of the seen and unseen worlds than straightforward scientific research.

A few words about the relationship of art and science. It’s a popular subject for debate, and generates hot air and nonsense in equal measure. Artists and scientists are not the same, but nor are they entirely distinct. Human beings investigate and represent the world, including human beings, in various ways. There are different questions to ask, and multiple ways of offering answers.

For most of human history, scientific and artistic approaches to the world were not separate, and curious people could follow both routes to knowledge. Aristotle wrote on tragedy and poetics, but was also one of the first empirical scientists, with a great interest in marine animals in particular.

Leonardo’s enquiring mind was devoted as much to science and technology as it was to art. Galileo may never have understood that he was seeing lunar craters through his telescope, if he had not previously studied chiaroscuro techniques of Renaissance painting. In the nineteenth century, Erasmus Darwin and the other “Lunar Men” were gentleman scholars who wrote poetry as well as pursuing what was then called natural philosophy. In turn, literary figures including Coleridge, Keats and later Thomas Hardy were fascinated with science, particularly biology.

It has been said that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was the last major contribution to science which could be understood by a layperson. For a century, the two worlds increasingly diverged, due to the specialism and complexity of the sciences. By 1959, CP Snow could lament the “two cultures” in a lecture that continues to spawn some rather specious arguments. In recent decades, thanks to the work of the Wellcome Trust, NESTA and the Gulbenkian Foundation, together with the mutual curiosity of many artists and scientist, the two fields have a rich and living relationship. Science and art have always been connected and continue to work fruitfully together: end of argument.

“Like most of de Selby’s theories, the ultimate outcome is inconclusive. It is a curious enigma that so great a mind would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated (such as the sequence of night and day) while believing absolutely in his own fantastic explanations of the same phenomena.”[1]

Galpin knows something important about the history of scientific development, and about the human relationship to the world, an attitude which is captured in a phrase from Michael Ondaatjie “the extreme looseness of the structure of things”. That it is to say, there are gaps in knowledge, and there are questions which science cannot answer. These lacunae have never disappeared, despite the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Genetic Century, and the Digital Age.

Many mystics have pursued ways of understanding the world. The Elizabethan John Dee explored mathematics and astronomy as well as alchemy and astrology. From his home in Mortlake, he sought books and knowledge, advising Queen Elizabeth’s court and the English adventurers who set out to explore the globe. A pious Christian, Dee believed that number was the basis of all things and the key to knowledge.

From the start, many scientists have also been mystics. For example, Isaac Newton was as interested in alchemy and the layout of the Biblical Temple in Jerusalem as he was in the movement of objects and the orbit of heavenly bodies. In his lifetime, he wrote more on religion than on science: John Maynard Keynes, who bought a case of his papers at auction only to find he had invested in mysticism, not physics, wrote that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: he was the last of the magicians”. His death was brought about by mercury poison, as a result of his alchemical investigations.

According to Arthur C.Clarke’s famous third law, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But as these examples show, the boundary between science and magic has always been permeable.

It is on this boundary between the mythical and the material that Galpin operates. He shows that if science is the obverse, then symbolism and metaphor are always the reverse of the medal. As Alice reminds Patrick in Ondaajte’sIn the Skin of A Lion, “you reach people through metaphor.” So for example, Galpin’s work Numen refers to the superstition that to take someone’s photograph is to steal their soul. The compass circles serve to ward off evil, not only to trace geometry. We are in the realms previously charted by Jorge Luis Borges, where nothing is quite as it seems, but something very subtle and interesting is going on. These are mysteries which we want to understand.

Perception is the heart of it. The lens, the eye, the sighting of the heavenly bodies, the gauge of time passing. But perception refers not just to the laws of physics, but to something further and deeper, like the working of Philip Pullman’s imaginary alethiometer.

The notion of cycles is another key to this exhibition, which is held at the time of the summer solstice. Day and night, rise and fall, birth and death: cycles are both symbolic and real. Galpin and Alastair Lambert spot two birds passing over the site, the kingfisher and the heron hunting in the harbour. Connections are made. The kingfisher is the halcyon bird which charms the winds and waves so that the water remains calm during its nesting season, the fourteen days preceding the winter solstice. The heron is the ancient Egyptian emblem of sun and rebirth, connecting to the flooding of the Nile. The two artists add a compass made of the skull of the heron to the show.

Serendipity – another reference to the Ceylon which links Clarke, Ondaatjie and Galpin’s own ancestry – is the organising principle. The accidents and coincidences which emerge are more important and meaningful than the original intentions. Something is revealed, but cannot be anticipated.

It is clear that the categories “artist” and “scientist” do not exhaust the alternatives. We remember the “alchemist” and also the “craftsman” and “the engineer”. Galpin combines a part of all of these ways of understanding the world and seeking truth. He is a maker, as well as an analyst, like the great scientists who painstakingly ground their lenses or constructed their measuring equipment. But like any explorer, he is not certain what he is searching for.

Galpin has attached the curious label of “decoy” to these artworks. By this I think he means that the making is a way of attracting meaning and exploring ideas. The object is a means to an end. A consumate craftsman, for Galpin the process of making a work is a way of allowing the meaning or significance to creep up unannounced. This is the methodology of serendipity, except that this could imply a sense of calm and balance whereas the approach is more like a lurching frenzy towards understanding.

This art is a way to try things out: an experiment, a dialogue between the artist and the materials and ideas. It is not the object which is important, but the intent to explore and understand. Each show offers new versions and makes fresh connections, but the journey continues. We are not there yet. All we can do is walk with Galpin into the world with science and with magic, and wonder where we’re going to arrive.

Tom Shakespeare ‘07
[1] Flann O’Brien (1974) The Third Policeman, Picador, London, p.45