PRINT April 2001


Back in the early ’60s, Piero Manzoni must have thought he was onto a neat trick with his Socle du Monde, which turned the whole planet into a work of art. But the Italian artist’s inverted pedestal was small beer compared to the cosmological cataclysms unleashed by Keith Tyson. Tyson’s “Magic Items”—spells cast on ordinary objects, sometimes recorded in books or posted as signs—have created parallel universes, scheduled the Apocalypse, reversed time, and transformed the consciousness of every single earthling. Or at least, there’s no way to prove they haven’t.

Working from a small studio in London’s Bermondsey area, the thirty-two-year-old Tyson is an improbable Master of the Universe. He’s best known for inventing “Artmachine,” 1991–2001, a semicomputerized algorithm able to scan the world’s information sources, and issue “iterations”—artmaking directives that Tyson then strove to fulfill. To all but the artist, “Artmachine” itself remains something of an abstraction. Its absurd proposals, however, were often ludicrously concrete: a painting composed of 366 painted breadboards executed in 1997; or the “scubasculpture,” to be left on the seabed for sixteen years, then raised, sealed, and painted gloss white.

Behind these works lie many serious questions about art and technology, autonomy and determination, the artist’s signature and the production of meaning. “The Seven Wonders of the World,” 2000–, continues Tyson’s exploration of the concept of free will, the discourses of science, and the clash of epistemes. Individual “Wonders” will be featured at the Berlin Biennale in April and the Venice Biennale this summer. So look on his works, ye art enthusiasts, and be both entertained and intrigued by one of the most intelligent and idiosyncratic artists to surface in the UK in the ’90s.

Rachel Withers


My work is fundamentally a kind of research, and my current project, “The Seven Wonders of the World,” experiments with certain scientific and philosophical concepts I find wondrous. The first “Wonder,” Monument to the Present State of Things, enacts the idea of causal interconnectedness, the so-called butterfly effect. It's a tall stack of newspapers—all the papers on sale one morning at a central London train station. Before rush hour, I cleaned out all the newsstands, denying the commuters their papers and subtly changing the course of their lives. Unlike the traditional bronze-man-on-a-horse formula, this monument’s effects get greater over time, rather than less: At some future point certain people will owe their existence to it. I guess some people will die because of it, too. Well, OK—that's true of every single event and object in the world, including the man on his horse, but few things have been created with the sole aim of indiscriminately affecting the future.

Monument is a reminder that artworks can shape history as much through their materiality as through their cultural significance: Painting X gets shipped from Y to Z, it causes a traffic jam at A, person B is delayed, etc. Newspapers record history, and my removing them fractionally “changed” history—though some scientific theories suggest that time is all worked out; it could travel either way, if it weren't for entropy. Monument is itself determined, the effect of earlier causes as well as the cause of later effects. It plays with the idea of free will, but unlike a scientific experiment, its results can’t be confirmed, just speculated about.

A similar thing occurs in fiction. A sci-fi novel starts with a false hypothesis but builds entirely logically from there and might reveal useful things about given problems. A delusional proposition can yield a productive result. That said, my projects are actually very rigorous, logically speaking. Many consist of an object and a claim made about that object. The work’s identity fluctuates between its materiality and some cerebral construct hovering around it. Take my spell books, for instance: The Wine of Life Swapping spell changes any normal bottle of wine into a “magic item.” When you drink from it, the world is destroyed and everyone is reborn with a new set of memories. And this really could be true. When you’re a child, you marvel at things like that, but when you get older you discard them as irrelevant.

I’m fascinated by science’s dogmatic determinism: the belief that any event or action, however complex—a Mozart concerto, a terrorist attack—arises from hydrogen atoms bashing together during the Big Bang. To me that’s far more fanciful and miraculous than any theological system. The Thinker (After Rodin) is another “Wonder.” It ponders the idea that this nonmaterial phenomenon called “thought” develops from absolutely nothing. It’s a big hexagonal column housing a series of computers that are running an artificial universe. The apparatus is both generating an environment and evolving life forms which are thinking in that environment. But there’s no outward sign of activity. It’s like a computer with its keyboard and VDU unplugged: It just sits there, thinking. Rodin’s sculpture is a paradox: a lump of inert stuff that’s about what’s absent—thought. My Thinker shares that metaphysical dimension, but it’s also a demystification, a prosaic demonstration of matter’s passage into thought and back to matter—from hydrogen atoms to intelligent life to a microchip.

My third “Wonder” is at present untitled, but it’s about form being information-leasing, about matter taking on a given form and borrowing a particular significance that is strictly temporary. It’s a solid bronze block, about a yard cubed, that's been melted down and cast as a model of the early universe, then melted again and recast to represent a later cosmological phase, and so on till it becomes a bronze cube—an artwork—again. Around it are photographs documenting the transformations the bronze has undergone, its atomic “memories.” Form is temporary; everything’s in movement. From my studio window, I see this layering—civic engineering, renovation, geographical history, etc. And the thing I love about art is that, unlike science, it’s tolerant of contradictions. I can work in whatever paradigm I choose—psychoanalytic, magical, spiritual, whatever. It’s really not about whether cultural systems “explain” scientific theory or vice versa—I’m dead against either-ors; I’m a great embracer of complexity, grayness, fuzzy logic. Loose parameters always lead to more interesting results.