New York

Michael Joaquín Grey


The Space Age began on Friday, October 4, 1957, at 6:00 A.M., when Sputnik 1—a thermometer, radio transmitter, and battery in a 20-inch aluminum ball—left the surface of the Earth. Two replicas of Sputnik have lately appeared in New York: one was presented in 1987 to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Nassau County, Long Island, by the USSR ambassador to the U.S.; the other was exhibited by Michael Joaquin Grey in his recent exhibition. Both of the shiny, silvery models are representative metaphors, yet their values are differentiated by their relationship to the informational structures and environmental boundaries that segregate science and art. In My Sputnik, 1990, as well as in other works whose tension lies in their dual techno-scientific and esthetic identity, Grey suggests that, in order to reveal the deep structures that unite the two disciplines, we must question the ideological function of scientific discourse—a discourse “objectively” isolated from society—and the belief that the “truth” of art derives from its relation to science as an interpretative model. Grey’s replica of the first artificial satellite, displayed on a black silk-velvet mat, points to the illusory nature of scientific neutrality: far more important than Sputnik 1’s technological significance is its status as the icon of the cold war space race.

The critique in Trilobite, 1990, a small bronze sculpture of an extinct marine anthropod from the Palaeozoic era, proceeds somewhat differently. The classification of invertebrates dates to the early 19th century and recalls the founder of modern invertebrate zoology, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck moved evolutionary theory into the forefront of biological thinking, but his theory of the development of the species was, unfortunately, wrong. If Trilobite indirectly comments on the fiction of “facts” upon which scientific rationality depends, then R.ED RE.D Project: Gametes (Sex Cells), 1990, makes the point that we still believe, perhaps unconsciously, in the possibility of an authoritative, positivistic, and entirely objective form of knowledge. Mounted at the ends of slender wire filaments that project from the wall, three pairs of tiny orange cubes whose irregular surfaces—presumably primary sites of information since all other sides are smooth—are positioned just above eye level and, thus, symbolically “over the heads” of most viewers. Grey utilizes state-of-the-art technology, as it is applied in the field of biogenetics, to produce these visual analogues of gametes (egg and sperm cells that are formed during embryonic development), and the representational accuracy of these laser-cured resin models is unverifiable for the lay person. The problem of recognition lies not only in the “meaning” of R.ED RE.D, which becomes synonymous with the mystery and “miracle” of science, but in its translation and transcription from one communicative mode to another. Not all of Grey’s works are panegyrics to scientific accomplishment. The overall effect of his first one-person exhibition is that of a funky parade of the highs and lows of the history of science with a little ’70s process art thrown in for good measure. The seemingly accidental accumulation includes an old electron microscope coated with a thick layer of plasticine, an intercontinental ballistic missile fashioned from a ballpoint pen and three bars of soap, some samples of low density silicon airgel (one of the lightest materials on earth), simple mechanical devices that serve little apparent function, a couple of plastic dogs smothered in plasticine, and beautiful photographs of other works in the show abstracted beyond recognition. So disparate is the array and so abundant are the references that syntactical organization must be generalized as a form of game playing.

On a smaller scale, Erosion Blocks: Units of Growth/Decay, 1990, reiterates the importance of game theory as a type of ongoing adaptive system. The piece consists of a collection of 76 elements cast in pewter that can be combined and recombined in configurations of 20 components each, corresponding to the 20 amino acids. In this model of information and transformation, relationship and change, Grey seems to suggest that discourse can no longer consist of absolute knowledge of “objects” or “facts.” Collectively, his work prescribes that the goal of science and of art must necessarily become the deconstruction of scientific and esthetic discourse themselves, in favor of an active and critical perspective.

Jan Avgikos

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