Keith Tyson

South London Gallery

It is easy to see why much of the comment that circulates around Keith Tyson’s work focuses on his interest in science. The techspeak and strings of figures that frequently appear in his innumerable drawings point time and again to the fields of astronomy and particle physics, to the cellular structure of the body, to ideas of randomness, and so on. Yet his drawings have more in common with the doodles that one used to do on the inside cover of one’s science folder at school whenever the lessons got a bit dull. And a child’s penchant for writing his address by beginning with name, house, and street, and extending to encompass country, globe, solar system, and ultimately the entire cosmos, is as relevant here as Schrödinger’s cat or the mathematics of factorials.

All of the pieces in Tyson’s recent exhibition “Supercollider” touch in one way or another on this theme of proliferation and endless permutation. Random Tangler (A Recursive Transition Knot) (all works 2001), is an elaborate game that, in spite of its detailed and lengthy assembly and playing instructions, allows for the validity of any and all solutions. A kidsy-zone-at-the-science-museum feel is also evident in A Tiny Bubble of Complexity, a translucent eight-foot sphere housing a heat-sensitive electronic system that makes it slowly but constantly change color. A Night in a Billion comprises a dozen framed photographs of the night sky which, because they can be hung either way up and in any order, are unlikely ever to be assembled in the same way twice (Tyson calculates the odds at about 11,771,943,000,000 to 1). The vast field of interlocking polyhedra in the huge acrylic-on-aluminum Nature—A Window on an Infinite Cellular Blanket suggests, in addition to cellular expansion, both mathematical iteration and crystalline growth. In some areas of this crazy tessellation the elements are much smaller, implying the operation of fractal geometry. Any wish for a coherent sense of scale is thwarted by these hints of inter- and intradimensional slippage. Field of Heaven (The Longshot Magnet) is a kind of crazy orrery, an attempt at a model not just of the universe but of the sense of the potential the universe generates from moment to moment. Bits of rock from the Moon and Mars together with a variety of terrestrial mineral samples spin on the ends of a fully articulated H-bar, all of whose parts are also turning independently. While individual paths and the spatial relationships they engender from moment to moment might be susceptible to mathematical analysis, they nonetheless seem thoroughly irrational.

The exhibition’s title borrows the nickname given to the large particle accelerator at CERN (Conseil Européene pour la Recherche Nucléaire), Geneva, and in the large drawing of the same name Tyson offers a fragmentary view of what the collisions generated by such a machine might lead to, or may have already brought about. Under a short lead-in text at the top—“From the action of four forces on 103 elements in four dimensions, we get . . .”—are catalogued hundreds of entities in the real and imagined universe: “All the insects in a rickety old cowshed; London 1853 AD; A 200 cm long bar of 10 cm diameter polished steel; A ballerina rests . . .” One encounters objectivity, poetry, humor, drama, and schmaltz in equal measure, but in Tyson’s work such impurity remains part of the point rather than something to be avoided at all costs: Anything else would express an unwarranted preference for just some among the works—and the world’s—many possibilities.

Michael Archer