11 May - 23 June, 2018
Review by Matthew Turner
Mary Corse’s first major UK show at Lisson Gallery, London, is as much a scientific inquiry as it is art. Newtonian science extracts emotion from the situations it is used to examine, the same, by extension, could be said of its strange alter ego quantum mechanics. But on closer inspection this is not always the case. In the bizarre and illogical world of quantum mechanics and atoms, particles seem to behave in a way that you can’t pin down or put your figure on, mimicking those more illusive emotions such as love and grief. Mary Corse’s work seems to embody some of these characteristics too, and uses materials that echo the rapid changeability of atoms to express human subjectivity through inhuman technologies and science.
Engaging with light and perception, the works embody, rather than represent, light, opposing the traditional mode of painting. The show comprises of light boxes that appear as sliced fragments of glaring glass hovering in the air. And ghostly, imperceptible paintings embedded with materials that refract light, renew and regenerate themselves constantly and appear uniquely different depending on your position and the light entering the room.
Paul Dirac, one of the godfathers of quantum mechanics, was once asked to describe its essence at the beginning of his famous Cambridge lecture series on the subject. He took a piece of chalk and broke it in two. Placing one fragment on one side of his lectern and the other on the other side, Dirac said that classically there is a state where the piece of chalk is ‘here’ and one where the piece of chalk is ‘there’, and these are the only two possibilities. Replace the chalk, however, with an electron and in the quantum world there are not only states of ‘here’ and ‘there’ but also a whole host of other states that are a mixture of these possibilities.
Quantum theory permits the mixing together of states that classically would be mutually exclusive of one another. This simple principle ricochets throughout Corse’s work, and the resultant objects gravitate between a multiplicity of different states as you move around them. She does this, however, to capture emotion and subjectivity rather than science — though perhaps they are not so different after all.
When viewing ‘Untitled (Electric Light) (1968/2017)’, one of Corse’s light works composed of argon and Plexiglas, the glare hits the retina and the eye reacts by contracting the iris quicker than we are aware that it is reacting. This happens outside of our usual cycles of conscious decision, so, for this split second we become an island, detached from our usual conception of our body’s movements — we react physically before we are conscious of it. For a brief moment we are in a non-place, we are, to quote Beckett—and to echo Dirac — ‘without here or there’, and the body becomes autonomous from itself (A phenomena explored by Brian Massumi in ‘The Autonomy of Affect’). We are floating and vibrating between different states just like quantum particles, which never hold stationary positions. This seems like a spatialized version of many intense emotions, such as love, where we often feel outside of our normal selves. The sense of insularity and autonomy is also captured in the construction of the works themselves which are similarly adrift in space. In 1968, Corse, who is a specialist in the field of science and technology, eliminated any visible power supplies from her light works and now they hang in middle of the gallery space powered wirelessly by Tesla coils; powered by themselves, as though an autonomous island, in the same way as humans.
While capturing such human emotions in the inanimate, she also ameliorates and gives life to some of the more bleak facets of the times we live in — think of barcodes, binary languages and vectors, which are often sterile lines or digits on a page. But in Corse’s ‘Untitled (White Multiband, Vertical Strokes)’ (2003), incorporating glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas, they are given flux, velocity, personality and, most importantly, discrepancies and glitches, and so, just like people, they are given an emotional presence in the world through their frictions and faults.
The works on display are reductive to the point of disappearance, constantly on the edge of voiding themselves, but this is where their power derives from; manipulating what can’t usually be seen and can only be felt or experienced subjectively — refreshing in a moment glutted with spoon-fed imagery. Corse’s work allows people to be emotionally affected by, and experience, something that hardly exists, suggested by some as the very root of quantum mechanics. But what is the geometry and texture of such a blind spot? Such elements of our perception and experience of the world that are hard to grasp are often the most important, such as glance, that ephemeral and blurred footnote of concentrated vision which usually captures some of the most important events of our lives. It’s these fleeting, entropic and liminal moments that Corse’s work manages to capture.