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Review: 'Physics on the Fringe' bridges science, art worlds

June 07, 2012|By Holly Myers
  • "Physics on the Fringe" is the Institute for Figuring's first exhibition in its new space.
"Physics on the Fringe" is the Institute for Figuring's… (IFF Archive )

The Institute for Figuring, a nomadic entity since its inception in 2003, has new headquarters in Chinatown: a cozy, thoughtfully appointed exhibition space that gives friendly form to a slippery bundle of concepts.

Founded by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer, and her sister Christine, a poet, as a venue for exploring “the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering,” the IFF is best known for its Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, an increasingly global community art initiative that  encourages the crocheting of reef-like forms according to principles of hyperbolic geometry. (There are several prize examples on display in the back room of the Chinatown space.)

It has also mounted exhibitions, in L.A. and elsewhere, relating to fractals, plastic refuse, the origins of kindergarten, and the author of an obscure notation system of formal logic — all characterized, like the reef project, by an incongruous balance of sophisticated scientific language on the one hand, and a democratic enthusiasm for craft on the other.

This interest in the relationship — or, more often, the tension — between complexity and accessibility lies at the heart of the first exhibition in the new space, “Physics on the Fringe.” Based on a recently published book of the same name by Margaret — her third exploring the cultural history of physics — it is a fascinating exploration of the scientific drive as embodied by those who go at it alone, developing their theories with little to no formal training, well outside the bounds of the scientific community.

Drawn from an apparently prodigious personal collection of letters, diagrams, books, models and other documentation received throughout her career by amateur physicists desperately seeking an audience, Margaret, who was trained as a physicist herself, presents her subjects in a respectful light, clearly sympathetic to the one unifying undercurrent of their disparate theories: frustration with what they view as the obscurity and elitism of theoretical physics. 

The appearance of these materials in a gallery context, with an emphasis on their often bizarrely elaborate aesthetics, draws illuminating parallels with another highly specialized, academically conditioned, theory-driven sphere viewed by many outsiders with frustrated suspicion — the art world.

Wertheim points to the recent embrace of “outsider art” as a model for how the scientific community might come to appreciate the conceptual integrity of these alternative theories, recognizing their sociological implications without necessarily endorsing their merit.

Those of us in the art world, however, might also take it the other way, recognizing in the alienated urgency of these outsider physicists some echo of what the uninitiated — of whom there are many — long for in art.

The Institute for Figuring, 990 N. Hill St. #180, Los Angeles, (323) 222-2111, through Oct. 14. Closed Sunday through Wednesday. www.theiff.org

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