By Elizabeth Michelman
The idea of a cosmos vastly greater than the self, containing objects ever more removed from our awareness in time or space, both excites the spirit and awakens primitive fears. Yet, as in maturity, we perceive our own limited compass, we need some way of relating to this greater world that will sooner or later swallow our individual being. For sculptor Josiah McElheny, art offers a vehicle for understanding and accepting our condition, both through the emotion of awe and the faculty of wonder.
McElheny, a conceptual glass sculptor whose concrete images of limitlessness are on exhibit at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, has also found astronomy a fertile source of integrative forms through which to plumb the nature of time, history, and infinity. But for McElheny, fidelity to quantifiable fact is the supreme discipline — even though, as science well knows, obtaining certainty about one set of variables often requires sacrificing accuracy about others, itself a form of abstraction.
McElheny has spent eight years collaborating with astronomer David H. Weinberg of Ohio State University in conceptualizing mathematically accurate and meaningful representations of the evolving “Big Bang” theory. Originally struck by the mobility and authority of the modernist glass-and-brass chandeliers in the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, McElheny became curious about employing similar decorative forms through which to project specific concepts of space and time on a cosmic level. His installations of painstakingly calibrated metal-and glass structures embody and describe recent scientific theories of the formation of the universe.
With consummate technical virtuosity, McElheny quotes the optical vocabulary and borrows the sumptuous polish of industrially fashioned mirrors, paneling, glassware and chandeliers to create commanding objects. He then recontextualizes and repurposes his frameworks of seductive materials and referential elements for didactic uses. Constructing and placing his forms in ingenious mechanistic environments, he systematically evokes in the viewer an experience of loss of boundaries ranging from the fascinating to the disturbing. His simultaneously rational and irrational forms trigger anxiety and at the same time demand the viewer cope conceptually by attempting to understand the mechanism and recover a sense of her or himself in a finite location.
Wending one’s way through “Island Universe” at the far end of McElheny’s exhibition, the visitor distinguishes five cosmic models — shiny, spiky, suspended orbs occupying up to 12 feet of space. Each centers around a reflective sphere radiating silvery rods tipped with clusters of small glass spheres, discs and glowing bulbs. These floating finials are coded by shape, solidity and spacing to signify the dispersion of ages and types of galaxies and quasars at a specific moment of escape from the originary “Big Bang” at the center of the universe. The overall proportions and configuration of each system refer to unique hypothetical structures the universe could take; one, for example, hugs a tilted, flattened plane; others are dense and spherical, squeezed, elliptical or sparse and irregular.
As pedagogical devices, McElheny’s forms are more flexible and kinesthetically accessible than a flat, fixed diagram. Their animated materials and regular facture invite aesthetic contemplation. But in their mirroring and encompassing of the spectator’s presence, they remind us they are first and foremost human objects, responsive to our own human scale and modes of being. And this we understand as a universal value.
(”Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite” remains on view through October 14 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 100 Harrison Avenue, Boston.)