Sites and Sounds
Echo, 2009. Plywood Rose Window after South Rose Window from St. Denis Cathedral, France; Television and Television static caused by Cosmic Background Radiation left over from the Big Bang. 11×11 inches. Collection of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. ©Adam Belt, 2009.
It is often our default position to look at anything identified as a work of art in terms of mimesis, or imitation of something else pre-existing in the world. Beginning with Plato, the history of art as a concept in the West has largely dealt with this primary function of representing (that is, re-presenting) things that are judged by direct observation or by philosophical speculation to be “objectively real.” An artwork’s success, though, is more than a matter of how accurately and fully it re-creates the material truth of what is being represented, for as a distinctively human activity, representation is as much about the meaning of things as it is their outward appearances—about the subjective component of how we engage with the material world more than merely what it looks like. This view of the role of art—as concrete engagement with the boundary between the objective and subjective aspects of reality—has been at the forefront of art practice in the Modern and now Postmodern periods, and is at the center of the work of artist Adam Belt, whose installation work Echo, 2009 is pictured above.
Both art and science depend on mimesis (how we represent what we find “out there”), but also on a more narrative element using the tools of seeing and hearing to bring the objective and subjective together—to experience, not just describe, meaning. In a recent set of pieces shown together as Sites and Sounds, Belt makes the case for this commonality between the central tension of art and the practice of science, made all the more clear when we remember that science in the West emerged out of a Christian milieu, undergirded by Biblical and creedal affirmations that the material world is not only meaningful, but that its meanings are accessible to reason and exploration, pointing always towards the character of the creator God
Some of Belt’s pieces are literally “re-presentations” of views of the cosmos provided by high-profile scientific instruments (the Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field Survey, or a Mars rover’s image of an extraterrestrial sunset), the making of which were more meditative and contemplative efforts than technical feats. Other pieces take the instruments themselves as their subjects: Through the Looking Glass, 2011 and Mirror, 2009, take their forms from the mirrors of the James Webb and Keck telescopes, and A Gentle Whisper, 2009 is a scale model, of sorts, of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Each of those instruments is a medium through which we perceive primordial light. And then there is his Meteorite Rosary, 2011, another meditative, devotional object that is also marked as an instrument or tool of knowledge akin to the astronomical platforms by being displayed under glass on a pedestal. In each case, Belt is implicitly identifying (and, as an artist, identifying with) practices by which we carefully and reverently learn to listen and look for meaning in the cosmos at scales that are nearly beyond our ability to comprehend, but that can speak to us as individuals in the human community, nevertheless.
Amidst these works, Echo is particularly effective in bringing together these two modes of discovery and contemplation (science and religion), and these two scales of existence (cosmic and personal) by literally framing the cosmic background radiation in a form that is appropriately mathematical, but also deeply spiritual—alluding both to the Church’s narratives of creation and to her community practices of worship. The cosmic “first light” appears as static on a small television screen set behind the gallery wall and viewed through a cut out in the pattern of a rose window from the Cathedral of St. Denis outside Paris—one of two windows in the sacred space that represent the narratives of Christian beginnings: the Creation and the Genealogy of Christ. As Belt wrote in a blog on the piece,
I had wanted to make use of television static for some time as I am fascinated by the fact that something so mundane as television “snow” comes from the birth of the universe, as we currently understand the Big Bang. The rosette pattern, however, was a later decision . . . I began to look for geometric and fractal patterns that may allude to an underlying organizational structure while possibly giving some illusion of volume.
Researching the thinking behind and construction techniques used for such Gothic windows, Belt found the shape an appropriate answer to the problem of contextualizing the CBR. But what brought the piece to completion for the artist was the connection, through the particular liturgical context of this rose window, to the Biblical account of creation. Though the religious content of this piece can be missed or misconstrued, Belt does not seem to be suggesting that the scientific account replaces the Biblical one, but rather that they are somehow analogous and complementary, not principally in their mimetic content (what they show us explicitly about origins), but in the way they shape our response to the cosmos and its Creator. The point—the truth—is not in the window itself, but in the light that passes through it and onto us, by which we see, and by which we are seen.
To push this distinction between the “window as ends” and the “window as means” a bit further, consider that in a very laudatory review of his work when Belt was recently awarded the San Diego Art Prize, fellow art professor and critic Sally Yard wrote that he “deployed the static or ‘snow’ of television screens to illuminate a miniature wooden replica of the tracery of the rose window. . . .” as an example of how “Belt’s most recent work ponders perception within the frame of scientific revelation.” But the light from the television screen does not actually illuminate the tracery itself so much as pass through the tracery to illuminate the viewer and viewers standing in the space of the gallery. If the cosmic background radiation is an example of light discovered by scientific inquiry, Echo filters it through a symbol of the narrative that culminates in Christ. In other words, Belt’s work more accurately could be said to ‘ponder scientific revelation through the frame of spiritual perception,’ that frame being referenced but not exhausted by the St. Denis window’s tracery.
What should not be lost here is that even the most ornate and exquisite window is more than something to be looked at, wherein the light coming from behind and through the glass illuminates the story told there on the surface. Photographic images of such windows reinforce the idea that they are self-contained narratives, but in situ they still retain their function as holes in the façade, portals, spaces for the transmission of light from outside into another space, and onto those inside. It is also important to remember that the space that is illuminated by such windows, though allowing private meditation, was primarily the place where individual Christians came together to hear, ponder and proclaim the Glory of the Lord as the Body of Christ.
Similarly (though very different in scale and in a radically changed cultural context) Echo exists in physical space such that, were someone standing in front of it, he or she would not just see the shape or the light, but be bathed in the soft blueish glow. (See installation image, below.) The purpose is not just to see the installation as an object, or even a narrative of scientific discovery, but partake of the artist’s own sense of wonder and awe at the scale of energies expressed in the remnant “snow,” an echo of the primordial beginning of the material cosmos still accessible to us if we have but ears to hear and eyes to see. By bringing together the technologies, the narrative tools of different eras, Belt is not giving us competing “pictures” of how the creation really happened, but a space in which to contemplate the possibility that it is the same light passing through both windows, ultimately illuminating us, rather than the space itself.
Taken together with the other pieces in Sites and Sounds, Belt’s Echo is not about the task of representation or description (the idea of mimesis with which we began) but is akin to a liturgical act: embodying his own experience of reverence for and curiosity about the processes of creation, but also inviting viewers into an ongoing engagement with a profoundly physical world in which the presence of meaning is central. In fact, the conflation of the grand scale of the St. Denis windows and that of Belt’s small 11” x 11” work paradoxically personalizes and makes intimate the most vast and incomprehensible forces in the universe—and in this way can be thought of as incarnational, reflecting the coming and presence of the very Creator among His creation.
Finally, we should not miss the point that, while light is a recurrent theme and medium in Belt’s work, the pieces are also manifestations of his desire to listen for rather than just see (much less “capture”) the truth and mystery of the universe. In giving this piece the title he does, Belt invokes a the familiar image of the cosmic background radiation as an almost-imperceptible “echo” of the initial moments of creation, while also positing that a scientific account of the material beginnings of the universe is an echo of the narrative we have in Scripture. In both cases, the echo is not a wholly different thing, or a parallel event from that initial “sound,” but a responsive trace of the creative event reflected by, back and through the other. In Christian terms, both scripture and the cosmos are means by which God communicates His agency and His love to the human community, with the Church’s unique call being to proclaim that His Word is also the Light of the world. Prodded by Adam Belt’s example of being fully present to the Maker and what has been made, may we not be content to stand back and look at the light or listen to the sounds of his revelation from a distance, but choose to be bathed in both, reflecting and transmitting God’s love for the cosmos and mankind.
Installation view of Echo, 2009.
Adam Belt works with physical manifestations of the unseen including the inherent properties of materials such as salt, ice and concrete, our interaction with the landscape and our wonder of the cosmos. Belt received his BFA from the University of San Diego and completed his MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2001 and is now working as an artist and a professor in San Diego. His work is included in many local collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the La Jolla Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. Adam has been published in Leonardo, the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology magazine. His work has been reviewed in The San Diego Union Tribune, Art Week, Riviera and various other publications. A slideshow of Adam at work and additional excerpts from an interview done in conjunction with the San Diego Art Prize may be see here.