Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions
Eve Andrée Laramée: Histories of Science, Histories of Art
by Ann Morris Reynolds
In the dusty little museum on Second Boulevard, where they used to take him as a child, and where he himself would later take his charges, there was a collection of rare, marvelous objects, but all the townsmen except Cincinnatus found them just as limited and transparent as they did each other. That which does not have a name does not exist. Unfortunately everything had a name.
Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading
Many artists exploit the aesthetic potential of scientific imagery and processes in their work: Tony Cragg, Meg Webster, and Terry Winters, to name a few. But artists rarely explore in depth the subtle historical and social dimensions to these images and processes. Eve Andrée Laramée's Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions is indeed beautiful, seductive, and formally complex. Shimmering, anthropomorphically shaped glass vials, strung together on a metal armature by clamps, tubing, and copper wire contain varying amounts of cloudy or luminous turquoise liquids. Large exotic flowers wrapped into this apparatus add broad traces of brilliant red and yellow to the mix. The overall effect is visually dazzling. Yet, Apparatus is more than just "a work of art." It is also a "work on science." The flowers and a number of other things which might seem out of place in a rendering of the scientific laboratory -- tuning forks, coffee pots, and the fact that many of the glass vessels have been hand-blown -- possess more than just an aestheticizing function. The incongruity of their juxtapositions within Apparatus leads to the realization that the work is deliberately steeped in anachronistic imagery: Enlightenment paintings of dramatically lit scientific experiments by artists such as Joseph Wright of Derby, laboratories of cold war scientists as represented in old science fiction movies, and jazzy covers of outdated chemistry textbooks. Laramée's
Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions is not a tidy, up-to-date image of the "hard" science of the end of the millennium; it is a precarious and "soft" image from several moments in its past, when biology and chemistry, procedure and theatricality, artistic and scientific inquiry could meet and mingle freely on the same table. In weaving these disparate moments and images together, Laramée assumes, like the alchemist, the power to transmit one thing into another because of her belief in the fundamental sameness of these things.
According to the artist Robert Smithson, an important figure for Laramée, "Alchemy is a concrete way of dealing with sameness." But dealing with sameness does not always produce familiar expected chains of associations nor is it always reassuring. Besides wiring plants, vials of fluids, and other apparently incongruous objects together, Laramée uses a second type of juxtaposition in order to reveal an even more disturbing set of alchemical equivalences hidden within the scientific process. Many of the glass beakers, vessels, and tubes are lightly etched with seemingly "unscientific" words or phrases. These texts act as whispering voices that suggest a nagging insecurity and imprecision behind the Apparatus and a subaltern history to the scientific process itself. "MOUTHFULS" and "HANDFULS" refer to the inexact, bodily origins of scientific measurement; "UNSPECIFIED," "LEAP IN THE DARK," and "SECRET PROCESS OF EVAPORATION" reflect the always present, yet unqualifiable factors in any scientific procedure; and "UNNECESSARY EXPLANATORY PRINCIPLES" suggests the customary attempts to cover this fact up: That which does not have a name does not exist.
Fortunately, for Laramée, and for the viewer, one name or one history of a scientific image or process is never sufficient or even accurate. In restoring science's complex historical and cultural dimensions, she is able to represent them in terms which are more honest, creative, and inclusive.
As installation art, Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions also possesses its own history, through its incarnations in a number of different contexts, each one reflecting Laramée's response to the specific circumstances of the space the work occupies and the input of the people who assist her in assembling it. This history, although not apparent in any complete sense, leaves its mark on many of the work's individual elements. Some of them contain traces of chemical residue or stains from previous installations, and many retain the dusty evidence of their time spent in storage in between installations. A second level of historical temporality unfolds over the course of any one exhibition of the work. Flowers wilt and fade, water evaporates, and copper and wire oxidizes.
All works of art are historically, situationally, and temporally specific in some sense. As objects or as collections of objects installed in a variety of venues, they also hopefully possess more than one of each type of specificity during the course of their existence. Since installation art is, by definition, temporary and site-specific, it should call attention to its serial specificities, and, in doing so, strike a balance between its current situation and its ongoing circumstances; the life of its various parts within and beyond individual venues; and its site-specificity and site-insufficiency in each instance. Viewers are always only seeing one version of limitless, possible combinations, one aspect of the life of the individual objects the work contains, and they are made to long for the spaces and images the work refers to which exist elsewhere, outside the walls of the exhibition space, physically, in the imagination, or in memory. Installation art's task is to make all of these qualities more visible in everything else that surrounds it as well.
Laramée's Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions succeeds in calling attention to all of these qualities through its status as an "apparatus": a means by which a "distillation of vague intuitions" concerning art and science is performed. And true to a second meaning of the term, a political organization or an underground political movement, Apparatus counters the "business as usual" experience of both. Science and art interrogate each other and the results are marvelous...and rare.
Catalog essay for exhibition at Austin Museum of Art