Saturday, September 15, 2007

By her bachelors, even

One jewel of the cyberpunk literature is its flirting with modern art, and especially the Dada movement. I am of course referring to the beautiful cameo insertions of Dada masterpieces in the narrative of William Gibson. In Neuromancer, the novel that effectively created the cyberpunk literary genre, Duchamp's Grand Verre (also known as "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even") makes an unexpected appearance on board a space station orbiting the Earth. Although it is relegated to a merely decorative passage in the novel and does not take on any essential role in the unfolding of the story, it still provokes a powerful association in the reader's mind between the near-future science fiction scenario being portrayed and the early 20th century avant garde movements that took the world of art by storm before and around the time of the much more tragic storming of Western civilization caused by World War I.

This is a theme on which I would like to start a discussion here, the interplay of science fiction and modern (abstract) art. I will probably on and off return to it with other sorts of examples and considerations.

Gibson is certainly the author who best understood and took advantage of the potential of this combination of cultures. Besides the example of the Grand Verre mentioned above, an even more pervasive example is the one developed to a great length and complexity in the novel Count Zero. There an isolated and perhaps deranged artificial intelligence on an abandoned space station constructs perfect imitations of Joseph Cornell's boxes, by assembling bits and pieces of material floating around in the zero gravity environment. Unlike the glimpse of Duchamp the reader was offered in Neuromancer, this time the presence of the Dada artist plays a fundamental role throughout the whole development of the novel.

Duchamp's Grand Verre is perhaps one of the most intriguing and enigmatic works of art of the 20th century. In a famous essay, the Italian art historian Maurizio Calvesi brilliantly unveils in it the manifold citations of renaissance paintings and disguised references to traditional iconology. The image is linked in this way to the alchemical tradition (the stripping of the bride is a metaphor for the philosopher stone in the writings of the 17th century alchemist Solidonius). Even without digging into the Grand Verre as Grand Oeuvre, or alchemical Opus, this work of art has an enormous evocative power, due precisely to its hints of multiple hidden meanings and difficulty of interpretation. Thus, a very brief apparition is the appropriate way for a great mystery to manifest itself (just think of the divine apparitions in various religious mythologies). Gibson chooses this particular piece of art, on which Duchamp worked for a good ten years, to create a sudden wormhole connecting the future to the past and the cyberpunk movement to the tradition of the avant garde: an instant message delivered to the reader in an almost subliminal, but extremely powerful, form.

Joseph Cornell is a different type of artist and the work fits an entirely different sort of role in Gibson's narrative. Less flamboyant than Duchamp, the boxes Cornell created are rooms for solitary meditation, filled with once cherished and then discarded objects, which form an unlikely collection of memorabilia arranged in cryptic and suggestive meanings like Zen koans. Apparent randomness turned into a meaningful narrative, or apparent narrative revealing an underling randomness. Cornell is no less a mystery than Duchamp, but a mystery of slow time, like the meticulous assemblage carried out step by step by a mechanical arm collecting floating debris of departed human presence from an orbiting zero-gravity facility. The image is beautiful and telling.

One wonders then if there is room for a special relation between Dada and science fiction. Writers like William Burroughs have of course already walked along this path. No systematic exploration has been carried out, however. What one sees at first are certain striking similarities. The first is certainly the use of certain "ready made" objects, both in the visual and in the narrative form, coming from a certain trashy culture of lurid pulp magazines and comic books in the science fiction case and from the discarded everyday object of bourgeois society in the case of the Dadaist artifact. A second similarity is the attempt to portray a world dominated by science and technology. This is quite obvious in science fiction and less so in Dadaism, but think for instance of the pervasive use of the mechanism, the automaton, as an iconic theme of the Dada movement, or the use of astronomical images in Cornell, and the pseudo-scientific jargon intentionally exhibited in titles of paintings and sculptures.

What I am suggesting here is that science fiction as the literary genre that accompanies the course of scientific development (as good science fiction should do) would gain a lot by paying closer attention to the avant garde movements of the early 20th century, and especially to Dadaism. A more widespread and carefully crafted merging of the two cultural tradition may lead to a true jump of literary quality of science fiction and in its effectiveness in inventing a narrative crafted to support the depths of our scientific vision of the universe.

The avant garde movements of the early 20th century also played a similar role. In fact, if on the one hand one can argue (as can be said now of science fiction) that the artists largely missed out on the extraordinary development of early 20th century
science (especially quantum mechanics and general relativity), it is still true that their course of development was tightly interwoven with late 19th century science.

Two excellent books that detail this historic interplay between the visual arts around the turn of the past century and parallel developments in science are Linda Henderson's "The fourth dimension and non-euclidean geometry in modern art", published by Princeton University Press in 1983, and the other is Lynn Gamwell's "Exploring the invisible - Art, science and the spiritual", also by Princeton, 2003. I will return to review both books at some point in more detail, as they deserve. Here I just want to suggest to look more closely at the parallel courses of modern art (Dadaism especially) and science fiction in providing a narrative voice and a performance stage for contemporary science.

A Wikipedia entry on Duchamp's Large Glass
A Wikipedia entry about Joseph Cornell