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The Draw of Dark Matter

The name says it all. Literally and metaphorically, dark matter (the counterpart of dark energy) possesses a mysterious and undeniable attractiveness, a certain je ne sais quoi. And I invoke the literal meaning of that perfectly piquant French phrase, too — because when it comes to dark matter, no one really “knows what.” Even NASA’s […]

The name says it all. Literally and metaphorically, dark matter (the counterpart of dark energy) possesses a mysterious and undeniable attractiveness, a certain je ne sais quoi. And I invoke the literal meaning of that perfectly piquant French phrase, too — because when it comes to dark matter, no one really “knows what.”

bv-fluxbox

Ben Vautier, Fluxbox Containing God. Plastic box with collaged, printed paper label, ca. 1966. Photo: Walker Art Center.

Even NASA’s website features a charming and easy-to-read explanation that admits “more is unknown than known …”, calling dark energy, largely “a complete mystery.” Basically, math tells us that there’s more mass in the universe than we can actually see. So the matter we can’t see? That’s dark matter. And a certain energy needs to exist for the universe to expand in the way that math and our high-powered telescopes tell us it does, but we’re not exactly sure how it happens. That’s dark energy. The “dark” label refers literally to what we can’t see, but also to the void in our specific understanding of those processes. “Dark” is something of a placeholder, then, meaning: “as yet undefined matter and energy that’s out there in the universe making the universe do what it does.”

It was the 1930s when astronomer Fritz Zwicky coined the phrase “dark matter,” yet it’s only in the past year that we’ve begun to see hints of hard evidence for its existence.  Well, maybe – scientists continue to disagree. But if we’re being honest, isn’t that mystery precisely why the average person is so fascinated by the idea? It’s attractive, the notion of the unseen something, yet to be revealed. It’s confounding, potentially dangerous. Sexy, even.

I recently had an online chat with a friend about the study of dark energy that might have read similarly if we’d been talking about a crush, some brooding beauty leaning on a matte black Dodge Challenger, smoking cigarettes and playing hard to get.

me:  Ben, I’ve been spending too much time with dark energy and I’m exhausted. Is it all bullshit? Sometimes I think it’s bullshit.

ben:  i think it is

yes

at the edges

at a certain point someone’s just making things up and justifying them with math

and then you discover no one actually knows what gravity IS

and you’re just like, “What do you mean you don’t know what [gravity] is? How do you do the math?”

they say: “It’s just a thing that happens, the math just describes the thing happening, in the way we consistently see it happening. That’s all gravity is. The habit of shit to drift together.”

“THATS ALL YOU GOT? WHAT THE HOLY FUCK?”

me:  Thrilling, yet a little heartbreaking.

For a long time I thought it was just quantum physics I couldn’t trust,

until dudes started making some of it HAPPEN in THE LAB

At which point, they’re all, “OH, JUST KIDDING, THE MATH ITSELF CHANGES––

SOMETIMES. SOMETIMES.

SO, YEAH. Deal with it, babe.”

I feel so manipulated.

And this is where I have to check myself because it circles back around to:  But, like, what do we even really KNOW, you KNOW?

Which is unacceptable.

At this point “ben” sent me a video of Werner Herzog speaking, as he does, on the insanity that may spring from the futility of life.

Cornelia Parker, XXX, ©Tate, London, 2013

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, wood, metal, plastic, ceramic, paper, textile and wire, 1991. ©Tate, London, 2013

When the art world reaches over into science and pulls out a subject to examine, the end result may not resemble the math or the hard physics. But it can still nail the essence of scientific concepts and give form to feelings that “dark matter” elicits. Take Dennis Feddersen’s threatening installations of the same name:  immense bodies, themselves unidentifiable, amass around our mundane objects. As the viewer, we experience in the work locations that we recognize, and yet don’t — a humbling, apt reminder of the powerful, ever-present forces of nature that we can neither name nor control.

Or consider Amanda Nedham’s bestial mash-upsDark Matter I and Dark Matter II. Similar to Feddersen, Nedham imagines ravenous, over-sized creatures that are both familiar and impossible, seemingly spit out from another dimension. Her dark matter conjures the simultaneous experience of danger and awe evident in the science.

The role of the observer becomes especially important in interactive pieces like those in Dark Matters, at the University of Manchester. The show deals with the deceptively simple notion that darkness and shadows hide the truth, distort our understanding of the origin and identity of what it is we see. But this, too, applies to the astronomical definition of “dark.” Check out the last line of the review. Then watch yourself watch the video.

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Black Curve, oil on canvas, 1962. Photo: Walker Art Center