Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), Risa Horowitz

Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts
  • Risa Horowitz, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), exhibition view, Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Risa Horowitz, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), Rings (detail), Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Risa Horowitz, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), exhibition view, Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Risa Horowitz, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), exhibition view, Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Risa Horowitz, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), exhibition view, Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views), Risa Horowitz
Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts, Winnipeg, January 29–March 12, 2016

Nestled close to Platform Gallery’s office doors is the most compelling piece in Risa Horowitz’s recent solo show, Imaging Saturn (Modeling Views): a flat screen monitor that plays a video, subtitled with scrolling marquee, depicting a slowly rotating model of the ringed planet. The actual model can be found just around the corner, among other buzzing contraptions, a wall decal and photographs, in this varied multi-media exhibition. In contrast to its silent presence in the video, the model is a halting machine that audibly whirs in the brightly lit space. Where the kinetic sculpture actively eschews artifice, the video indulges it with close-ups of a monochrome “Saturn” seemingly floating in a thick black vacuum. Though the metal cable suspending the model is visible against the surrounding darkness, the effect is still enigmatic and hints at the impossibility of objective knowledge. The scrolling text further emphasizes this; it presents selected excerpts from letters Galileo wrote to Mark Wesler, a German politician and businessman supportive of what, at the time, were new and controversial ideas. Though the letters were chiefly about sunspots, Galileo also observes that Saturn is not a “single star, but is a composite of three.” In a subsequent letter, he corrects himself when he discovers that the planet has changed shape. What once comprised a trinity is now a single object, though he predicts the accompanying celestial bodies will eventually return. Translated from Italian into a baroque, floral English characteristic of the time, the text situates science as temporal. It highlights how time and technology influence what we know.

It was a very similar observation of Saturn that drew Horowitz into the world of amateur astronomy; a world in which she has since been actively involved as both artist and stargazer. Saturn, she explains during her artist’s lecture, is the planet that seduces most would-be astronomers; Horowitz is no exception. Her first glimpse of the solar system’s second-largest planet changed the way she saw the cosmos and her place within it. She has been observing and documenting the ringed planet ever since, pledging to track it through the entirety of its twenty-nine-year orbit. Horowitz is now five years in.

Though she adamantly denies the influence of mythology—Horowitz dismisses Roman, Greek and astrological associations—by presenting her observations of Saturn as art, the artist chooses a practice itself suffused with myth, one that balances the display of artifice with its simultaneous production. In what seems like a purposeful parallel, Saturn, known as Chronos in Greek mythology, is the personification of time, a theme that is highlighted in Horowitz’s approach to the project. The steady mechanical burr of the exhibition, the rotating objects and the CAD-cut vinyl decal representing Saturn’s orbit, all point to the delineation of time and how it changes what we see. Moreover, each large photograph of Saturn, taken by the artist using techniques specific to astrophotography, is the sum of many layered video stills that together create a sharper, brighter image. Every picture is made possible as a product of time. In his antiquated prose, Galileo’s inaccurate words also point to time: the time in which he observed the planet as well as the measured pace of its orbit. Time, it would seem, renders truth mutable rather than a constant gradually revealed in its passing.

For me, it is the evocation of mythology and our unsteady relation to truth that makes the video the most interesting work. Horowitz’s kinetic sculptures, on the other hand, disdain artifice to the point of rendering themselves banal. The artist is aware of this and ascribes them with a certain absurd humour, though their clumsy materiality feels plodding and illustrative. Her wall of twenty-nine buzzing Saturns, for example, shows how the planet might be seen from Earth each year of its orbit. The aesthetic is strangely quotidian, reminiscent of a hardware store’s lighting aisle. The planets, cut into domes and mounted on the wall in a grid, look like light fixtures, while the thick painstakingly sanded rings remind me of medium-density fibreboard. The buzzing comes from servo motors that swivel the rings back and forth, like a series of unsynchronized clocks. While, it turns out, the rings were not cut from fibreboard, their material is equally common. They are made from a plastic often used for countertops, and the “light fixtures” are manufactured by a company that specializes in skylights. The unplaceable familiarity of the materials used makes the pieces feel both ready-made and handmade, as if they are a series of prototypes awaiting sleeker presentation.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the kinetic sculpture that appears in the video—the orbiting Saturn suspended from a machine affixed to Platform’s ceiling. Horowitz calls this particular version of the planet a “tetherball.” Where the video screen affords it a sense of mystery and intimacy, its physical presence reveals a little too much. The grey sphere completes its lumbering orbit, haltingly stops, then proceeds to revolve the other way. While picturing Saturn as a tetherball is humorous, the colourless palette gives it an air of earnestness. Mystery gives way to mechanics, and knowledge becomes illustration.

Horowitz’s photographs of Saturn inhabit a middle ground. The lustre of their dark surfaces simultaneously draws in and reflects, while the blurry planet remains on the threshold of accessibility. In one print the planet is repeated at different scales, which serves to reiterate changes in perspective over time and the inherent fallibility of observation. In small text at the bottom, this effect is explained as a Photoshop glitch, leaving the separation between truth and representation safely intact.

Science and art have a fraught relationship that has, throughout history, oscillated between the intimate and the estranged. In the current environment, even as collaborations between artists and scientists are on the rise, arts and humanities in universities often find their funding cut. Science, in its most popular understanding, is still the standard-bearer of objectivity and truth. For obvious reasons, Horowitz clearly prefers empirical knowledge to myth, though it is when her work flirts with the art of science, rather than its earnest efforts toward truth, that it seems the strongest. It is at this point where I can most poignantly sense the artist’s fascination with the stars—a visceral, mesmerizing fascination reminiscent of earlier attempts at understanding ourselves through the movements of celestial bodies. Reading how Galileo “plumbed the fallacies” of his observations, or attempted to revive his “languishing hope,” gave me a sense of Horowitz’s desire for comprehension coupled with her awe before the very immensity of that which she cannot know.

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