Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nanoart: beyond visual arts?

Has NanoArt gone beyond the visual arts? The question must necessarily be asked in view of the dimensions of a work like Actual Size, an Africa measuring 300 x 280 nanometres, lithographed on a silicon wafer. To give some terms for comparison or reference, you only need think that the smallest cells in our bodies – bacterial cells – measure 1 micron, namely one millionth of a metre, while a nanometre is a billionth of a metre. Therefore, the shortest side of Actual Size measures 280 nanometres. If you think that Africa is on a silicon wafer measuring approximately two centimetres on each side, it is clear that finding the lithography on its surface, even using the necessary tools, is not exactly straightforward, but desperately complex.

The lithograph of the African continent is therefore invisible to the naked eye. On display, the viewer only sees the silicon plate and nothing else. Yet Africa is there, only we are unable to perceive its existence. We might then decide to place the wafer under an optical microscope, but again we would not see anything: Actual Size is so minute that it is not even visible using an optical microscope. Indeed, sometimes researchers insert markers – or in other words, signs – to mark the boundaries within which the work is placed, but even doing this the area is still vast, and anyone with a FESEM – Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope capable of observing nanometric sized objects – would still find themselves looking for a needle in a haystack.

Compared to any other artwork made and exhibited to date, Actual Size inevitably raises a whole series of rather worrying questions. Firstly, does the work actually exist? Must we trust the artist? Or is it all a prank, a joke, a divertissement, a brag by two amusing guys, the nth sickening provocation – and nothing more – by contemporary art?
Starting from the premise that nanometric objects cannot be seen with the naked eye, and not even with an optical microscope, Robin and I could theoretically claim that anything whatsoever could be on the tiny silicon fragment: it would be difficult to prove otherwise. Certainly, it would be a classic case of taking the mickey, but the works are made and certified by the Politecnico di Torino, and anyone – provided the necessary precautions are taken – can come and watch the artefact being made in the white rooms of the Chilab or Latemar laboratories.

So all the sceptics can relax: Africa really is on the surface of the silicon wafer, but the question still remains, to the effect that ok, the work is there, but if I can’t see it, does it exist? Thinking along these lines makes no sense: it would be equivalent, for example, to denying the existence of cells because they are invisible to the human eye. Indeed, it is important to clarify whether it’s true that the works are invisible to the naked eye, not in absolute terms: using the appropriate equipment, and with a large dose of patience and good luck, you can find and see Africa.

There’s no doubt, however, that Actual Size – taken for itself, and not flanked by images created using electron microscopes that reveal its existence – creates a sort of aesthetic embarrassment. What’s this, exhibiting a work that exists but cannot be seen? Yet, this is precisely its beauty. Just think again about the meaning of the work – the invisibility of Africa: it’s a fact that is as real as its actual, physical existence – to understand the pregnancy of the contradiction and the paradox. In this case, invisibility is not an end in itself, but it is functional to the meaning of the work. Actual Size is invisible because this is how it must be, not because it is a simple display of virtuosity.

How else, then, could you exhibit an invisible artwork? We wonder about this every time we set up an exhibition. For Actual Size – in the case of the NanoArt exhibition at Bergamo – we used a subterfuge: we created a larger copy of the work, measuring a few microns, and we placed this chip under the lens of a optical microscope, while the original work – in nanometric dimensions – was displayed alongside the enlarged reproduction. What visitors saw was therefore not the original artwork, but a copy with the same characteristics, but larger dimensions, making it visible.

Another important example of pushing through the limits of the visible is represented by Beyond the pillars of Hercules, which not surprisingly was the first Nano artwork created by Robin and myself. This series of micrometric imprints printed on a silicon wafer were intended to represent the first steps of art into a mysterious universe, which although it forms part of our own universe is nonetheless often governed by completely different laws that seem paradoxical, contradictory and absurd. It is the universe of the infinitely small or invisible, of quanta of matter and laws that describe their behaviour, quantum mechanics.
We can also talk about the first steps in terms of dimensions: compared to the nanometric dimensions of Actual Size, you could say that Beyond the pillars of Hercules is a gigantic work: the imprints are a few microns long, and the whole sequence is 2 centimetres long in all. However, you struggle to see anything with the naked eye: in particular conditions of lighting, you can glimpse a series of dots that form a winding line, but nothing more.

Only the four black and white FESEM images – exhibited to integrate the work at the San Fedele Award in Milan – reveal the details: on what appears to be a lunar surface, you can clearly make out the marks left by someone’s boots, and moreover, you can see the pressure exerted by their bodyweight on the ground: the footprints are not just “marked” but are really “imprinted”, acquiring depth.
Lastly, they are also the first steps taken by art beyond the boundaries of the visible: works that are present, they exist, but they are hidden from sight, they cannot be seen: our contemporary bulimic gaze cannot reach them. Constantly bombarded by an infinite sequence of stimuli, faced with invisible works the eye has to give way to momentary uselessness. At this juncture, the eye undergoes epochè, or suspends judgement.

Although the eye is excluded from one of its preferred territories, I don’t believe that NanoArt is a denial of vision. On the contrary, invisible art may perhaps be an invitation not to dwell only on looking, but instead to observe. To analyse in greater detail and depth, without just being open to impressions or suggestions. Invisible art is an attempt to go beyond simple, commonplace vision: perhaps it’s the idea of being active observers rather than passive, acritical, distracted, superficial and pre-packaged onlookers. NanoArt aims to challenge, contrast and question the dictatorship of the eye and image, and to propose a different kind of observation that does not involve the eye in the first place, or is not exclusively reduced to seeing.
After all, the eye itself does not see anything. It is our brain that interprets the stimuli sent by the eye and turns them into images. Paradoxically, Actual Size or NanoArt or invisible art are not a negation but rather a eulogy, an exaltation of vision, a vision that is free from the constraints of the eye and can rediscover the role of everything that, apart from the eye, allows humans to see and therefore to understand.

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