Think of Alice in Wonderland and the party with the Mad Hatter; or the Cheshire Cat, The White Rabbit, the roses and the flowers, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the smoking Caterpillar. These characters do strange things in strange ways to Alice, who never seems affected by anything or anyone or any-being and never stops to question this new reality but accepts all as matter-of-fact. How time races forward or backward or anyway it likes, how Alice grows to dwarf a house and then shrinks to minuscule proportions, as she is sung to by colorful flowers, as a hatter who is completely mad charms her to sit for an unbirthday party— none of these elements are ever questioned by the credulous Alice. Yet how much in the quotidian workings of everyday reality do we, as participants, accept without question? We accept the moving of the clock to be in sync with all others, we believe the heat of the sun and the cool of the night, we accept that there are no two snowflakes alike even though all have six sides, we accept that the baby comes from the egg, we accept that the tree grows because of light filtering through leaves and water and nutrients are soaked up by roots, we accept that the Earth has been here for billions of years and that our heart is a muscle that beats from conception till death without taking one break. All of this and so much more we merely accept without patent, without blueprint or formula, without composition, without ingredients, without rhyme and without reason.
In his new art exhibition, one bordering on scientific investigation, Chris Purdie posits these kinds of questions with a multi-pieced installation that promises to look like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with clocks floating through the air and objects pulled by kinetic force alone across the floor. But Purdie is more existential than Alice and is far more incredulous in his approach to scientific art and his investigation of those things we see happening and accept without question. Purdie examines some of life’s bigger questions in some inventive and unique artistic approaches to form that cross the border between aesthetics and physics and back again. And he is no Mad Hatter and this is no tea party, but an art-exhibition think-tank of the phenomena of physics put to the visual consciousness for comprehension and clarity. “It’s about work, and time, and accumulation,” says Purdie.
The exhibit, which opens at Salt Lake City’s CUAC on December 19, will include, among other things, a gear system geared so far down that it will take 6800 cranks to get one rotation out of it. “[It] is attached to a big sled and a box full of rocks and the whole thing is super-heavy,” says the artist. “This geared system is attached to a cable, which is running across the gallery and attached to the floor—so theoretically, if people crank it enough times, it has the potential to be dragged across the gallery.” In a related piece, a clock attached to a pulley system will pull itself along a tightrope from one side of the gallery to the other via a string attached to the minute hand: as the minute hand turns, the string gets tighter and tighter, providing enough pressure to move the clock. The process, Purdie says, will take the duration of the show: almost three months.
Says Purdie of the exhibition in general: “I’m coming at it in a way that is an installation, nonlinear narrative where there are multiple structures that have a relationship but you have to figure it out.” The viewer of the pulley cannot see the pulley move, the viewer of the clock will not see it inch across the rope. “I feel I am setting up these sequences, these things that are almost imperceptible and really in some ways don’t exist except in the imagination of the viewer who sees the scenario, the sequence that is set up and isn’t going to exactly see it happen but can see it happen with their mind… and, if they come back they can see evidence of it happening.”
The role of the viewer is therefore paramount in the realization of these works, even though there is no apparent movement to what looks to be static sculpture, but is actually kinetic sculpture referencing various universal laws and forces. “An artist’s game is where the artist is the only one aware and the good artist is the one where the audience is part of it,” says Purdie. “In that way the audience completes the work. I like the idea of the audience helping to create the work, but as far as what they come away with, I think of time, work, accumulation and how these objects relate to life.”
Ultimately, the pieces are only signifiers to the forces they represent in a non-linear system expanding infinitely. A clock is a model for time, Purdie says, but not time itself. “The model is not the thing. The model is our way of trying to understand the thing that is the reciprocal.” His art, he says, is similar to the way structuralist sytems break down symbols. “I do this with objects, such as taking the clock that I think has come to represent time but it isn’t time, so what I am doing in some ways is to return it to what it represents instead of what it is, what we think of it, where we have nature, the sun, we have all of these different things, which produce our system of time. The clock is a way of digesting or a way of recognizing where we can read it, but having it create things, new passages of time, is a way to deconstruct that object.”
The works in Purdie’s upcoming show are all different forms of representing abstractions: time, potential, accumulation, growth. For the viewer, being in the space, realizing the full function of the symbol, and seeing the fabrication of its meaning in a sequence within a narrative that is considered a natural, nonlinear system, the kind only found in nature and never man-made or artificial, is the ultimate manifestation of the phenomenal properties of the art. Says Purdie, the non-linear “is a system with a sequence, and to see that sequence happen is a consequence of a sequence.” That sequence, like a stream with tributaries, and the consequences of it, such as the great salmon run, become what is ultimately the reality of a nonlinear narrative. “Is there a path between them?” Purdie asks. “Because there might not even be a singular connection within infinite potential for sequences,” such as there are no limits to streams and their tributaries, which may or may not connect at some interval.
Purdie’s incredulous approach to science and art puts the viewer to the test, for it is the viewer who is left to the devices of their own consciousness, pushed, according to their own abilities or limitations, to see beyond the physical and find the meaningful. But unlike conventional art, where the meaningful is usually the ends of the means, the meaningful here is only the vehicle to the greater understanding of the logic of the principle, so that the law, the concept, the foundation, the basis, the realization, might be actualized in the installation. Therefore, what might, if one were to only pop in for a few minutes, look like an artistic ghost town will instead become a Mad Tea Party, with everything explained to the incredulous and enlightened viewer who sees the pathways and visualizes the principles from the symbolic meanings to the total narrative.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.