Art, the Universe and Everything

A mind-bending trip with the artists probing the Big Bang

Troika, Time Only Exists so that not everything happens at once, 2014 | Image by Dirk Pauwels for KU Leuven

Contemporary art curator Hannah Redler Hawes takes us to the edge of time – from the first photo of the blue marble to holograms, via a solar eclipse disco ball – in a tale of modern cosmology entangled with art

Did you know that a city in Belgium is the birthplace of the most extraordinary scientific discovery story of our time? At the dawn of the 20th century in the Belgian city of Leuven, Professor, priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître first formulated his revolutionary Big Bang Theory.

It didn’t just rock the world of science to its core. It unleashed an explosion of cultural beauty.

Lemaître’s first descriptions of the expanding universe and the ‘primeval atom’ identified a beginning of time. 

Image by Dirk Pauwels for KU Leuven

This is the first ever visualisation of the Big Bang concept, where t=0 indicates the beginning of time (1927) | © UCLouvain, Archives Georges Lemaître, Louvain-la-Neuve

Rooted in Albert Einstein’s infamous theory of relativity, Lemaître provided a birth certificate for the Universe, which science had previously believed to be constant without beginning or end. The sketches continue to feed directly into the work of modern-day leading thinkers like Stephen Hawking.

Between October 2021 and January 2022 Lemaître was celebrated as the star of Leuven’s sensational city-wide festival Knal! (Big Bang!). Knal Festival invited me to curate an art and science exhibition about his legacy, with the Belgian cosmologist and former Hawking collaborator Professor Thomas Hertog. In To the Edge of Time we discussed how Lemaître, Einstein and Hawking, alongside others, reshaped our modern understanding of space, time and the Universe. 

Charmaine Watkiss, Infinity, 2017 | Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary, London

By bringing modern and contemporary artists into the mix, we were able to present their amazing ideas as part of wider culture. We selected artists whose attempts to grapple with our relationship with the Universe raise equally essential questions. The show reinforced how everything we know starts with our imagination and perceptions and that knowledge is a work in progress. Artworks emphasised what science has only recently acknowledged, that we cannot expand our understanding of the Universe by only looking outwards; we also need to be able to look inwards at ourselves, at how we see, think about and sense the world, from multiple angles simultaneously. 

Join me on a walk through some of the fabulous themes, extraordinary thought-experiments, questions and provocations that their works inspire.

Real time – or just an illusion?

Considering the Big Bang as the beginning of time from a cosmological perspective requires a new and radical understanding. This means divorcing our understanding of time from the finite time we experience ourselves.

Thomson & Craighead, Flipped Clock, 2011 | Photo by Dirk Pauwels for KU Leuven

With their work Flipped Clock, British artists Thomson & Craighead play with the illusive nature of clock time by flipping each digit on a digital clock by 180 degrees: “It’s so easy to forget that clock time is not a natural phenomenon but a human system of measurement” says Alison Craighead “and” adds Jon Thomson “our ‘Flipped Clock’ attempts to let us re-see this even if it is just for a few moments.”

Today, leading theoretical physicists propose we should think of the Universe as a hologram, in the sense that either the direction of time, or the third space dimension is believed to be an illusion. If that isn’t mind-bending enough, British painter and digital art pioneer Suzanne Treister suggests artists got there first. 

Watercolours by cosmologist Thomas Hertog, KU Leuven, for Suzanne Treister, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, 2018 | © Suzanne Treister/Thomas Hertog

Treister’s video installation, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History (THUTOAH), was created during an artists’ residency at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). In an interview for SIAF2020, she says, “I had already had a theory, several years prior to my CERN residency, connecting the holographic universe principle and art history… that artists may have also been attempting, involuntarily and or unconsciously, to describe a reality we cannot see with our own eyes.”

Watercolour by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Lerche, CERN, for Suzanne Treister, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, 2018. © Suzanne Treister / Wolfgang Lerche

Treister projects a colossal library of 25,000 international artworks, from cave painting to global contemporary art chronologically at 25 images per second onto an enormous circular screen. The flickering action conceptually echoes the movement of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator, to create a unique illusion where time and history overlap. Treister shows this alongside watercolours she commissioned from scientists to visualise their theories.

Suzanne Treister, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, 2018 | Photo by FACT, Liverpool

Scientists at the forefront of the Holographic Universe theory suggest we will have to do away with one of these dimensions entirely, but have not reached consensus on whether time or space will have to ‘go’. Sounds shocking? Treister’s deep dive into art history suggests we are more prepared for a collective conceptual reset than we might have imagined. 

Suzanne Treister, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, 2018 (detail). Watercolours by scientists | Photo by Dirk Pauwels for KU Leuven

And now things get warped

At the turn of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein viewed time as a fourth dimension that stretches and squeezes. Before Einstein, Western cosmic thought was dominated by Isaac Newton’s theories, which saw the Universe as an unchanging expanse beyond our control or understanding. Time here was absolute, flowing steadily from the infinite past to the infinite future. Einstein’s new theory brought space and time alive. 

Musician and artist Leo Robinson’s The Lake (Newton) (2017) seems to capture this profound moment when Einstein overthrew Newton, but refuses to provide us with any fixed truth.

Leo Robinson, The Lake (Newton), 2017 | Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary, London

A representation of Einstein’s dynamic spacetime dominates a make-believe micro-civilisation where images of Greek ideals share space with peculiar architecture, imaginary plant-life and portals between worlds. As a wild organic orb appears to take root from Einstein’s proposal, a picture of Newton – in fact a transcription of the mystical 17th century English poet William Blake’s portrait of the great scientist – makes its way into a glitching fire. 

Blake was highly critical of Newton, whom he saw as too reductive. Equally, Robinson is interested in how we change with our beliefs. His work challenges us to understand truth as provisional and capable of transformation – an essential condition for accepting new ideas. 

Starry, starry day

Our sense of earthly time, of night and day, is based on our observations of the Sun moving across the sky. This cycle is so central to our lives that when it becomes altered by an event – like a solar eclipse – we can be filled with joy, excitement or fear of impending doom. 

Katie Paterson, Totality, 2016 | © Katie Paterson

Katie Paterson, a Fife-based artist from Glasgow, blends this profound human experience with the kitchy magic of a mirrored disco ball. Her installation Totality, brings together over 10,000 pictures of nearly every solar eclipse documented by people.

Katie Paterson, Totality (detail), 2016 | © Katie Paterson

Organised to chart the progression of the eclipse from partial to total, strong lights project the tiny star-like images across the floor, walls and ceilings. We too become part of it; our bodies immersed in the dazzling array. According to Paterson, “Because of the lights, it has a galactic feel. It feels pretty cosmic in there.”

We are already here in space

Paterson is one of many artists recognising that, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we are as much part of the immeasurable system we call the Universe as any other celestial object. At the turn of the twentieth century Russian avant-garde artists sought to transform our relationship to the Earth and to reality. 

Things are about to get abstract. 

It was 1915 when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity overthrew Newton. That same year, Polish-Ukrainian avant-garde artist and art theorist Kazimir Malevich introduced Russian Suprematism, with Black Square – the first time a painting wasn’t a painting of something.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

For those of us used to seeing abstract art this work may not feel surprising. It is hard to imagine the jolt of being asked to accept a picture of something that didn’t look like anything recognisable, at a time when most paintings depicted figurative scenes. Black Square is now recognised as the ground zero of modern art. Malevich was not simply removing references to the real world. He conceived Suprematism as an opportunity to escape the physical and ideological structures of Earth.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition (Mixed Feelings), 1916 | Private collection, Belgium

The unifying features of his Suprematist works are drawn or painted monochromatic graphic forms floating in a limitless, boundless space. We could be anywhere in relation to them, even floating up above them looking down, which was a perspective no other artist had depicted before. 

American artist Liliane Lijn also takes us out of this world. Liquid Reflections, created between 1966 and 1968 places us in a darkened space looking down on a luminous disc of light that appears to be floating in the ether. Two glowing translucent spheres move across the disc, their particle- and planet-like motion drawn by the centrifugal force and the pull of gravity.

Liliane Lijn, Liquid Reflections, 1966-1968 | Photo © Jacqueline Trichard

The connections between us, nature and the cosmos are enduring concerns for Lijn who sees the world she says “ in terms of light and energy”. To occupy the space with Liquid Reflections is to feel an integral part of the ancient play between both. 

All or most of my work is to do with the connection between human nature and the cosmos. Light is an absolute principle.

Liliane Lijn
Liliane Lijn, Liquid Reflections, 1966-1968 | Photo by Dirk Pauwels for KU Leuven

It started with a pic

In 1972, astronauts on their way to the Moon changed the world. The crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft’s photograph of Earth from space redefined our relationship with our home planet.

The Blue Marble, by the crew of Apollo 17 (1972)

Delhi-based artist and amateur astronomer Rohini Devasher still finds the image remarkable. She says, “the first view of Earth from outer space transformed our consciousness and made us think about the Earth’s ecosystem as a single planetary unit.”

Devasher’s 2015 film Atmospheres is her own mesmerising response. Created at the Gauribidanur Observatory in India, she used a fish-eye lens to film Earth in space from our perspective on the ground. The horizon we are so used to seeing as a horizontal band transforms into an infinite blue sphere edged by a slim glimmer of red-brown earth. Air becomes solid, and solid melts into air.

Data as an art material

Our collective idea of outer space has been heavily influenced by the astonishing data collected by industrial scale apparatus or experiments on Earth and in space. Artists interrogate the images generated from these data to question how the processes and assumptions of science shape our views, pointing to the role of collective fantasy in shaping consensual reality. 

Irish artist Grace Weir brings a photograph taken by the Hubble Deep Field team to life. Her immersive animated film, A deep field for the time deaf, brings us face to face with the ancient light, only a stone’s throw from the Big Bang, through a slow revelatory process.

Grace Weir Deep Field | Photo by Dirk Pauwels

Brighton-based Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who work together as Semiconductor, use light to explore patterns in debris data created by particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Semiconductor, HALO installation, 2018 | Photo by Kaleido Shoots
Semiconductor, HALO, 0.1, 0.2, 0.32018 | © Semiconductor 

Visual artist Sarah Pickering plays with our perception of deep space. Her Celestial Objects series looks like the hot gas and dust stars are formed within, but is in fact blow ups of gunfire.

Sarah Pickering, Celestial Objects, 2013 © Sarah Pickering

For Black Holes, she shot at sheets of photographic paper in a British gun-testing facility known as The Black Hole. The violence of gunfire ripping through the paper resulted in a cosmic appearance, closer to our idea of black holes than to reality. Collectively these artists remind us that pictures of deep space often consist of a combination of raw observations, conjecture, and belief – or imagination. 

Does time reveal everything?

How do we come to agree with what we believe to be true? The process of observation emerges as a key theme in artist trio Troika’s film Time Only Exists so that not everything happens at once. The film starts with a droplet of black ink on a wet ground. Over time, the constituent colours bleed out to create a vibrant array with an explosive feel. We are conscious of still watching the black ink, but with an entirely new understanding which could only have been reached over time. 

Troika, Time Only Exists so that not everything happens at once, 2014

Suspension of disbelief is the only way we can try to begin to understand true mysteries. Andy Holden’s major work Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape uses clips from the golden age of cartoons to introduce us to fictional laws of physics. Appearing as a cartoon avatar of himself (real and not real – geddit?!), he explains why things can happen in cartoons that don’t in real life.

Andy Holden, Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape, 2011–2016 © Andy Holden

Set against the latest thinking in cosmology his fictional cartoon laws such as this feel strangely credible: “The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twenty flights to attempt to capture it unbroken.”

Andy Holden, Eyes in Space, 2011 © Andy Holden

We create the universe as much as it creates us

By focusing on our role as observers, explorers and purposeful inhabitants of the cosmos, artists continue to help us find our place in this immeasurable system. The American astronomer Carl Sagan famously argued that we are a way for the Universe to know itself. Artists reinforce the responsibility this extraordinary position bestows upon us. 

Jackie Karuti asks: what if thought could take flight not to some other world, but towards another kind of life in this world? She combines science, technology and magic to probe this question in her work.

Jackie’s critical commentary brings our attention to the ways in which our human capacity for corrosive behaviour can undermine our utopian ideals. In The Planets – Chapter 32 (2017), she uses animation and video montage to describe a world where the relationships we forge with ourselves, our planet and the Universe through science have the potential to make magic or cause harm. 

The Planets, Chapter 32, 2017 
… but with a sharp sense of humour © Jackie Karuti

The closer we are to honouring these relationships, the deeper understanding we might reach. Phoebe Boswell’s deeply personal portrait Mum’s Feet, Grounded presents an East African mother as a powerful symbol of our collective beginnings.

Phoebe Boswell, Mum’s Feet (Grounded), 2021 © Phoebe Boswell

Boswell connects the act of mark-making, lines and pigments with our earliest attempts to communicate our thoughts and ideas. The work speaks to a sense of eternity, timelessness and a universal sublime. Born of stars and of flesh, we are here. We exist within the Universe, and it exists within the stories we create. And on that note, I have run out of time and space, so long and see you in the next dimension – if it still exists at that stage. 

What’s so good about this?

When artists take us on mind-expanding flights of fancy to help us form an image of the known and unknown Universe, we begin to recognise what Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog have argued all along…. that we create the Universe as much as it creates us.

Our picture of deep space often consists of a combination of raw observations, conjecture and interpretation. Feeling cosmic?Check out the Knal Festival book, Big Bang: Imagining the Universe, which features all of the artworks from To The Edge of Time.

Meet the writer

A contemporary art curator and researcher, Hannah Redler-Hawes specialises in projects which raise social, cultural and ethical questions at the points where art, data, science and technology intersect. She works with museums, galleries, and universities across the world. Alongside her independent practice, she is the Director of the Data as Culture art programme at the Open Data Institute and between 2000 and 2014 headed up art programming for the Science Museum London, founding its contemporary art collection. 

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