Saturday, March 22, 2008

Santa Fe

I haven’t been to any scientific conference for a year, so attending one in Santa Fe is refreshing. I have been in this field so long that going to a conference is like attending a family union: lots of familiar faces, with a few new additions. There are a few people whose presence can be depended upon. There is one man who has indefatigably come to every conference that I recall going to, and he asks the same set of questions and makes the same set of comments in the sessions that his attendance can be accurately reproduced from recordings.

In conferences, the audience often pretend that they understand the speaker. In one lecture, the speaker opened with a mathematical problem. He went over the problem so quickly that I did not understand it. Seeing no confusion in the audience, I assumed that I was the dumb one. After the session, I asked around for a clarification of the problem. Yet no one understood the problem enough to explain it. In a conference, none of us is as dumb as all of us.

Someone spoke about the state of the field. It was essentially a summary of the unsolved research problems. It was depressing to hear the list because I had heard the same list years ago. It upset me also to observe that most people, who could all eloquently critique the status quo of the field, were attempting nothing to change it. Moreover, there were skeptics who outright reject any possibility of significant advance in the field. They arouse in me a sense of pity. Why keep doing something that you don’t even believe in? Inertia is the source of all misery.


I am not fond of contemporary art – most of it, at least. Nevertheless, I went to see Cai Guoqiang’s exhibition “I Want to Believe” in Guggenheim. I went because I had corporate membership so I did not have to pay. I went because Chinese modern art had been fetching skyrocketing prices in art auctions, so I felt that I should be more in the know. I went also because I liked novelties, and creating art using the violent means of burning gunpowder, the technique that Cai pioneered, sounded convincingly novel.

I still entertain the old-fashioned thought that art should serve life. Art for art’s own sake offends me. I feel sorry for contemporary pieces that exist only to question the definition of art, as much as I feel sorry for an amnesiac person questioning “who am I?” I am appalled when art tries to include every triviality in its domain: a shark suspended in formaldehyde, castrated human figurines, a plume of black smoke in the air, an array of jars labeled as a variety of fluids including human urine. Are they art or just children’s mischief? Some argue that abolishing all rules of art makes the possibility of artistic creativity boundless. But does creativity without bound even make sense?

Scientific creativity, for example, is creativity with constraints. A creative theory explains experimental mysteries; a creative experiment tests a theoretical hypothesis. We regard Einstein’s theory of relativity as the culmination of scientific creativity as much for its completely new view of space-time as for its success in explaining many astronomical observations that were previously inexplicable. Only with constraints can we separate true creativity from lunacy.

Architecture and fashion also call for creativity with constraints. No matter how twisted a building is – take a look at Turning Torso in Sweden – a building has to be above all functional. The architect at no time can forget that he is creating a shape and space for human use, as an office, a store, or a home. No one, upon seeing the most outlandish building, will mistake it for something else. The same is true for fashion. The most outrageous design still has to fit a human body for willing customers to pay for and wear.

I enjoyed Cai’s exhibit, that is, I liked a few pieces, hated a few, and was indifferent to most others. I liked the pieces that Cai created for specific commissions, in which he used gunpowder to burn in identifiable images. There was an image of two barely visible wolves in a black forest. In another was a rainbow of fireworks over a historical town. In memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Cai created an image of many mushroom clouds, aligned in rows and columns, by controlled burning of powder under cutouts and arranged grass.

But when Cai was given a free reign to express his artistic ideal, things can go really wrong. The installation of nine cars flying through air – an attempt to capture the dynamic sequence of an exploding car bomb in frozen motion – was confusing, childish, and almost laughable. There was also the film showing the burning down of a house with exploding fireworks, a dumb and pointless show. Cai also went around the world to make rainbows of fireworks: exploding gunpowder in midair in a rainbow shape. But nothing tops, in absurdity, Cai’s Extension of the Great Wall by Ten Thousand Meters, in which he ignited a belt of gunpowder of ten thousand meters outside Jiayu Guan, the western end of the Great Wall. There is no lamer form of art than obvious and trivial symbolism.