ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Frank Maes - 2016 - Benchmarks in a Disenchanted World [EN, interview]
Benchmarks in a Disenchanted World
Conversation with Frank Maes about Royden Rabinowitch
Just as I sometimes try to fathom the wanderings of my two brothers, who lead parallel lives in this vast universe, so I am always curious about the spiritual and material adventures of Frank Maes (b. 1972), former senior curator of S.M.A.K. and founder of the art centre Emergent, who combines his intellectual interests with concrete experiments involving artists. As a former amateur cyclist, he knows what physical intelligence is, and he never forgets that there is a world that remains beyond the reach of language. Yet he continues to try to capture things in beautiful stories and academic texts. Yesterday evening, I had the joy of hearing him summarise, within two lucid reflections, the material existence of Royden Rabinowitch’s (b. 1943) sculptures, whose oeuvre is the subject of his doctoral thesis.
When Maes says that Rabinowitch is fond of telling anecdotes, it reminds me of the parables of the Midrash and the Talmud. In the never-ending Jewish biblical exegesis, human interaction with an elusive world is redoubled in incoherent, contradictory, symbolic and incomprehensible texts. I don’t believe that genetics can account for the fact that so many exceptional artists and scholars have emerged from the Jewish tradition. I think it is related to the importance that is attached to education and to the age-old Jewish conviction that God is present ‘when two Jews get together to think about the Torah’, as I once read in the work of Karen Armstrong. At the heart of Jewish culture lies an essentially endless series of interpretations or hypotheses that can be formulated, questioned and tested. This has inevitably given rise to artistic, philosophical and scientific reasoning, such as Popper’s magisterial definition of a scientific theory as being a hypothesis that is formulated in a potentially refutable way. This implies that irrefutable theories such as psychoanalysis are not scientific, but also that a refutable theory does not have to be proven in order to be considered scientific. In a broader sense, this means the recognition of the inevitable handling of hypotheses in a world that only gradually reveals its secrets.
Frank Maes: Royden Rabinowitch is of Polish-Romanian descent and was raised in Jewish immigrant circles near Toronto, Canada. He was surrounded by scientists throughout his childhood. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Rabinowitch was initiated into the history of science, philosophy and art, and the parallels between the disciplines, by the Polish mathematician Abraham Robinson (1918-1974), who was a friend of the family. It was a situation that would often repeat itself over the years. Rabinowitch has always made work that stems from a dialogue. To his mind, the greatest artists are the ones who have a personal relationship with history and arrive at their own visual language through a connection with the world. I believe it is to this that he owes his distinctive penchant for anecdotes. In my PhD thesis, I constantly try to switch back and forth between the different ‘bodies of work’, the biographical anecdotes and the overarching narratives. When Royden and his twin brother David were ten, an aunt who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize came to visit the family. When the boys seemed unable to solve an elementary equation, it appeared to presage their artistic futures. Hence Royden’s statement ‘I’m just an artist’. Throughout his entire oeuvre, Rabinowitch, as an artist, has aligned himself with the varied forms of the scientific world, fully aware that – in its most advanced state – he has no access to them, in keeping with the vast majority of the world’s population.
Maes: In 1957, the two boys accompanied their father to New York, where they visited a retrospective exhibition by the sculptor David Smith (1906-1965) at MOMA and listened to Thelonious Monk’s quartet play at the Five Spot Café. Smith, Bebop and Robinson would become the foundation of Rabinowitch’s visual language. Robinson, for example, was a friend of the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968). When the latter published Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), the mathematician was able to discuss it with the author. At the same time, Robinson pointed to parallels with the history of modern science, as it had evolved since Nicolas of Cusa, and to the works of the philosophers of science, Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) and Karl Popper (1902-1994). In this context, it should be noted that within the post-war Jewish diaspora there were many whose lives were still determined by European developments. This is why philosophers of science such as Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) did not attach any value to ideas per se. Ideas could only be of merit in relation to specific and concrete circumstances. The problem, however, is that a huge chasm has opened up between the abstract, derivative sciences (whose results have almost nothing to do with the concrete world) and our intuitive experience. The essence of modernity, in fact, is that the chasm runs directly through us and, as a consequence, we must accept the impossibility of synthesis. Without an insight into this unbridgeable gulf, an open society is impossible.
Maes: All of Rabinowitch’s work involves an attempt to transform this chasm into forms, likewise the balance between the abstract-scientific and the concrete-intuitive worlds, and to express it without becoming illustrative. He persistently and emphatically states that his work has nothing to do with science. This attitude is in stark contrast to a great deal of art, which is nowadays created out of the conviction that artistic research can be equated with science. In my view, the actuality of Rabinowitch’s oeuvre lies in his resistance to all forms of obscurantism, a disease that is active once again.
For Rabinowitch, art consists of shapes and manifestations that have the ambition to be experienced as directly as possible. Art belongs to the world of our immediate experience and is far removed from the world of abstract learning, although Rabinowitch’s works spring from such knowledge. Geometry is a frequent starting point, for example cones and cylinders, or their sections, such as ellipses, parabolas and hyperbolas. To these forms, he applies the mathematical equations of the kinds that are taught in secondary school. Rabinowitch then produces plans and elevations of the sculpture and delivers the drawings to a metalworking factory. Each sculpture starts out as metal plates (in steel or aluminium), upon which three very simple industrial operations are carried out: they are rolled, folded and/or broken. Finally, the sculptures are returned to his studio, where he checks whether they have a visual impact. If not, they are destroyed or taken back to the factory for modifications.
- What is there to see?
Maes: The new drawings and sculptures in this exhibition are the result of a short circuit that was caused by the reading of the following books: Joyce in Art: Visual Art Inspired by James Joyce (2005) by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes and The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (2006) by the physicist Lee Smolin. On 6 February, people can visit the largest private collection of Rabinowitch’s work and the theoretical physicist Sander Bais will deliver a lecture at Ghent University. Emergent will host an opera entitled Moby Dick or The Trouble with Physics. The virtuoso violinist, Mikhail Bezverkhny, winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1976, will play Bach’s Chaconne and Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata. Rabinowitch will smear a steel cone with industrial grease. The opera’s libretto comprises the projection of an extract from Moby Dick. The scene also includes a pendulum, which refers to the young Galileo’s first experiment, whereby he proved that a pendulum swings at a constant rate, taking the same time to complete each swing from first launch to near standstill. This counter-intuitive insight serves as a starting point for Rabinowitch’s work and is analogous to our certainty that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around). Hence the beautiful work Bell for Kepler. Church bells are a symbol of the enchanted world, in which everyone is connected by their chimes. Rabinowitch’s bell rests on the ground. The world has become disenchanted, but we continue to search for benchmarks and to scatter obstacles in the path of the obscurantists.
Montagne de Miel, 18 January 2016