2007年8月17日 星期五

If Einstein Painted...

If Einstein Painted...
Observations on "A Retrospective of Su Hsin-Tien's Cyclical Space Paintings."

Author: Zhang Li-hao

Full text originally printed in Art Today, April 2007.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
---Albert Einstein

Using Two-dimensional Paintings to Present Einstein's Theory of Space

The universe is always called "vast and boundless." It is without a doubt the most mysterious thing that we know, and thus has become the fountainhead for art and science. It also created an opportunity for the thinking of the scientist Albert Einstein and the artist Su Hsin-Tien to overlap.

The universe has left humans perplexed and full of questions since ancient times. Even today, when humans have the ability to land on the moon, there are more questions than ever about the universe. One of the most important questions to answer is this: "What is the geometric structure of the universe?"

Even though Chuang Tzu, in his “Under Heaven” chapter, revealed that the universe's vastness was “ Large without any borders, small without an interior; limitless in division, reduced by half every day, yet all things never ending." But Chuang Tzu did not have a theory to verify his speculations, and it wasn't until Einstein's Theory of Relativity appeared that classical ideas about space, as typified by Isaac Newton and his statement that "Absolute Space, in its own nature, without regard to any thing external, remains always similar and immovable," were thoroughly destroyed and space was seen as having limits but no borders. Gravity was seen to originate from the curvature of space. In a certain sense, Einstein and Chuang Tzu seem to have communicated from afar.

But how can this view of the universe be expressed in a two-dimensional painting?

08位相互換 Overturning

"Overturning" 167x121cm. 1973.
Su Hsin-Tien

In the 1920s and 1930s, after Einstein published his general theory of relativity in the spring of 1916, French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire was the first to explore this question. He inspired the Cubist artists Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, and later Italian Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni, French Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp, Czech geometric abstract painter Frantisek Kupka, Russian Constructivist master Kasimir Malevich and Russian geometric abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky to investigate the concept of space from a variety of angles using the potential available in two-dimensional paintings.

This period of experimentation was short-lived, and was soon replaced by an interest in abstract expressionism and surrealism.

In Taiwan, it wasn't until the 1970s that Su Hsin-tien became deeply attracted by this question and began repeatedly experimenting with it. His achievements were finally presented on March 10, 2007 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum with the opening of "A Retrospective of Su Hsin-Tien's Cyclical Space Paintings."

The exhibition was divided into six sections: Illusive Cycle (e.g. "Overturning," 1973); Non-Objects (e.g. "Vacuous Universe Inside," 1983); Deep Illusion (e.g. "Billowing and Flowing of Space at Dusk," 1985) ; Multi-dimensional World (e.g. "Distorted Sea Under Hot Sun," 1991); Rotating Spaces (e.g. "Around the World," 2006); Cyclical Horizons (e.g. "Concave Cycle," 2006). The exhibition revealed, in a complete and comprehensive manner, the results of Su Hsin-Tien's 30+ years of painstaking research.

Su's early two-dimensional illusory works overturned traditional uses of perspective, taking "non-objects" and imbedding them in a magnificent realistic landscape, creating an illusion of depth in a multi-dimensional world. The paintings depict a world in which space is twisted due to the presence of multiple gravity fields. Size of objects inside and outside the field are distorted and the field of vision is reconstructed. In other works, a fish-eye camera lens effect is used in combination with a rotating horizon. Su is equally interested in science and art, which allow his 53 enormous paintings and accompanying explanatory legends and tables to go beyond the realm of normal paintings and lead viewers on a grand and extraordinary theoretical journey.

12宇宙虛空在內部Vacuous Universe Inside

"Vacuous Universe Inside,"
257x192cm. 1983. Su Hsin-Tien

An experiment using illusion to break past the limits of two and four dimensions

As Su Hsin-tien recalls, when he was in university he asked the same question that was asked by 14th century poet Liu Ji: "If the sky has borders, what is outside of the borders?" However, Su was more fortunate than Liu, because he had a definite answer, in that he believed in Einstein's cosmology that used mechanics as its primary basis.

"The universe does not have borders," and so Su went about with his illusion experiments. His motive was to show that "emptiness does not surround substance"; because he had become familiar with the Klein Bottle concept, he became interested in Topology and attempted to link the inner and outer sides of space or pictures. During his second , Non-object period, he experimented using overlapping pictures to create illusions. During his third, Deep Illusion period, he discovered that illusions may not be completely correct, and so developed the possibility that the horizon could bend and turn in space.

In his fourth period, Multi-dimensional World, he broke past the limitation of having multiple horizons and went beyond the limitations of what Dutch painting M.C. Escher called "Curved Parallel Perspective." But no matter how much a curved surface is bent, it still has a "border," which is why Su later returned to experiment with "illusion" and further develop it in his fifth period, Rotating Spaces, where he linked the interior and exterior together again. In his sixth period, Cyclical Horizons, the question Su attempted to deduce was simpler. He aimed to emphasize the special characteristics of cycles. In the end, Su Hsin-tien believed that his works were still in the "symbolic stage" (even though he believed that he had already successfully expressed his idea) because it was impossible to categorically assert that the universe was that way, and it was impossible to categorically assert that the universe depicted did not have a border.


"Billowing and Flowing of Space at Dusk,"
184x110cm. 1985. Su Hsin-tien.

Looking at the exhibition as a whole, we can see the work of an artist who has had an almost religious-like devotion to his art, and who attempts in his paintings to go beyond the physical limits of the two-dimensional (canvas) and the four-dimensional (universe) and to create a universe that may more closely approximate reality. We must offer our great respect for his efforts (after all, he has taken on a fiercely difficult challenge).

I am sure that some people will be seduced by the vast array of perspectives, distortions, and transformations, and become lost in the bizarre visual feast, missing out on the rational and accurate depiction of forms. The artist has tried to repress them, but horizons still make quiet appearances in the paintings, popping out at unexpected times.

What appear to be these insignificant traces are in fact what reveal Su Hsin-Tien's transformation from an emphasis on rationality to emotion, allowing the individual and the universe, science and art, to fuse together into one hope.

This hope is especially apparent after the Deep Illusion period, and there are numerous readily apparent examples. These can be found even in Su's earliest Illusive Cycle period, even though he said he tried to suppress his individual expression, in pieces like "Bodhisattva on the Cross," (1973), where he switched the representative symbols for Buddhism and Christianity and made them refer to each other, which expressed the turmoil he experienced while living in the U.S. In another work from the same year, "Amazing Interior," there appears to be a red object that is stuck in the middle of the painting, which is a clear reference to the idea that even though Su experienced many tribulations, he maintained the vital and courageous spirit of a true artist.

In "Time-Space Confusion Over Winter Village" (1989), an image of strangely dislocated space takes up over half of the painting. In the lower left corner there are a few deformed little houses that become in the end the balance point for the viewer’s field of vision. They play dual roles in form and narration and make the entire work seem natural and logical, making it apparent that Su had already grasped how to finely balance formal technique and narrative structure.

38倘佯在宇宙內外之間The Joy Between the Inside and Outside of the Universe

"The Joy Between the Inside and the
Outside of the Universe,"
173x173cm. 2006. Su Hsin-Tien.

Su Hsin-Tien said that he did not intentionally try to represent in his paintings the likely effect of time, the fourth dimension in a four-dimensional universe. Therefore, you can only see hints of time in his works, such as in "The Joy Between the Inside and the Outside of the Universe" (2006), where he clearly showed in the center of the painting a woman in an armchair holding something in her right hand over an elapsed period of time. Time is also an element in "Look Out! Don't Get Sucked Into the Black Hole" (2006), where repeated turns and clashes of space create a window of time between the past and the future. In the center of the painting a boy is crawling forwards towards a vortex from a far-away universe that is exerting its gravitational pull on him. In the two works "Summer Dusk, Heaven and Earth Switch Places" (1989) and "Universe Overturned, Dawn and Dusk Swapped" (1997), even though the works were completed eight years apart they both portray a figure with almost the same posture: on the left side a woman in a hammock is strung up between two trees, on the right side in the distance a mother and child are playing badminton, with the girl’s father acting as referee and a yellow dog in the background watching. Only the distorted space in the background appears in a different form, which appears to show the effect of the two-way flow of time, even if the artist himself did not have this effect in mind.

05菩薩「定」在十字架上 Bodhisattva on the Cross

"Bodhisattva on the Cross"
167x121cm. 1973. Su Hsin-Tien.

These details make the narrative in the painting even more striking, and it is these narrative structures from individual life experiences that make viewers look up as if they were the ancients peering up at a twinkling star in the sky, the ancients who used their imagination to create beautiful legends about this most mysterious thing called the universe.

If Einstein painted, I believe that there would also be a violin in his universe, or a picture of him and his girlfriend Mileva boating on Zurich Lake.

Translator :( Mark Hammons )