Is the X-ray image a thing of beauty? Imbued with infinite shades of grey, it begs a surprisingly simple read as an art object. It is the X-ray image's slight, formal variations, its shades of gray, that speak to its immense social value.
Conservators work tirelessly at the intersection of fine art practice, archival research and chemical analysis, using X-ray technology to interrupt the narratives that define their field. Often in their investigations, they aim X-rays at a well-known painting, creating new images with the potential to shatter an original's value, if it is a forgery, or settle raging disputes about its fabricator's technique.
Through an inverse use of X-ray technology where high energies are captured rather than created anew, astrophysicists use X-rays to reveal the debris from exploded stars, invisible material swirling around black holes and other violent phenomena from deepest space.
Because X-radiation is a more energetic type of light than can be detected by the human eye, these artists actually create new sight lines, new ways of seeing this world and worlds we have yet to know. Similarly, historians orchestrate archival material as a means of illuminating new perspectives on the past. German philosopher, Walter Benjamin described this process as one constantly engaged in unearthing hidden narrative, unknown truths---indeed constructing sight lines.
Set in the garden of the John Nicholas Brown Center For Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, new work by Roxanne Crocker facilitates a dialogue between X-ray images created by Scientists at the Harvard Art Museum and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, implicating the garden as a harbinger of a third hidden narrative.
Originally designed for the Brown family mansion by Frederick Law Olmstead's Landscaping Firm in 1903, the John Nicholas Brown Center garden was an exercise in transplanting 'wild nature' into an ordered urban environment. This natural environment was in fact the result of a highly planned and methodical design project.
Crocker has used design correspondences, original architectural plans, and Brown family photographs in her mixed-media installations to interrogate the fashioning of new public spaces from formerly private and aristocratic ones. Through her work, she introduces audiences to a differently mediated public knowledge about the history of the garden, forging new sight lines that direct audiences to the archive and beyond.Might an aesthetic appreciation of X-ray images help us bridge the gap between understandings of more "scientific" research processes used by art conservators and astrophysicists, and those used by visual artists? Undoubtedly the methods utilized by scientists and artists are more alike than they are different; all require rigorous, often exploratory, investigation and attention to aesthetic minutia.
Sight Lines is not a response to the question of who gets to be called an artist or a scientist in our society, rather it is a call for more nuanced, complete acknowledgement of the complex research that makes our world a more humane place to live. Rather than debate the merits of various modes of inquiry, perhaps we can embrace them fruitfully in different times and spaces, acknowledging them honestly for the sight lines they reveal to us, and those they do not.
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