By CHRISTOPHER Y. LEW
Sungmi Lee, Re-Birth (detail), 2005. Courtesy the artist.
Explorations—of all scales, cosmic and microcosmic—demand methods of gauging and surveying. To determine the number of atoms in a bar of gold or the velocity of the planets, we must ask “how long?,” “how much?,” “how many?” For the artists featured in Bearable Lightness…Likeness, the answer to all of these questions is a lot. It is a whole lot of beads, sugar cubes, hot glue sticks, fasteners, push pins, and monoﬁlament, to be exact. Or rather inexact, for it is an uncountable number of these everyday goods that are strung up, glued down, and meticulously assembled in P.S.1’s second ﬂoor gallery. As to avoid a boring catalog of materials in the room, a tally of the many hours gluing, painting, and hanging, and a ledger of retail values—this isn’t the Price is Right after all— let’s settle on a sumless sum of goods, hours, and values.
As I’m not the ﬁrst to apply such an exact rigor to detailed description, I refer to a letter by Isaac Newton (ca. 1692) in which the famed physicist loquaciously puts it: “If any Man shall take the Words, Number and Sum, in larger Sense, so as to understand thereby Things, which in the proper way of speaking are numberless and sumless (as you seem to do when you allow an inﬁnite Number of Points in a Line) I could readily allow him the Use of the contradictious Phrases of innumerable Number, or sumless Sum, without inferring from thence any Absurdity in the Thing he means by those Phrases.” While the notion of innumerable numbers may seem like an oxymoron, Newton makes use of these phrases when calculating at a large scale. Like the inﬁnite points that can be plotted on a number line, the sumless is not the result of incertitude, but rather the product of precision.
These innumerable numbers and sumless sums allow art to become so bearably and inﬁnitely light. Todd Pavlisko’s assemblage of retail tag fasteners, Michele Kong’s strings of hot glue, Milton Rosa-Ortiz’s suspended cubes of sugar— all of these are constructed from what we see everyday, yet are from another ethereal world, free of the heavy earth-bound realm. As another astronomer and theorist, Galileo Galilei, wrote in his 1590 essay On Motion, “Now every day we observe with our senses that the places of the heavy are those which are closer to the center of the universe and the places of the light those which are farther distant.” Galileo, whose methodology paved the way for Newton’s mathematics, believed the natural place of heavy objects was closer to the earth (or sun, as he would later advocate a heliocentric model of the solar system) while the lighter elements were lodged farther away, in the direction of the orbiting planets and the stars.
The “places of the light” can be so distant that any motion is imperceptible. Though the stars in the night sky seem static they are in constant motion, spreading further out as the universe expands. Likewise these works are subtle and ﬂeeting—the incense smoke in Sungmi Lee’s Plexiglas sculpture, the elusive erased drawing by Cory Wagner—suggestive of the crystalline spheres of medieval astronomy that support the constellations.
As we read into these stellar bodies—the crabs, bears, and hunters of mythology—we search for connections and patterns that reﬂect more of ourselves rather than the heavens. The sense of discovery—of the body and society—is found in Louis Cameron’s bold palette based on commercial products and Suzanne Broughel’s mandala-like compositions. Even Johannes Kepler, Galileo’s contemporary and colleague, discovered earth-bound visions as he calculated the motions of the planets. Planetary motion, Kepler wrote in 1619, “comes about gradually by the linking and accumulation of a great many revolutions…just as by a great many circles of silken thread, linked with each other and wound together, the dwelling of a silkworm is made.”
—“Bearable Lightness…Likeness : CALCULATING LIGHTNESS.” P.S.1 NEWSPAPER, SUMMER 2006, p.3.