How big is infinity? The answer seems obvious, but sub-atomic physics points to how small – infinitely small – matter might be. In which case, the question is rather: how does infinity operate, through expansion or contraction? This was at the heart of curators Lanfranco Aceti and Vince Dziekan’s choice of work by 16 artists at Southampton University’s John Hansard Gallery. ‘The Small Infinite’ looked at how miniscule blocks of material, time and emotion can build up to a totality and, likewise, how we can zoom in ad infinitum from the wide world to its constituent parts.
The curatorial agenda was set by a selection of John Latham’s well-known ‘One Second Drawings’ (1970), in which the artist aimed to represent the idea of a ‘least event’ by spraying a piece of white blockboard for one second with black paint. A particularly effective juxtaposition linked these to another compilation of ‘least events’: Susan Collins’s ‘Seascape’ series (2009), which comprises views assembled pixel by pixel from images transmitted to a central server by cameras at five British seaside locations over a seven-hour period. Each work is a compendium, charting the approximate time it takes for the tide to change.
Australian Chris Henschke’s film Edge of the Observable (2014) turns data from the Large Hadron Collider into light – like Op Art in outer space – and sound. Sound proved an effective component across the show: elsewhere, in the short film Cracks, Faults & Fractures (2012–3), another Australian, Charlie Sofo, sequences 20 pairs of trainer-clad feet rocking on unstable elements of floors and pavements, a neat elision of the languages of street culture and Minimalism which also yields a remarkably varied soundtrack of clanks, clangs, squeaks and bangs.
Bronwen Buckeridge’s three minutes of Forgetting Babette (2009–10) made for another stimulating headphone experience. Here the endless possible interpretations of a given artwork are suggested by video documentation of a tiny area of a projection of Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film Babette’s Feast. Buckeridge focuses on the details that we wouldn’t normally notice, counterpointed by a soundtrack collaged from archive readings, cartoons, documentaries and early Hollywood dramas, to provide a teasing condensation of the film’s narrative. Meanwhile, Sophie Clements provided the main – and constantly varying – ambient sound in the show. Her work There, After (2011), is both video-as-sculpture and a video about sculpture. Given a separate room, its three screens (showing loops of differing lengths, which accounts for the continually mutating sound) defined the space; and on-screen the camera seems to circle vertiginously around a number of performative objects depicted using a stop-motion technique. Clements filmed a water-filled balloon bursting, fireworks exploding and a bundle of sticks falling to the ground 160 times each, so as to capture the actions from every angle. Those actions emerged from a collaboration with scientists exploring the nature of the molecular bonds that keep the world together and what happens when they break, which Clements sees as an analogy for human relationships, and the potential exhilaration of cutting loose from them.
I also liked a simpler means of combining particular present realities with wider implications: in London-based Greek artist Bill Balaskas’s Ou la mort (Or Death, 2014), a typed sheet reading Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is set above a French typewriter from 1967 that is missing the letters required to type those words. Ou la mort questions the reality of these concepts as they are lived and practiced in – or absent from – contemporary society, reflecting the curators’ stated aim of exploring ‘the fragility of contemporary gigantic social constructions, which, having forgotten the infinitesimally small role played by their citizens, appear to have become “too big to fail”’.
Not everything in the show was comparably engaging: Karl Lemieux’s abstract animation made by painting directly onto film (Mouvement de Lumière, Motion of Light, 2004), Max Eastley’s super-slow kinetic work (Untitled, 2014) and Elif Ayiter’s microscopic views from ‘Second Life’ (Cypher, 2014), for example, were perhaps less interesting because they failed to capture the flux between the unimaginably small and the incomprehensibly large. As the most successful works in ‘The Small Infinite’ suggest, our relationship with the world is framed by how we shift between these differing scales of perception.