The pretense of the scientific genesis of the universe is that whatever patterns arise from the brutal business of evolution came from trial and error, an endless, unsupervised series of genetic and geological experiments. The more complex the pattern, the more carnage along the way. As conscious, animate objects, we’re pretty late to the melee, and that may have something to do with why we’re a bit uneasy about our place in the world.
It hasn’t made us very patient, either, which can make it hard for us to see those seemingly endless cycles of natural selection without some effort. Given the tiny span of time we spend with each discrete part of the world, it’s like trying to understand the concept of a day by experiencing a second.
For better or worse, Steve Martonis has a gift for the long haul, where enough of the arc of a cycle is revealed to suggest the whole. One thing — a silkworm, bread dough, the phases of the moon — always seems to lead to the next, like a mathematical proof in the process of logically constructing itself. By the time he reaches a stopping point — in this case, his current exhibition, “Un et Nu (One and Naked)” — nothing stands alone. (This can be considered at least paradoxical, if not ironic, given the title of the show.) From discrete parts, ecosystems arise.
Take the magicicada, a noisy, ancient bug with a method to its madness. Certain species only come out of hiding once every thirteen or seventeen years, which makes it hard for predators to count on. But those unusual spans of years are actually prime numbers, and the recital those cicadas give when they do come out is standing room only. So, even if the predators happen to be in the right place at the right time, their stomachs are only so big. This remarkably stable reproductive cycle has gone on for millions of years, or so our scientists surmise, and because of it, the cicada may be one of the oldest species on the planet.
In 2001, Martonis caught his first considered glimpse of a cicada infestation. Standing within a buzzing forest, he noticed that each tree full of bugs clicked in unison, then stopped to allow another tree to speak up. He also thought the clicking sounded more technological than animal. Amid a genetic network of discrete clicks and switches, he began piecing together metaphors for lives not our own. And conjuring forms to reveal them: cicada husks coated with gold to look like parts of a circuit board; Ulam spirals to show pattern in the seemingly random progression of prime numbers.
Such encounters with the world are often at the beginnings of Martonis’s work, from the unkempt Americana of his rural western New York childhood (dirt-bike tires, maple-syrup buckets, deer bones and the like) to creative experiments with organic and sometimes living materials (bread dough manipulated to crack in increasingly certain ways; silkworms given relatively free reign within their shelf-and-Plexiglas prison). Such media beg questions of where “natural” process leaves off and “cultural” or aesthetic decisions begin. But for Martonis, that boundary is completely porous — neither paradigm constant enough or circumscribed enough to staunch the flow of ideas between them.
Even so, our urge to categorize what’s what still guides our thoughts, at least intuitively, before everything slides toward the center. Silk worms, for instance, might seem natural — until we’re reminded that they’re a completely domesticated (and increasingly genetically modified) species, pressed blithely into the service of commerce. On the other hand, prime numbers may seem a manmade concept — until we recognize that the cicadas figured them out first. And, for Martonis, even those utterly “natural”/”natural” utterances of the cicadas evoked the electric hum of a light fixture, not an ancient chorus sharing the news of its rare days in the sun. For more “natural” sounds, Martonis has used analog video static to suggest steady rainfall.
This messy collision of the natural and the cultural may soften the impact of what is surely one of the most immediate and far-reaching paradigm shifts of our age: the inexorable traverse from analog to digital, where all our continuous media are chopped up into discrete parts to ease manipulation and storage. And when we apply that digital existentialism — “Alone and Naked,” indeed — to aesthetic concepts, the result is strangely familiar. As most English majors could tell you, metaphors already behave somewhat modularly, and the flash of insight that instantly reworks an idea is seldom linear or continuous. Artists, too, often think in terms of comparison — Well, this feels like that — and from that simple analysis bloom metaphors that come to seem inevitable, patterns with roots that stretch deep into our psyches.
We come to see expression as a sublime jumble, a fluctuating circuit, and the permeable divide between old and new, constant and constantly evolving, becomes not just the subject, but the foundation of any conversation we might care to have.
Ultimately, Martonis engages us in a concise and measured enough conversation that there’s some sense of balance between the natural and the concocted. That ostensible parity calms us a bit, but it would be a mistake to think that that’s all there is to it. Where the data come from is a secondary concern, and doing the math is never quite the point.
One human being to another — art’s most compelling economy of scale — it’s about invoking the wonder we feel when our ideas about nature and culture merge and recombine, ancient and new both indistinguishable and singular. On and off and everything in between, “Un et Nu” flips that switch so fast that all we see is a blur, all we hear is a hum, some kind of mating call that draws each of us back to the primordial ooze, where we can once again think of ourselves as part of the experiment that became our world.