[intro]Blake Gopnik Answers: Yes; Here’s Why[/intro]
The Washington Post‘s art critic visits James Sandborn, a local DC-area artist best known for his CIA sculpture Kryptos, who has built a working particle accelerator that Gopnik considers one of the most important works in recent memory:
More impressive yet: “Terrestrial Physics,” as the new installation is called, is possibly the most substantial work of art to come out of Washington since the 1950s, when Morris Louis stained his first canvases. Except Louis’s fans had seen big, colorful abstractions before. No one has come across a thing quite like the new art Sanborn has made, working almost alone in his studio over the past three years. At 63, Sanborn has been one of Washington’s most important artists for decades. With “Terrestrial Physics,” made public for the first time here, he has a shot at mattering worldwide. […]
“I’ve always considered myself a nonfiction artist,” says Sanborn. The machine didn’t spring from his imagination. It is a close working copy of a piece of lab equipment that matters in this country’s history. On the night of Saturday, Jan. 28, 1939, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi and other world-famous physicists traipsed to the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, in a leafy neighborhood in far Northwest Washington, to watch with their own eyes as its particle accelerator smashed an atom, confirming that nuclear fission was possible. “This was the advent of what we now call ‘big science,’ ” Sanborn explains. […]
Sanborn’s interest in simply “taking us there” puts him at the center of contemporary art. Some of the best recent work, often in photography, has abandoned obvious aesthetics — anything that looks at all “arty” — and has tried instead to bear straightforward witness to the most important aspects of the world around us.
“There are moments in history that people should be reminded of,” Sanborn says.
That connects him to one of the oldest traditions in Western art. For centuries, “history painting” was the most prestigious form. Nothing mattered more than recapturing a crucial moment, from the day Florence beat Pisa at the battle of Cascina (Michelangelo, a Florentine, made a picture of it), to an early scientific demonstration of a vacuum (shown in the most famous painting by England’s Joseph Wright of Darby).
The difference is that “Terrestrial Physics” doesn’t simply show its moment. It delivers it up in working 3-D, complete with X-rays and lightning strikes. “The real object stimulates real thinking. Like picking up a real arrowhead — you can feel the Indian is there,” Sanborn says.
But MoMA’s London notes that we’re more comfortable with “abstractions, with depictions of reality,” than with the real thing served up on a plate — a bunch of lab equipment, in Sanborn’s case. For many people, “science is seen as something other than art,” she says. That’s part of what makes Sanborn’s work exceptional: “We’re stretched in our understanding of what art is, and what the world is.”
Sparking Interest Within the Sphere of Art (Washington Post)