Continuing my amateur ruminations on contemporary art: One of the things that’s fun about art is going on a journey from “OK . . .” to “aha!” from seeing something and not really understanding or even registering it, to both grasping an essential point about the work (even if it’s essential only for you) and seeing and appreciating the further associations and cross-connections it raises. It’s especially fun if you can get to that point on your own, without having to read the wall text or a critic’s article.

I had that experience recently with Jack Strange’s 2008 work g, which I encountered in a Rhizome post. My initial reaction was a classic “OK . . .” one: OK, it’s a lead ball sitting on a computer keyboard, OK, the pressure of the ball causes the ‘g’ key to auto-repeat until the document gets very long and the computer (allegedly) crashes, but I’m not really seeing it.

Then when I was walking around my neighborhood I had my “aha!” moment: OK, the ball is sitting on the letter ‘g’, and g is the title of the work. But why ‘g’? Why not ‘a’, or ‘z’, or any other letter? Then I remembered: hey, I was a physics major, and I know what g is: it’s the symbol we use in formulas to denote the acceleration of a falling body in the Earth’s gravitational field.

In the idealized world of high school physics, a falling object (say, a heavy lead ball) would accelerate at the rate of about 9.8 meters per second per second, until such time as it hit an intervening object (say, a laptop keyboard). At that point the kinetic energy of the falling ball would be converted into kinetic energy of the key itself as it was depressed, perhaps the kinetic energy of pieces of the key or keyboard as they broke and shattered, and ultimately some thermal energy as the ball, key, and keyboard heated up a bit from the collision. (If, on the other hand, the ball were just sitting on a rigid surface like a table then it would have potential energy by virtue of its position, but nothing else would be happening.)

That was my entry point into the work: g can be seen as (and perhaps was intended as—I haven’t yet read an artist’s statement or critic’s evaluation) a symbolic rendering in software of the physical reality of a falling object: First the work embodies accelerating free fall as the pressure of the ball causes the letter ‘g’ to be typed over and over again, and then the “energy” of the ball ultimately is converted into energy of a different form as the ball collides with the limits of the computer application and OS in a crash of a virtual kind.

(One interesting side point is that after the system crashes someone must manually remove the ball, reboot the system, and restore the work to its initial configuration. This is analogous to the physical work needed to restore a fallen object to its former height, providing it with potential energy to be then (re)converted into kinetic energy when the object is released again.)

Once I had this model in mind it led to a flood of other associations and perceptions, some from physics and some not:

  • ‘g’ can stand for Galileo, forever (and apparently apocryphally) identified in the popular mind with having dropped lead balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to illustrate that objects of different masses fall at the same rate.
  • ‘g’ also can stand for geometry and general relativity, and anyone who’s read introductions to general relativity will remember the (popular but misleading) model of heavy balls sitting on a rubber sheet used to illustrate how physical objects distort (or, from another perspective, create) the geometry of space-time. Here the set of keys differentially depressed by the ball stands in for the rubber sheet.
  • “Gravity” is also used as a term to describe an emotional state, and lead in its heaviness and grey-black dullness is among the most grave of materials. (Recall for example Emily Dickinson’s “This is the hour of lead . . ..”)
  • Lead is also both an ancient material and a toxic one—recall the popular legend of the fall of Rome being caused in part by poisoning of the water supply by lead pipes. Here the material is contrasted with the light modern material (plastics and/or aluminum) of the laptop, the old symbolically weighing upon and ultimately destroying the new.
  • Lack of time precludes my hunting down links to examples, but the history of art is replete with works juxtaposing circular and spherical forms against rectangular forms. The ball, keyboard, and laptop screen together remind us of a minimalist spherical sculpture installed in a gallery. The resemblance is heightened by the whiteness of the laptop itself, the pedestal on which it sits, and the background, which echo the blank white space of the stereotypical contemporary art gallery.
  • Coming back to physics, the laptop keyboard and screen evoke two of the three planes in the Cartesian coordinate system used to represent Euclidean 3-dimensional space, with the ball an object situated within that space.
  • Finally, any work involving or alluding to the act of falling can inspire thoughts of famous falls in literature and mythology, from Icarus to Lucifer, as well as the Fall itself.

Are all the above essential parts of what g is really about? Not necessarily, but some at least may have been part of the artist’s intentions. (For example, I think the choice of laptop color was deliberate.) Even the more marginal interpretations are worth noting for the way in which a work can inspire novel and interesting thoughts and emotions in the mind of the person experiencing it.

I should also add that art works, even contemporary ones, can also be experienced simply as works of beauty, not as puzzles to be solved; I remember visiting the Tate Modern and being stopped in my tracks by Donald Judd’s Untitled (1980). But thinking on a work can be an essential element of experiencing it; g has entered my life in a deeper way than when I first saw it, and I feel that I now “own” it just as much as the person or institution in whose gallery it’s now sitting.

UPDATE: See my follow-up post for more thoughts on g.