The chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York play a central role in the American artist Josiah McElheny’s exploration of the origins of the universe. In this interview, McElheny tells the story behind the beautiful chandeliers as they come alive illustrating the Big Bang theory in his video and installation work ‘Island Universe’ (2008).
“It reminded me of a pop image by Warhol or Lichtenstein”, says Josiah McElheny about his first impression of the chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, made by design company Joseph and Louis Lobmeyr back in 1965. He immediately thought it would be, “interesting to put the chandeliers on the ground to look at them up close”. It became installation works as well as a video work entitled ‘Island Universe’ (2008). The term ‘Island Universe’ goes back to Immanuel Kant, “who is the first who poses that we are not the center of the universe in the most extreme way possible, we are the island among many, many islands, and our universe or galaxy is maybe just one amongst many, which is understandingly a humbling idea,” McElheny explains.
“So, I made this thing which looks like a giant explosion. It opens with a sound, a cosmic microwave background radiation made into an acoustic sound.” The music is made with “the notion of a particular line that moves from one place to another”. “It turns out that the universe is a sharp minor”, McElheny says, “a very melancholy tonality, which is an idea of aloneness, if you are an island you are isolated in some sense.” ‘Island Universe’ shows the Lobmeyr chandeliers often disconnected from the physical location and turns them into abstract images of a big bang explosion – “all go together, hopefully, make an evocative experience. You could read about the history, but I hope it has some message on its own.”
The video also shows drawings that look like chandeliers, but they are diagrams of the Big Bang made by scientists, “they are visualizing something that can’t be visualized”. One of the central ideas of the big bang cosmology theory is that it is not something expanding into space, it is space itself expanding, and you cannot visualize that in a real way, you can only visualize it as an analogy. The analogies of these ideas also result in forms.”
“I am not an artist who proposes that I am coming up with a smart idea, there is much of my work that is absurd and contradictory and that is mostly a result of just me, and my blind spots and idiosyncrasies. I am trying to humanize these hard brittle things somehow because I feel that that is important to do,” McElheny concludes.
Josiah McElheny’s (b 1966) sculptures, paintings, installations, performances, and films engage with the history of ideas across wide-ranging fields of study from literature to architecture, music theory, and astronomy, transforming this research into physical form. McElheny has exhibited widely, including solo shows at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, CA, Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, England, Museo de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and many more.
Josiah McElheny was interviewed by Christian Lund in May 2014 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Camera: Nikolaj Jungersen
Edit: Kasper Bech Dyg
Produced by Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2021
Supported by Den A. P. Møllerske Støttefond
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