At the Deutsches Elektronensynchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, particles are accelerated and made to collide to learn more about the structure of matter in its smallest dimensions. Though the research is conducted at an extreme micro level, one of its ultimate aims is to explain phenomena at the furthest macro level, for example by finding dark matter to thus decipher how the universe evolved. An estimated 85% of all matter structuring our universe is dark matter – the epitome of the unvisualisable. Screens, at the institute, are nevertheless ubiquitous. They indicate the status of the collider and at times display images of particle collisions. These screens describe phenomena that we cannot grasp, are at once images and non-images.
In physical science, to visualise processes at an extreme macro and micro level is problematic, because they lie beyond the boundaries of the visible. Technical images, though strictly speaking not metaphysical, thus describe a reality outside our experience and expand our world.
Julia Münstermann’s paintings are deeply involved with problems of scientific visualisation.
In her recent series entitled ENTROPY, we see what appear to be black and white images of galaxies, interstellar nebulae, and black holes. The artist’s approach references not only familiar black and white photos made from the early 20th century onwards up to present pictures by the Hubble telescope, but also graphic visualisations of phenomena that cannot be registered with (radio)telescopes at all and therefore depend on mathematical projection and the imaginative capacities of graphic artists that specialise in this field. But there is a key difference. In Münstermann’s work the formative principle has shifted from the direct manipulation of material to physical processes that are only partly controllable. The dissolution energy of salt crystals is put to use, causing the water and ink to flow according to principles that make the result difficult to calculate in advance. In this way, disorder is introduced into the working process. This paradoxically results in the formation of structures, and entropy is counteracted.
Entropy is the physical measure of disorder. Our universe strives towards maximum entropy, that is, if no force acts against it, disarray increases. One of the forces acting against entropy is gravity. It manages to create formations that are structured, i.e. more orderly, like clusters, galaxies, solar systems, stars and planets. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, for instance, is a rotating spiral galaxy held together not only by regular matter, but also by dark matter and a black hole at its centre.
Münstermann of course also manipulates her materials with certain results in mind – so the force acting against entropy is present in that sense as well. But the subtle gradations and surprising variations in the structures on the picture plane are also influenced by entropy and chance, and it is this quality that makes the work especially convincing.
In this exhibition, the ENTROPY series is juxtaposed with a number of paintings of screens made with the problems of visualising dark matter in mind. While in the former the hand of the maker has been increasingly expelled from the working process, the latter works depend more on the direct manipulation of the paint with brushes, and are built up in multiple layers. This layering results in a transient shimmer, a surface which on the one hand creates a sense of depth, on the other confronts the viewer with an impenetrable barrier; a hermetic refusal of customary reference. By failing to provide a central motif, the seamless transitions and endless depth of these paintings become disorienting and rather reinforce the sense that we are looking at absolute non-representation. And yet there we are, by ourselves, oddly affected, staring into their cool emptiness.
Text: Raaf van der Smaan