A whirlpool of shifting motifs and perspectives; a psychedelic vision of the 21st century—James Rosenquist’s monumental painting The Swimmer in the Econo-mist signalizes to every visitor the high priority contemporary art enjoys at Winchester House in London. Until recently, four striking works dominated the foyer of the British headquarters of Deutsche Bank: Anish Kapoor’s reflective stainless steel sculpture Turning the World Upside Down III (1996), Tony Cragg’s Secretions (1998), comprised of thousands of ivory-colored cubes; Damien Hirst’s 1995 spot painting Biotin-Malemide, and Rosenquist’s Swimmer. Now, the first work to be created as a commission for theDeutsche Guggenheim in Berlin has found a new home in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And now, where the gigantic canvas of the American Pop artist hung until recently, an equally visionary work has been installed—Keith Tyson’s 12 Harmonics, designed especially for Winchester House.
The mixed-media work, mounted on twelve aluminum panels each measuring 3,5 by 2 metres, is a typical example of Tyson’s highly evocative, multiple-layered art. The series and its organization were conceived according to various different principles: to begin with, all panels have a “numerical essence,” as the artist explains. This can be as obvious as in the third panel, which portrays three human arms. Or it can be more subtle, as in the sixth panel with its background of hexagonal shapes that evoke honeycombs. On the other hand, beeswax consists partly of carbon, an element with the atomic number 6. The chemical formula depicted in the image also refers to carbon, with six carbon atoms in a ring combining with one hydrogen atom each to form benzene, a poisonous petrochemical that forms the basis for many chemical products, such as plastics and dyes.
The first and last panel of the series show the sun and moon respectively. Six panels are dedicated to the day, and six to the night. In addition to this, the work also addresses the four seasons, while four of the panels are dedicated to the three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Thus, for instance, panel 10 depicts a smoking cowboy that resembles a quote from a classic neon advertisement. Neon tubes are filled with gas; the image plays on the third state of matter, as do the lines of condensation in the sky above the iceberg in the sea on panel 11. But wait a moment. The sea is obviously fluid, the iceberg solid. What state does this polar landscape stand for? And where is the 11 hiding? The viewer becomes a detective: an investigation of the work sets a search in motion for categories, numbers, and hidden meanings that can rapidly become an investigation of the world itself.
12 Harmonics possesses nearly cosmic dimensions; each painting stands for a Zodiac sign. Thus, a young Amor rides a bull on panel 6. On the other hand, bankers might be less reminded of the Zodiac sign than the economy, as the bronze bulls standing before the stock exchanges in Frankfurt and New York symbolize rising stock rates. The riding boy stems from a famous Caravaggio painting in which Amor triumphs over science, art, fame, and power according to Virgil’s dictum amor vincit omnia (love conquers all). The figure of the boy also functions as an allusion to one of the ages in human life—a medieval notion that itself refers to Augustine’s six ages of the world (aetates mundi).
In 12 Harmonics, Tyson combines micro and macrocosm, science, and philosophy while also working with entirely heterogeneous visual elements: covers of newspapers, media images, scientific photographs, playing cards, abstract painting, and quotes from Old Masters. A network of references and allusions connects the individual images and invites the viewer to engage in an ever-changing intellectual game. Thus, the series opens up a virtually endless field of associations for the viewer.
“It is like playing a game of chess, each move is a position, a small slice of time before it is on the move again,””explains Keith Tyson. “Art is the same, as soon as you have one position you are on to the next, but it is about the near infinite possibilities between the two players.” This also explains the wide spectrum of his oeuvre, which extends from painting to drawing, photography, and installation to the machines he has developed himself. Tyson, who was born in 1968, received his degree in engineering before he began studying art at the University of Brighton. Following his degree in “Alternative Practice,” he began taking part in numerous international exhibitions. His large-scale sculpture installation Large Field Array was shown in 2007 at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. In 2009 Parasol unitpresented his project Cloud Choreography and Other Emergent Systems. He took part in the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001 and the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2002. Tyson was awarded the Turner Prize of Tate Britain in London.
Tyson has repeatedly explored art’s boundaries; he developed, for instance, his “Artmachine” in the 1990s. As a counterproposal to the “artist’s hand,” Tyson used computer programs, system diagrams, and books to generate random combinations of words and ideas that formed the basis for installations. His work embodies elements of science, philosophy, and science fiction and investigates systems and the possibilities and limitations of human knowledge. Yet he resists every form of categorization and one-dimensional interpretation. “I don’t think there’s a specific way of viewing my work that is correct,” Tyson explained in a conversation with the critic Alex Coles. “And with regard to the dichotomy between a scientific reading and a poetic one, I don’t see any. I see the work as embodying both equally.”