Explorations > Michael Archer on The Thinker and Solar Powered Vacuum

Michael Archer on The Thinker and Solar Powered Vacuum

Keith Tyson’s The Thinker. Made in 2001, the fabled year of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, was a tall, black monolith akin to the one featured in the film. Implacable and inscrutable, the only evidence that it contained more than it was letting on was the emission of a continuous low hum from the computers housed within. The problem they were working on was not vouchsafed, one knew simply that there was a problem otherwise they would not be working on it. With a title like The Thinker, we must see the work as a self-conscious allusion to Rodin and, through him, to the Renaissance tradition he was re-examining, albeit that such a tradition arrives at Tyson having been filtered through Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise. Rodin’s own works following from his Thinker moved, in William Tucker’s words, ‘in the direction of an increasing abstractness, towards the frank acknowledgement of an internal, sculptural order which evoked rather than represented the figure’. When we stand in front of this sphere, though, the parameters have changed. We cannot possibly be dealing with anything like an internal, sculptural order, because we can see right inside the object, and there’s nothing there.

There is a title, though – Solar Powered Vacuum – and this does offer a clue. An explanation of the set-up tells us that there is an array of solar panels placed on the roof of the gallery. Power generated in these cells is fed to the pump housed inside the cabinet, which works to create a vacuum inside the sphere. The vacuum is intense, equivalent to that found in interstellar space, but of course you have no way of verifying that. All you can see when you look through the porthole is an empty spherical chamber, and maybe the face of someone else as they look in from the other side. If the day is cloudy it might also be that the panels are unable to generate sufficient power to maintain the vacuum at the required level, so it is perfectly possible that you are not looking at a vacuum at all. You have to trust that it is so, and recognise that if the weather is fine and the machine is working properly what you are looking at is nothing, and if the weather is poor, then you are most likely just looking at a metal sphere with a bit of air in it. That is, you are looking at something. It is art when there’s nothing *

* Taken from Michael Archer’s “Sea-gherkins! . . . Freshwater swabs! . . . Ectoplasms! . . . Bashi-bazouks! . . .” an essay published in Keith Tyson, Geno Pheno. Pace gallery 2006

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