Caught in the Act

Josiah McElheny Show at ICA Offers Infinite Questions

By Jared Bowen

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June 29, 2012

Watch Jared's conversation with McElheny and see coverage of his new show on Greater Boston.

BOSTON — The newest exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art  showcases the dazzling but perplexing art of Josiah McElheny
 
In the show, there are questions—not answers.
 
“I would say that the main thing that drives me is the question of ‘What is urgent?’ So how do you make the life of an artist, connect,” says McElheny of his work.
 
In McElheny’s show, Some Pictures of the Infinite, we see a career-long odyssey to explore what fascinates him. Early on, it’s history. We come upon two museum–like displays. One documents the course of the Roman Empire. Another, Theory of Tears, features a case of glass vials with differing descriptions. One reads that they were used in funeral rites, while another indicates that they are merely cosmetic jars. This McElheny tackling the tension between truth and fiction, says curator Helen Molesworth.
 
“One of the things that Josiah’s work asks us is ‘What story do we tell ourselves about the past, how do those stories shape our present and what do we do with that mixture of the past and present in terms of thinking about the kind of future that we might be interested in?”
 
For the Boston born McElheny, the nuances deepen, a reflection of his lifetime working with glass.
 
“The most important thing about glass is how it relates to our understanding of other things like transparency and reflection,” McElheny said.  “It’s all about a kind of metaphor, or a kind of way of seeing or understanding. And so I think that in the glass itself as a material is very funny because it’s really not there, it’s sort of nothing.”
 
Moving through the show, you’ll see McElheny’s interrogation of infinity. Here we find a collection of eight vessels that mirror to infinite replication. It’s cool, then disturbing.

“One that piece terrifies me because that image of utter sameness repeated infinitely for me is a very scary image. It’s an image I would link more with fascism than it is with democracy, for instance,” said Molesworth.
 
“Basically something that is infinitely repeated is the worst kind of universalism. It means that I can’t have any affect on it,” McElheny explained.
 
But we do have an affect on McElheny’s art. His continued use of glass and metal constantly capture our reflection and ensure us a role in the show.
 
 “He really is still asking you sort of like, ‘why are you here, and what do you make of your presence here?’ Like by the time you see yourself for the twelfth time, you realize, ‘Oh, I’m part of the picture,’ and ‘what does it mean that I’m part of the picture?” added Molesworth.
 
Especially when it’s a virtual galaxy. The show ends with “Island Universe”, an installation of five massive, gleaming sculptures.  It is McElheny’s take on the Big Bang theory. 
 
“Each rod indicates time. And so let’s say that the shorter rods are indicating something that happened long ago, and the longer rods are indicating something that’s happening now,” McElheny said.
 
“’Island Universe’ is about this newer theory of the cosmos, which is the multiverse theory that there isn’t just one universe, there are probably many universes. And that all of them have an equal opportunity to be interesting,” said Molesworth.
 
It’s a heady show, and one that, with enough thought and analysis, may alter your own universe.

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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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