Michael Joaquin Grey at PS1

What is so special about the color orange? That was the first question I asked myself when entering the Michael Joaquin Gray exhibition at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Not an easy question to answer apparently. Having studied both genetics and art simultaneously, Grey’s work concerns the relationships between science, language, technology and art. It is not a matter of bridging the gaps between these disciplines, but more of using each of them in a correlational manner to explore issues of early development, primary experiences and the naturalistic quest for knowledge.

The exhibition is comprised of some early works and other more recent ones including prints, sculptures, wall vinyls and computational videos. The first work in the exhibition, that may escape spectators as they immediately enter the space, is MOMA Kindergarten (2005); a timetable that represents all the major modernist trends from the 1830’s to 1935. With this work he makes the most curious revelation that the first generation of kindergarteners were the modernists. An interesting correlation without a doubt, but is this a mere coincidence or can we attribute Kandinsky’s abstract compositions to kindergarten exercises? However inplausible as this may seem, it is a playful supposition that seems to work. Are not artists attempting to reinterpret the world as through the eyes of a child?

In fact, most of Grey’s work highlights his interest in ontogeny as a recapitulation of the history of our culture. By observing morphological phenomena, Grey attempts to acquire knowledge of our culture, starting from the basic building blocks of anatomical systems. In Artificial Muscle Contraction (1984), the artist takes a sample of his own muscle proteins and places them in a test tube to create a simulation of contraction. When looked at closely, the cells form a pattern as they contract, evoking that in the chaotic world of nature some sort of behavioral code still exists.

The main work of the exhibition is Perpetual ZOOZ: Madonna and Child (2006-2009), a computational video that presents a sculptural art object projection. The video features two separate representations of The Wizard of Oz on a rotating plane over a yellow background. The heartbeats of both the artist and his mother are visually represented in a three dimensional graphical scale through the images of the film. More like a return to the womb, the work speaks of the intimate bond between mother and child that is created before birth.

As viewers, we might be a little confused at first when confronted with Grey’s work. It seems complex, even when it is talking about the most simple natural phenomena. Grey’s practice has expanded beyond the gallery, as he is the creator of Zoob, a modeling device similar to Legos used by NASA and Pixar to create complex dynamic interactions. When I asked the artist why choose art over science in his search for knowledge, he responded that “art is the last vestige for the practice of the individual.” Indeed, it seems that art can offer us answers to even the most complex scientific questions, or at least more interesting approximations. But then again, why so much orange?

Originally published on ARTPULSE Magazine