REEF: Art, Science & the Stars

Argo_Navis_Hevelius                                   The constellation Argo Navis drawn by Johannes Hevelius


One of the fascinating things about REEF is the difficulty of containing it in any one conceptual space. The exhibition exists in multi-dimensions: as an installation in a gallery – Fabrica’s disused church as tall, dark and timbered as a sunken hull; as images and sounds in videos that may be screened on other monitors in the future; and, most enduringly, as a sculpture twenty-five fathoms under the sea. For as well as the subject of a recorded performance the boat we see sinking in the videos is a material artwork: Simon Faithfull bought a crude concrete hull then built a wheelhouse and painted the whole craft the colour of rust. Is the Brioney Victoria a work of art rather than amateur shipbuilding simply because a professional artist refurbished her? Perhaps the right answer is ‘no, it’s both’; but to my mind the deliberate creation of the illusion of metal, and the primary intention to sink, not sail, the boat, do tip a balance towards sculpture. Finally, overflowing aesthetic boundaries altogether, REEF is also a project of great scientific interest: though the ‘Spring Watch’ aims of the exhibition have been unfortunately disrupted by the loss of the live video feed, the process of transformation of boat into a reef can be observed and documented by divers for years to come. (Unless, that is, as sailor and poet Sarah Hymas fears, human activities continue to alter the chemical composition of the sea so dramatically that its waters may one day be plastic compounds, no longer capable of supporting life.)

REEF asks us to look back to a singular dramatic event and forward to an unknown future; down to the ocean floor and up to the high ceiling of a gallery, seeing it afresh as the undersurface of a night sea. As Artist In Residence I have been looking higher yet, to the stars, and would today like to consider more deeply their ancient role as navigational guides, not just for sailors, but the soul. Already I’m getting into deep waters . . . so let me explain. In my view, like a work of art, astrology can be understood in different ways; some more useful than others:

1) As a science or pseudoscience. Astrology is predicated on the assumption that there is a real correlation between human behaviour and the movements of the planets. Some astrologers argue a causal effect, due to the pineal gland, electromagnetics, or interstellar radiation. Others believe that the stars are simply timekeepers, synced to underlying and not-yet-understood cosmic processes – as, for example, if you wake at seven am every morning, it is not because the clock ‘made you’ wake up; it simply measured your sleeping pattern. Conventional scientists argue that these various claims are either untestable or downright false, with some studies even showing that there is huge disagreement between astrologers about the basic meaning of a chart. Astrologers might respond by disputing the nature of the experiments, or calling on unconventional science, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, David Bohm’s idea or implicate order, or Karl Pribram’s idea of holographic order. Though none of these thinkers have endorsed astrology, perhaps a non-materialist science would be more capable of exploring the ancient claim ‘as above, so below’.

But is all this a useful debate? Personally, the claim that astrology is untestable most interests me. I have had many uncanny encounters with astrologers, tarot card readers and psychics, including an astrologer who suddenly blurted out my father’s forename, and a woman who took my pulse and then announced my mother’s death date. As a Tarot card reader myself, I’ve also had flashes of accurate clairaudience myself, giving names of significant people and places to clients. These occurrences are mysteries to me, and I don’t believe that science can measure them. Science by its nature dismisses anecdotal evidence and demands repeatable results; in my experience such psychic insights are not guaranteed, but arise from the unique circumstances of a human encounter. I am never confident I can repeat such pinpoint intutions, but am in awe of whatever is happening when they do visit me.

In addition, psychic or not, astrology concerns human behaviour, and like psychology can never be an exact science. Psychology has changed dramatically over the last century, from Freud and Jung to CBT and drug-based therapies; differences in approach that are fiercely debated, and may never be fully settled. For despite the best efforts of advertisers, drug companies, religious fundamentalists and dictators, human behaviour is not easily explained or controlled. While general conclusions are useful to a point, ultimately, we are complex individuals subject to myriad biological and social factors that make it impossible to predict exactly how a specific person will react to a given situation or treatment. We are also meaning-generators, with an enormous drive to understand the world in ways that make sense of our own unique experiences, and for many of us that means valuing not only our rationality, but also our emotion, intuition and spirituality. In my case, following my own chart over the years, I have observed many instances of close correlation between astrological events and events in my life – being asked to run an artist’s residency on the theme of the sea during the exact period when Neptune is making its final transit over my sun being just one of them. That knowledge has fed into my understanding of the residency, and what I hope it can achieve for myself and others. If astrology is a science, then, to me it is a form of therapy: like good psychologists, good astrologers offer their subjects a different way to think about their lives, and empower them to make their own decisions. Studies so far seem to have concentrated on astrologers; perhaps studies of their clients would be more revealing.

2) As a way of predicting the future. Again, this feels misleading to me. As anyone who has ever battled an addiction can tell you, human beings have free will. Though it may take an enormous effort, we can re-evaluate our lives and conditioning and choose what to do and to think. According to astrologers, the positions of the planets can suggest personality tendencies while transits correlate to opportunities or challenges, but even if this is so, the way people respond to events in their lives is ultimately in their own hands. As Joseph Campbell said: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it’.

3) As a map of the spiritual dimension of the universe. Some people see astrology as a way to chart the realm of the collective unconscious, its archetypes and processes. This view requires faith in a realm beyond the material, and a sense that human consciousness is be somehow not only transpersonal, but a way that the universe as a whole reflects upon itself. Again, this is a untestable claim, but if it makes intuitive sense to you, this might be a good metaphor to use – bearing in mind that a map is there to help us make wise choices in our travels.

4) As a poetic language. If you have no spiritual beliefs, or pressing desire for a novel way to examine your life, a hermeneutic approach to astrology may still be useful and interesting. Astrologers, in this view, are interpreters of a complex and ancient body of thought, some more informed, sensitive and insightful than others. Theirs is a rich language plumbing the depths of human psyche, and using planets and constellations as potent symbols of the various aspects of our nature. Astrology in this can be enjoyed in its own right, without any need to believe its wider claims or apply them to one’s own life. Perhaps that is why poet Louis MacNeice took such a strong interest in the subject, his last book a detailed and beautiful volume on the subject. More recently, one of my favourite astrologers, the American ‘pronoiac’ Rob Brezsny, takes an exuberantly creative approach to the art of horoscope writing, while poet Hoa Nguyen has blogged this year for the Poetry Foundation on astrology as ‘an advanced form of pattern recognition’. And that’s where I’ll leave us, with the notion that what astrology ultimately reflects and embodies is the profound human need to detect patterns in existence.

Those are my views, and still a work-in-progress. What are yours? Have you explored astrology beyond your sun sign? What have been your experiences of it? And what about art and science: are they separate fields of endeavour, or can they fruitfully overlap? Do let me know in the comments below.