“RHYS HIMSWOTH: E N TR OPY”
Saffron Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar
April 3-24, 2012
Review by Ruth Bolduan
Entropy is a word that most people are familiar with in its general sense as a metaphor for chaos, disorder or the dissipation of energy. The concept of entropy is based in thermodynamics and has been further understood as an aspect of information theory. Rhys Himsworth’s exhibition represents a disturbing, comfortable, and brilliant series of games, which play, sometimes inadvertently, with all three forms of entropy.
To view the exhibition is to enter an atrium of failed monuments, awash in the brilliance of daylight reflected from surrounding white walls. Brightly chirping little birds in one piece form a counterpoint to large metal fabrications, computers, and scads of digital cables overwhelmingly present throughout the show.
A twenty-foot high wall, constructed in the center of the exhibition, is clean as a whistle on its front surface, punctuated by a gridded array of LED streaming messages in horizontal boxes with little round speakers below each one. Yet, peering behind its pristine façade, one sees a work bench, a skewed chair, and a floor completely covered in tangled wires, which gives the appearance of an interrupted and unfinished work-in-progress. What is the result of this technological tour-de-force? Hard to say. The words and phrases unceasingly streaming across the façade bear no discernable relation to each other. The spoken words and phrases emitted periodically from the speakers are unintelligible. It is impossible to assign meaning to the output of this work. The scale of the work is mesmerizing: it leads one to look further and stay longer, but in the end there is nothing there. Information theorist Claude Shannon formulated the idea that entropy is a measurement of the average information content one is missing when one does not know the value of the random variable. Rhys gives us no clues. One is reminded of the random variables inserted into logical dialogue by the Wizard of Oz.
Similar confusion arises when looking at other objects in the exhibition. A large welded black metal structure supports an array of small speakers. Upon entering it, although nothing blocks one’s exit, it seems as though the door frames are enclosed in glass, not open to the air, giving a momentary impression that there is no escape. So, one stays—and what happens? Nothing. No sound from the speakers, no reason to remain inside this imaginary prison. Outside the framework wall, there is the usual pile of digital detritus, linked to bundles of wiring tightly threaded along the structural bars of the enclosed space. If, as American physical chemist G.N. Lewis wrote about chemical entropy in 1930, “Gain in entropy always means loss of information, and nothing more,” then this installation must exemplify this concept.
Entropy measurement may be thought of as a kind of clock, implying a particular direction of progress, sometimes called “an arrow of time.” Time plays a role in Rhys’s work, reflecting both the processes of nature and the inexorable forward ticking of the digital clock. Mortality and loss are underlying themes in this approach to entropy, as noted by Stephen Hawking in his observations regarding black holes as collapsed stars, from which nothing, not even light, escapes, a total end of information and of life. Several similar themes run through both Rhys’s exhibition and that of the three visiting artists in the concurrent VCU-Q show “Our first Time in the Gulf:” mortality and loss, dystopia and dysfunction, cages and gridded enclosures, a somber palette lacking color, even a sense of claustrophobia and foreboding. Yet, for all that, both shows ultimately leave the viewer satisfied, as though contemplation of these artists’ works has increased an understanding of the complex place and time we find ourselves in, including our lives in Doha. The artists in both shows face emptiness and this is their strength, a tenderness and meditative grace we feel when contemplating a failed monument.
An epilogue: Vreni’s haunting video of birds in “First Time in the Gulf” is echoed in Rhys’s memorable works with live birds. In one, a beautiful white dove sits in a large cage, resting on a gently swaying branch. Beneath the dove is a complex mechanism, which operates an ink-loaded brush touching a piece of paper on which a continuous zig-zagging line has been drawn. The presence of complex digital equipment seems to indicate that the movement of the bird is linked to the production of the drawing. A similar effect occurs in another cage, filled with numerous little sparrows flying back and forth over another paper-mounted machine, as if to suggest that their natural activity, facilitated by man and machine, makes art. If there is a counterpoint to the overall sense of futility evoked by Rhys’s exhibition, it is this: that art arises from nature, or, as Aristotle said, “Art takes nature as its model.” “Nature is my springboard. From her I get my initial impetus,” said American artist Milton Avery. Thus, an appropriate exhibition for an art school.