Eugen-Florin Zamfirescu, EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK OF ENTROPY
Growing up in Romania in the small town of Rîmnicu-Sărat, Zamfirescu and his friends would on occasion have to stop their game of street football and wait respectfully while a funeral procession made its way to the cemetery. A hired band of fiddles, brass, accordions, and drum usually accompanied the mourners. If a young person had died, the mood of the mourners and the band’s music was markedly more disconsolate. On those occasions, Zamfirescu remembers the funeral dirge punctuated by the rhythmic thud of a bass drum.
Hearing those implacable drumbeats brought on an epiphany for the young Zamfirescu: Time’s Arrow–the realization that time moves in one direction only, towards death. That early recognition of his own mortality stirred something in Zamfirescu: not despair or resignation, but curiosity. It is part of what drives this Renaissance man–as artist, philosopher, and student of science–to better understand the nature of time and the human attempt to transcend it: the age-old search for immortality.
If art has long claimed to bestow an immortality unavailable to our biological selves, scientists’ forays into the mysteries of the universe and their discoveries on the frontiers of knowledge in astrophysics and quantum physics (the laws of each famously not agreeing with the other, as of now) have allowed humans to at least dream more vividly. The dream is of an immortality not posited (as in religious belief) on the other side of death, but as a continuation of life, perhaps even the next step in human evolution.
While we could say, then, that Zamfirescu’s larger project began in his childhood at a funeral, it is thus motivated by wonder and curiosity, imagination and hope. It is aligned with the transhumanist philosophical movement that is exploring radical ways to free us from our biological imperatives; to reduce what Zamfirescu calls, in a beautiful phrase, “the afflictions of time.”
In this age of hyper-specialization when artists and scientists and philosophers mostly talk only to their own kind and rarely to the uninitiated masses, as an artist Zamfirescu seeks first to “open a door to the heart,” to elicit an aesthetic and emotional response through the use of colour, line, form, light, and composition. But Zamfirescu wants us to go further, to use our brains as we follow the scientific explorers in their reconceptualizing of time, space, and indeed of what it means to be human. That which confounds our rational minds at this present moment may be considered common knowledge a hundred years from now, and history is full of examples of ideas once labelled heretical or crazy becoming mainstream.
Let us consider the title of this exhibition–Excerpts from the Book of Entropy. “Excerpts” are bits of text plucked out of a larger text as being particularly useful or insightful for the purpose at hand. The word nevertheless connotes fragments, the partially known and the provisionally posited. Zamfirescu presents us with excerpts it would seem, to inspire us to look closer, to read the whole story, perhaps even write some of it. And is the Book of Entropy itself an excerpt, pulled from some universal Library like that famous dream (or nightmare) of Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”?
In the West there is a long intellectual tradition of knowledge being made available in two books: the Book of Nature whereby God reveals Himself in His creation; the Book of scripture, God’s revealed word. So what is this “Book of Entropy” that Zamfirescu partially reveals to us? Entropy is a phenomenon which concerns the asymmetrical dispersal of energy in one direction only—from heat to cold until equilibrium is reached–such that the universe and all things in it are moving towards dissipation. In layman’s terms, it is the mathematical expression of why we can break an egg and make an omelette, but we cannot take the omelette and remake the egg. The nursery rhyme tells us as much: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, but “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
It was Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1907), the Austrian physicist whom Zamfirescu celebrates in this exhibition, who showed statistically that during the lifetime of the universe all its energy will dissolve into equilibrium, meaning that all heat from the stars will be lost, all matter will disintegrate and we will be left with a cold, featureless blackness.
If we can somehow better understand and manipulate the statistical probability called entropy and better harness the energy that lies within matter, we might be able to reverse time, but still, only on a very small scale.
For this exhibition, Zamfirescu chose the medium of photography to explore these ideas about matter and time. He first studied photography and cinematography in Romania, and his oeuvre includes professional film direction and editing, photographic portraits and essays. His curiosity began even earlier as a child, however, when he built his first camera out of a shoe box.
For Zamfirescu, photography is a means of expression that beautifully balances artistic, scientific, and philosophical ideas and techniques that we, as a civilization, need to understand right now at this moment in history when we are facing unprecedented existential questions. It uses that most essential element—light—in the form of photons travelling from the sun’s surface to earth to be captured on a photographic plate at various concentrations to create an image. We often talk about a photograph “capturing” or “freezing” a moment in time, of making time stand still, an illusion that the (almost) law of entropy frustrates. A single photon, the smallest unit of light, takes millions of years to find its way from the center of the sun, where it is generated, to the surface of the sun, but then only 8 minutes to travel from the sun’s surface to earth for us to then use to make a traditional photograph. We need to be reminded by artists and others of such mind-blowing scales of time and space to wake us up to the mysteries of the universe yet to be solved.
In Excerpts from the Book of Entropy Zamfirescu is also working with a more graspable and humble, if in its own way miraculous, artistic tradition: that of the still-life painting or, in modern times, still-life photograph. The representation of inanimate objects on their own emerged as a distinct artistic genre in 17th-century Netherlands, where the term stilleven was coined to describe paintings of “things,” whether manmade or natural, that did not move on their own or possess a soul. Considered a low-status genre of art, still-life didn’t have the gravitas of history painting (religious and allegorical) or portraiture and since it did not include the human form or the representation of human emotion it was not considered as difficult. Nevertheless, still-lifes were extremely popular and collected all over
Europe in the belief that beyond the merely decorative, such pictures could lead you to some truth about life, especially vanitas: the idea that human endeavour can lead to pride, vanity, and greed even as it all inevitably decays into nothingness. Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1628 is an example.
There are echoes of Claesz and his fellow artists in Zamfirescu’s selection of objects for his photographs: musical instruments, tattered books and fragments of paper, glass spheres, spectacles. Like his artistic forebears, Zamfirescu consciously uses the repetition of objects placed in different relationship to each other to reveal the various “afflictions of time” that all things suffer. He extends the conceptual range of still-life, however, in encouraging us through his use of light and shadow to look past surfaces and realize in any single object the near-infinite arrangements and combinations of molecules that with their vibrational energy wait for us to truly understand and see the entropic principle at work.
Whether paper, wood, metal or glass, the objects are shown in different stages of “decay” as their molecules are gradually dispersed back out into the universe. It may be that the music which emanates from the wooden violin or brass saxophone, might outlast the object of its creation as sound waves, and it may be that all our mind’s creations have the potential ability to escape Time’s Arrow and thus survive forever in this universe. We don’t know yet.
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