By Hailey Mah
I usually visit art galleries in order to gain some feeling of shared humanity, to learn more about the inner workings of others and, subsequently, to reflect on my own. My recent visit to the New Media Gallery’s exhibition, magnetic_T drew me in another direction—I left feeling like a witness to the evocative power of materials and their forces. The shows focus on invisible magnetic energy created parallels between ecological, physical, and social phenomena, allowing for an interdisciplinary range of perspectives to emerge and interact.
In electronic media, magnets are as ubiquitous as they are invisible. Consider the hard disks of computers: they are covered in tiny electromagnetic heads that encode information for storing and reading data. In this way, magnets are often considered raw material—a hidden component of another medium rather than a medium unto itself. This being said, magnetic_T demonstrates the opposite: the exhibition’s four installations all explicitly use magnetism as part of their concept.
Each of the pieces is utilitarian in its construction, and made almost entirely from mechanistic components. Although biographical information about each of the artists is provided, the exhibition directs its focus away from the individual creators, instead centering on the qualities of magnetism used and demonstrated by the works. In his book A Geology of Media, media theorist Jussi Parikka argues that the use of geological constructs in art can help us bridge the scientific and the social, thus encouraging a more holistic view of media. “Natural ‘things’ such as radiation, electromagnetism, and Earth magnitudes are leaking into art vocabularies and as such smuggle a bit of the nonhuman into the otherwise often very human-centered focus of aesthetics,” (1) he writes.
Indeed, there is overlap between geological and artistic “vocabularies” in both the magnetic_T’s wall text and accompanying material. When characterizing magnetic behaviour, allusions are made to “hidden control,” “attraction [and] resistance,” and the “searching” of magnets toward poles. (2) Notably, these phrases also serve as the language of social relations. The exhibition text draws comparisons between the works and social phenomena such as migration, circumnavigation, and the suspension of disbelief. At their core, these ideas all share what is described as the “thrilling possibility of hidden control.” (3)
The idea of invisible physical forces is best demonstrated by Tatiana Trouvé’s 240 Points Toward Infinity (2019), which takes up about half of the gallery space. In this iteration of the Italian artist’s recurring work, two hundred and forty plumb bobs of varying sizes are affixed to the ceiling with wires, suspended across the space at angles that subvert gravity. The weights float an inch off of the ground, as if they had frozen mid-swing. I am told that they are held taut by magnets with a strength of twenty-four thousand pounds installed underneath the gallery’s floor. The magnets themselves are thus hidden from the viewer, obscuring the physical objects that make the piece function. The overall effect is surreal and uncanny. Walking around the installation, I felt like an intruder interrupting the artwork’s movement; that I was secondary to the greater magnetic forces at play.
On the gallery’s far left wall is Pe Lang’s moving objects / no. 502-519 (2011), which relies on the tension between oppositional forces to create something unexpectedly elegant. It is one piece in the Swiss artist’s ongoing series of kinetic sculptures, where motorized metal cylinders and copper blocks are bolted onto brackets that form a precise grid. The magnetic force field created between the cylinders rotating in opposite directions attracts nearby ring magnets, pulling them on top of and between the copper blocks. The ring magnets glide elegantly through 3D space as if figure skating in zero gravity—quite a contrast to the snapping motions usually associated with magnetic attraction.
moving objects / no. 502-519 exposes its own inner workings by using magnets as a primary component, subverting expectations of magnetic behaviour. This kinetic piece could just as easily belong in a science museum if it were accompanied by explanations about how magnets work. Instead, the New Media Gallery personifies the attraction and repulsion of the magnets, describing it as both a “poetic slo-mo circumnavigation” (4) and a “crazy slow dance that appears to have intent and purpose.” (5) By framing the artwork in this way, the audience is encouraged to see the effects of opposing magnets as a harmonious set of relations, rather than dissonant forces.
In A Geology of Media, Jussi Parikka also describes how media art projects are especially suited to map geophysical phenomena, and mediate our relationships with the earth. (6) Before visiting magnetic_T, I rarely considered the use of geological materials outside of a purely scientific context, much less thought about their relationship to art. I was humbled by how this art (among many things) was only possible because of the unique combination of metallic materials and forces available on this planet. Once more, I felt peripheral compared to greater underlying forces.
The artworks are essentially autonomous ecosystems: the self-sufficient products of many interdependent parts, which rely on the physical force of magnetism. Exemplifying this quality is Nelo Akamatsu’s installation Chijikinkutsu (2013), enclosed in a separate room of the exhibition. Three hundred and fifty glasses of water are arranged on shelves along the perimeter of the white room. Each glass has a ring of copper wire affixed to its outer rim, and a needle floating in the water. The occasional electrical charge of the wire attracts each needle, which creates a gentle clang as it hits the edge of its glass. Multiplied by several hundred, this effect creates an organic symphony of gentle chimes. The piece’s name stems from the Japanese words Chijiki, which refers to Earth’s magnetic field, and suikinkutsu, which names a sound element from a Japanese Zen garden. Chijikinkutsu’s atmospheric soundscape is the sum of its many magnetically charged components, drawn together in harmony, whether or not there is anybody listening.
Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempina’s transfixing sculpture Bearings (2015) further encapsulates the feeling of interdependent relationships, and alludes to social phenomena. Situated on the floor in the centre of the gallery is a thin black box. Atop it, suspended in a thin pool of oil, are thousands of metal ball bearings that collide, break off, and rejoin to create snowflake-like formations on the liquid’s surface as if by magic. As the exhibition continues, the bearings become increasingly magnetized and stick together more readily: they first created sprawing arrangements, but eventually formed increasingly tight circular structures as the weeks went on. Bearings’ constant movements, set against the backdrop of its long-term evolution, made it feel like a living world of its own.
During one of my visits, I associated the quick movements of the ball bearings with bacteria growing inside of a petri dish, or maybe the bonding of atoms. During the guided tour, curator Gordon Duggan noted that the moving circular formulations of the bearings could also evoke maps of migration. Armed with this comparison, from my vantage point the ball bearings appeared as a bird’s-eye view of mass movements. This experience in particular made me feel tangential to some greater power more than anything else in the exhibition.
The framing of the exhibition meant that I first encountered each installation in magnetic_T through its use of magnets as a medium. What began to emerge through this framework was a shared language between art, geology, and social relationships. Moving through the exhibition, these themes continued to emerge, always co-existing and building upon one another, rather than cancelling each other out. In the process, I found myself feeling secondary to the greater forces, movements, and phenomena at play—an experience that was pleasantly humbling, rather than destabilizing. The experience of New Media Gallery’s magnetic_T is a compelling exercise for considering the unseen forces around us from a new perspective.
1. Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 72.
2. Wall text, magnetic_T, New Media Gallery, New Westminster, BC.
3. & 4. Ibid.
5. Exhibition handout, magnetic_T, New Media Gallery, New Westminster, BC.
6. A Geology of Media, 28.
magnetic_T ran from February 23 – May 26, 2019 at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster, BC.
Feature image: moving objects / no. 502-519, 2011 by Pe Lang. All photos by Latreille Photography courtesy of the New Media Gallery.