Alexandra Carr’s installations about cosmology question the nature of reality

The experimental works of the UK-based contemporary artist on the phenomenon of creation and cosmology inquire about the single-dimension of perspective.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Sep 24, 2020

Nothing is said that has not been said before about the theory of creationism. It remains an uncontested truth that a variety of people from all walks of life find ‘evolution’ and ‘creation’ as the popular subjects of indulgence. The debates on genesis between philosophers, rationalists and theologists, especially of the Renaissance period, have been instrumental in fuelling the artistic representation on evolutionary theory and humankind. Extending these conversations is the UK-based contemporary artist Alexandra Carr who invokes the phenomenon of cosmology and natural processes to create experimental works.

Carr’s installations involving multiple mediums including drawing, sculpture, kinetic works, photography and video demonstrate the multifaceted nature of reality and what constitutes it. In an interview with STIR, Carr talks about the journey of translating these conceptual thoughts into installations, “It’s more about the journey in trying to grasp these elusive concepts. We can’t ever be certain of the nature of reality and, in a sense, our experience of reality is entirely subjective. So often my work centres around a moment of fleeting comprehension or an object in flux… My aim is never to lay out what I feel to be the nature of existence, I merely invite the audience to ask questions on the subject. For me, the goal is never to find the answers, rather, I prefer to find more questions. To develop experiences that transport you, I have honed the skill to look at the world with childlike awe and take note of the ‘magic’ I see. Perpetually drawn to constant change and the intangible, I naturally focus on phenomena such as magnetism, light, sound and the weather; moments over time that can be felt but not easily quantified or captured. Rather than a material being the focus of my practice, I allow the power of natural phenomena to provide the magic, so it has become my medium”.

o2 mins watch Cloud of Unknowing | Alexandra Carr | STIRworld
Cloud of Unknowing Video: Alexandra Carr

Between the tangible reality and intangible bliss of contemplative prayer, the human struggle is about letting go of the materiality of self in an effort to enlighten the senses. The installation Cloud of Unknowing, inspired from the eponymous work (anonymous attribution) of the 14th century, emphasises the awareness of being “courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of ‘unknowing’”. The fleeting clouds here become a metaphor for the transcendent world of the unknown. The mist of the cloud dissolves the edge of the box to disturb the uniformity that we perceive to be the universal truth. The installation, first displayed at the Mickley Church, is created out of panels of perspex and motor sensors to give a new form to the clouds every time a viewer watches this play of light and shadow.

The on-site works displayed at the public spaces underscore the importance of bringing art to the community, and draw meaning from the immersive experience of the public, does this help the artist to grow as a practitioner? Carr answers this, “At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I don’t actually ever feel as though the work I produce belongs to me, I feel as though it lives through me. The strongest sense of this happened when I installed the Cloud of Unknowing. After months of sleepless nights concerning the technical and health and safety aspects, once it was turned on and burst into life, I was genuinely surprised by it. It felt as though I  never had anything to do with it and someone else had produced it. On the whole, the public shows you aspects of the work that were never intended but are equally as significant as the ones that were. As the work often focuses on multiple perspectives, this feedback adds to the richness of the process”.

o2 mins watch Weight of Light | Alexandra Carr | STIRworld
Weight of Light Video: Courtesy of Alexandra Carr

The installation Weight of Light, suspended from the ceiling of St Mary’s Church, with the prisms stresses the theories of colours propounded by English physicist Isaac Newton and German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The two approached the same theory with the different scientific lenses to reach a similar finding of colour aberrations, refraction, among others. Carr says, “The bottom portions of prisms were dipped in black resin, the central prisms were crackled through heat treatment, and the top prisms were clear” to manipulate our visual perception of light and inquire the certainty of a single perspective. The installation made out of a close to thousand optical prisms and six video projections plays with the patterns of light to underscore the truth experienced by variegated perspectives. 

Alexandra Carr | STIRworld
Alexandra Carr Image: Courtesy of Alexandra Carr

Evoking the medieval concept of Empyrean as demonstrated by Bishop Robert Grosseteste in his book De Luce (On Light), Carr with her installation of the same name illuminates the coming of the cosmos through a single point of light. Like her work Weight of Light, this too is an interplay between observation and perspective to address the question of reality in this dynamic cosmos. The golden finish of the glass beads is strategically placed so that the viewer can see each bead from a particular point of view. The 10 spheres of the beads of the installation, as the viewer encircle around it, create an elusive experience. The illusionary world of the installation subverts the concept of uniformity to suggest the universe was created out of the matrix of chaos and order.

Empyrean | Alexandra Carr | STIRworld
Empyrean Image: Courtesy of Alexandra Carr

Before the final work of this scale is presented to the viewers, it demands different layers of ideation and execution process, Carr illustrates this point further, “I often describe this process as an act of faith. In the development of my practice, I have learned to trust my instinct above all. I rarely make a note or sketch an idea unless it badgers me for months or years. I only follow up the ideas that shout the loudest. I see the process as finding glinting threads in an enormous fog. You have absolutely no idea where the threads lead because you can’t see the way, but at some point, they all weave together and make perfect conceptual sense. Then comes the task of practically making it work. There’s a great deal of engineering in what I do (increasingly so), so it is a slow, delicate sensitive process of getting the right balance between the material, concept and engineering. This gets easier with practice but I am constantly striving to simplify works and strip them back to their bare minimum, so they have a more powerful voice and room to breathe”.

Since each work by Carr has a voice of its own, with little in common with each other, she talks about her choices of material and how it confers a layer of uniqueness to the work, “Natural phenomena definitely define my practice in terms of media. The process I work with is often very clear when working on a specific research project in collaboration with other disciplines. For example, when working with medieval texts about creation, light is an obvious choice, as was using magnetism for a site-specific work in an old ironworks in Sweden, and bacteria is a clear pathway for a current project (Material Imagination) to develop biological smart materials….As with all unusual media, it comes with its trials in terms of execution. When I am in the thick of technical challenges I often wish I had chosen a simpler route, but the struggle is part of the fun. If I am not out of my comfort zone or losing sleep over a project, I don’t feel I am doing my job properly”.

Carr is equally at ease with the viewers getting lost in their own world while watching her works and someone just walking past her work with a bare glance. But she admits, “Let my work wash over you, seep into you and by all means, debate it if the mood takes you. Just experience what you experience and be in the reality you choose, after all, there’s truth in every perspective. Isn’t there?” Experiencing Carr’s work is similar to the English romantic poet John Keats’ illustrious description of Grecian Urn in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all; Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’. Antithetical to laissez-faire approach towards the knowledge of creations, Carr’s craft is sensitive to draw a careful balance between her interests in natural phenomena and the aesthetic appeal of the installation. The curious viewer in wait would like to experience the revelation of another natural phenomenon with her fresh immersive installation. 

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