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An ambitious exhibition explores the intersection of the cosmos and contemporary artistry

Gravity. Imaging the Universe After Einstein

National Museum of 21st Century Arts
Rome, Italy
Through 29 April 2018

When it comes to sparking the public’s interest in science, no individual, living or dead, can rival Albert Einstein. His name and face, if not his ideas, are known the world over, and headline writers cite him eagerly to pull in readers. So perhaps it is no surprise that the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI; National Museum of 21st Century Arts) in Rome has chosen the famous physicist as the figurehead of its latest exhibition, entitled Gravity. Imaging the Universe After Einstein.

Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, marks a fundamental break in our conception of the universe. Whereas Newton envisaged gravity as a force of attraction between two objects in empty space, relativity instead tells us that gravity is a distortion of space (and time) itself. The theory was published in 1915 and since then has been confirmed experimentally time and again, including the spectacular, if expected, discovery in 2015 of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves.

The MAXXI exhibition, running until 29 April 2018, is designed to study “the meeting point of the current understanding of the cosmos and contemporary art and thinking.” Or, in the words of MAXXI president Giovanna Melandri, who dreamt up the event, to show that art and science are “two lenses giving a single vision.” Co-organizer Fernando Ferroni, president of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, echoes that sentiment. “Specialization in itself doesn’t resolve anything,” he says. “You need a big vision of society.”

Whether the exhibition gives visitors that vision is debatable. The centerpiece of the show is an installation by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno entitled “Cosmic Concert” that cleverly portrays how we influence the space-time structure of the universe just as space-time affects us. It consists of a spider slowly weaving its web, which quivers ever so slightly in response to changing sounds and other vibrations in the environment while its tiny movements are themselves picked up by sensors that in turn modify the output from an array of loudspeakers overhead.

© MAURIZIO PERCIBALLI, INFN, SEZIONE DI ROMA SAPIENZA

An interactive video installation allows visitors to deform space-time and generate gravitational waves.

Elsewhere, however, art seems thin on the ground. In one corner of the exhibition gallery sits a model of the New Jersey radio antenna that in 1965 provided the first evidence of the cosmic microwave background, very faint but ubiquitous radiation emitted just after the universe exploded into life during the Big Bang. Accompanied by a mildly hypnotic soundtrack and projection showing what appear to be bats flying through a forest, the strangely shaped device, alternately illuminated by the video and in shade, is intriguing but inert. More entertaining is footage showing an interlinked series of things (e.g., bottles, tires, candles, and balloons) rolling down planks, spilling, burning, and exploding—an “endless chain reaction of apparently insignificant events” that is thought-provoking but slightly at odds with the other items on display.

Much of the exhibition consists of scientific instruments illuminated within the otherwise almost total darkness of the gallery. These artifacts include a mirror from the Virgo detector near Pisa, which, along with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in the United States, uses laser beams as extremely precise rulers to measure the miniscule stretching and compression of space caused by passing gravitational waves. Also on display is a model of the Laser Relativity Satellite (LARES), a 36-centimeter-diameter tungsten sphere launched by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to measure how a rotating body distorts space-time. There is even one of Galileo’s telescopes, as well as a 17th-century armillary sphere showing the orbits of planets and moons in the solar system.

These objects have considerable scholarly and historical value, and their geometry and craftsmanship confer them with undoubted beauty. But they very much lie in the scientific, rather than the artistic, realm, as do the various explanations of scientific concepts dotted around the gallery, be they in the form of written text or in animations and interactive exhibits.

Some of those explanations will make more sense to the layman than others. One video graphic, illustrating how someone on a moving train measures space and time differently from someone standing still, is a brave stab at explaining the counterintuitive effects of special relativity in a simple way. But even this is likely to be beyond the conceptual ability of most museumgoers.

Surely the aim of an exhibition like this is to pique people’s curiosity and give them a very broad sense of the mind-bending concepts that underlie modern physics. The art, if well done, could whet their appetite and, as ASI’s Roberto Battiston put it, “expand their horizons.” But too much detail is likely to turn them off and reinforce their impression that physics is only for the eggheads, not for them. Pulling off a true synthesis of art and science is always hard, and unfortunately, with Gravity, MAXXI has fallen some way short.

About the author

The reviewer is a journalist based in Rome, Italy.