Science is "the ultimate human construct," says Mark Hayward, an artist and senior exhibit developer at the Museum of Science and Industry. "We forget we created it. We talk about it like something outside of us--but we made it."
Hayward describes himself as a pataphysician, or one who believes there are no general laws in the universe. Pataphysics is a "science of imaginary solutions," invented by French iconoclast Alfred Jarry at the turn of the last century. Reacting against 19th-century notions of how the universe works, Jarry maintained that every phenomenon is unique and unpredictable.
Hayward discovered Jarry in 1988, while getting a degree at the School of the Art Institute. "He'd been in and out of fashion for 100 years." An important forerunner of Dada and surrealism, Jarry was mentioned in an art history class in reference to Marcel Duchamp's "Large Glass," which depicts a mock machine "operated" on the principles of pataphysics. Hayward dug into Jarry's writings, including the 1896 play Ubu Roi, "the beginning of theater of the absurd."
"I was blown away by Jarry's ideas and it's been an obsession ever since," Hayward says. He's a member of the Society of the Friends of Alfred Jarry in Paris. And he's the founder of the New Center for Pataphysics. He says everyone is unconsciously a pataphysician and there are "a gazillion" Web sites devoted to the subject, including his own, www.pataphysics.com.
For the last year, Hayward and one of his former teachers, composer and performance artist Jeff Abell, have worked on "A Boy's Pataphysical Guide to the Art Institute of Chicago." Combing through the Art Institute on Tuesday nights, they chose several works of art to display--their way--at the Cliff Dwellers Club, across the street from the museum. "The most important thing is what we say about the work, not the work itself," says Hayward. "Our interpretation is achieved by inverting the relationship between the label and the work of art, and by making fun of the labels."
They've hung up slides of the works, along with Christmas lights, and illuminated the images with tiny blinking bulbs. Though it's difficult to see the pictures, the signs next to them are three to four times larger than ordinary museum labels. The titles and descriptions are sometimes nutty, other times provocative. Eight Legs, a 1997 painting by Lucien Freud of two nude men and a dog, is labeled "What Would Papa Think?" Three other works explore the male buttocks.
"Making base jokes," says Hayward, "is in keeping with the spirit of Jarry's writing, which was scatological, really crude, burlesque humor on the surface. But there are subtle jokes underneath the simple one-liners."
Hayward is currently curating a clock and watch exhibit on behalf of the National Time Museum at the Museum of Science and Industry, where he creates a lot of labels. He says the exhibit at the Cliff Dwellers helped him blow off steam. "There are a lot of one-liners that I got to write that I wouldn't have had a chance to otherwise."
Today is the last opportunity to see "Evidence of Flocking Behavior: Preface to 'A Boy's Pataphysical Guide to the Art Institute of Chicago'" before it moves to Hayward's Web site. It closes at 8 PM at the Cliff Dwellers, on the 22nd floor of 200 S. Michigan. For more information, call 312-922-8080.
--Bonnie C. McGrath
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.