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Eve Andree Laramee: Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions

at Randolph Street Gallery, through April 29

Glance through the doorway at Eve Andree Laramee's installation Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions and you think you're seeing an apparition: an enormous chemistry lab sits on a large black table about three feet off the ground; the vessels highest up are perhaps ten feet above the floor. Metal rods rise from square or round bases or are clamped horizontally; glass beakers and bulbs and cylinders are everywhere. Copper wires and glass and plastic tubes snake through the piece, looping elaborately back on themselves. With its web of verticals and horizontals and curves the thing looks a bit like a deep-sea monster rising at Randolph Street Gallery. The glass glistens, reflecting the glare from six spotlights. Now the piece seems the towers of a distant fantasy city; walk around it, and it seems you're walking through a forest.

Odd as it is, somehow the installation succeeds on an initial, perceptual level. A few bright red flowers clamped to the rods balance the deep blue-green salts in various beakers throughout. The tubes and glassware create a seductive thicket; one wants to climb up, move around, perhaps live there a bit. I thought of Jackson Pollock's huge drip paintings, which can also be seen as environments. And Laramee recalls that her first aesthetic "epiphany," while still in elementary school, was at a Pollock show: "I remember looking at an enormous painting which included footprints, cigarette butts, bottle caps, and thought, 'He lived here.'"

But Laramee's poetic fantasy is partly grounded in the logical principles of chemistry. A closed glass bulb with a small burner under it and a tube at the top leading to a lower bulb is apparently a simple distillation mechanism. The wires often suggest a chemical battery--immersed in some solutions, copper wires can produce a tiny voltage. Four udderlike protrusions under a glass bulb lead to tubes that drain into a large evaporation plate full of a deep blue liquid and bright blue crystals--a solution has been reduced to salts. The snout on one flask is perfectly fitted into the long curved neck of another, not only creating a conduit for fluids but also humorously suggesting sexual coupling.

Look a bit closer, however, and everything seems to fall apart; it's as if Laramee also wants to see science destroying itself. Strewn about the table's surface are a variety of often disconnected objects. Solitary beakers seem almost forlorn; others have been knocked over, and the fluids spilled onto the table have evaporated to a white residue. Wires looped around the flower stems suggest some kind of experiment--but most of these wires go nowhere, and current can flow only through complete circuits. If this is an experiment, the "science" has gone terribly wrong.

In fact the work is too fanciful to have ever been an experiment. About three-quarters of the glassware was not purchased from a chemistry supply house but hand-blown to Laramee's designs at the Experimental Glass Workshop in New York, where she now lives. A solitary tuning fork sits in a bell jar with a wire attached only to the jar's surface. What's it for? Such oddly disconnected objects, appearing throughout the installation, seem puzzling little suggestions of narratives whose beginnings are irretrievably lost, and each separate incident points in a different direction; the viewer is truly at sea. A cluster of 26 transparent glass saucers, each with a different type of valve sealed inside, in its present form has no use in chemistry. A mound of musty jigsaw-puzzle pieces nearby provides a hint: there is no rational explanation for any of this. Science is here subverted into the stuff of surrealist poetry.

In fact Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions works best as a kind of grand theater of surprises, a vision of some disaster so disordered that one cannot imagine how it happened. Growing up in Los Angeles, Laramee recalls that "earthquakes, floods, fires, landslides" produced an effect on her "more powerful than any social phenomenon." Her mother would occasionally take the kids on car trips in pursuit of such disasters; Laramee remembers seeing a huge heap of autos that had been washed into a cul-de-sac when the Baldwin Hills dam broke. "I'm interested in contradictions," Laramee told me, "in that space between fiction and fact, function and futility, usefulness and uselessness." The viewer becomes engrossed in her labyrinth of little lost stories, never knowing whether to expect order or disorder, science or its opposite, a simple connection or an unexplainable one.

Laramee also appears to be making statements about science and nature, however, and here her piece is less successful. Its heterogeneity makes it hard to know exactly what individual points she's making; to borrow from her title, her intuitions often remain vague. But at times her statements seem simplemindedly antiscience. The bright red flowers with their stems bound in wire coils appear trapped in some kind of plant-electrocution device. Or are the wires a metaphor for artificial breeding? Is Laramee criticizing the scientific approach to nature? Or is she simply having fun, like a mischievous child set loose in a fancy lab?

The words printed or cast on many of the beakers and metal bases also suggest an antiscience position. On one graduated cylinder with a scale numbered one to ten the words "mouth fulls" are cast in relief on the base. Is a system of measure based on what a human mouth can hold supposed to be better than liters and milliliters? Laramee also critiques scientific measurement in another graduated cylinder labeled with words instead of numbers: "faulty," "incorrect," "botch," "misconception," "boo-boo." Not far away, another base has cast on it "things fall apart." Seven transparent shards hanging on a rod are imprinted with words--"misinterpretation," "inexactness," "haziness."

Though Laramee is not scientifically ignorant--she began college as a physical-science major--her installation suggests, despite its ambiguities, the overbroad, ignorant condemnations of science often heard of late. The sciences, it is said, are opposed to the aesthetic, to the creative spirit. Science is aggressive, mechanical; it measures and quantifies things at the expense of the imagination; it falsely divides and classifies the natural world. Its acts of naming and analyzing are too--well, male. The technology that science has spawned in the last few centuries represents an attack on the principles of nature that have ruled life on earth for aeons.

There's a level on which I accept at least some of this as true. But most of the attackers of science are a bit disingenuous, failing to acknowledge their own enjoyment of the fruits of technology. Measurement based on mouthfuls rather than the metric system would never have made possible the complex technology that produces the bright spotlights illuminating Laramee's work in an otherwise dark and windowless room. The carpenter who custom-built the piece's rectangular base used a tape measure--if he'd used his foot, say, the artist might have protested that the size was wrong.

Science itself, at least in our century, has actually incorporated a great deal of "inexactness" and "haziness." Schrodinger's equation--a fundamental formula of quantum mechanics that predicts the behavior of elementary particles and, indeed, of all "solid" matter--can never be solved exactly for any physical system. The approximate solutions possible don't indicate exactly where a particle is or predict where it's going: the equation produces probabilities--what had been thought of as solid particles are now vague three-dimensional clouds. And for me the idea that all matter is but a mass of relative uncertainties is at least as awe inspiring, mysterious, and poetic as Laramee's overturned beakers and proud, "antiscientific" celebration of "haziness."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Paul Brenner.

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