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New York

Tom Estes
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10128-0173
April 1, 2012 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Tom Estes at the Guggenheim in New York

Artist Tom Estes, enters the realm of Loonytune physics to create a successful science and pop-media crossover, making a ‘Portable Black Hole’ from the darkest material ever made. The carpet of carbon nano- tubes reflects 0.045 percent light, making it 100 times darker than a black-painted Corvette according to researchers from  Rice University, The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and NASA.

Remember the Road Runner Show? Simple in its premise, the Road Runner, a flightless cartoon bird (loosely based on a real bird, the Greater Roadrunner), is chased down the highways of the Southwestern United States by a hungry cartoon coyote, named Wile E. Coyote (a pun on "wily coyote").  Despite numerous clever attempts, the coyote never catches or kills the Road Runner, and all of his elaborate schemes end up injuring himself in humorous instances of highly exaggerated cartoon slapstick violence.

 Wile E. Coyote often obtains complex and ludicrous devices from a mail-order company, the fictitious Acme Corporation, which he hopes will help him catch the Road Runner.  The devices invariably backfire in improbable and spectacular ways. The coyote usually ends up burnt to a crisp, squashed flat, or at the bottom of a ravine and how the coyote acquires these products without any money is not explained.

But despite Coyotes failed attempts and bruised ego, wouldn't it still be cool if there really was an ACME company? Remember all the wild stuff he would order from the Acme company? The ACME  Super Power Magnets, ACME  Jet Packs, ACME Spring Boots, ACME Super Strength Glue and my personal favourite the ACME Portable Hole!  Ah yes, the portable hole, paint it on and move it where ever you want.

For artist Tom Estes, fantasy and illusion are not contradictions of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives.  For his project at The Guggenhiem Museum in New York, Estes has entered the cartoon realm of  Wile E. Coyote, creating a roadrunner inspired 'portable hole' from a new scientific material that reflects only 0.045 percent of the light that strikes it. The nanotech-based material now developed by a team of 10 technologists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is a thin coating of multi-walled carbon nanotubes — tiny hollow tubes made of pure carbon about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair. 

There is a real Peter Pan Syndrome at play in Estes' work and he considers himself to be a carnival sideshow conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternally adolescent, prank DIY comic-approach. The work 'Portable Black Hole' draws on real-life science, yet Estes has pursued a project that broaches a variety of subjects and engages with  specializations at the edges of current scientific knowledge. For instance, scientists believe a Black Hole is a region of space-time from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform space-time to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits the horizon, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect black body in thermodynamics. And it is this concept of the Black Hole closely resembles the properties of Estes' art object. So it would be easy to corral his work inside the somewhat sterile rubric of ‘sci-art’: the kind of work that simply translates or attempts to explain discoveries or methods in those fields. But we have to accept that the work he makes is quite remote from, obliquely related to or even at odds with the research on which it is based. So far Estes' relationships with the science has been productive, though one has the sense he must baffle some collaborators with his deadpan redeployment of their discoveries.

It would also be easy to read Portable Black Hole as a slyly literal displacement of the modernist monochrome painting found in institutions like the Guggenheim – a reminder that the blank canvases of Kasimir Malevich were also emanations of those artists’ mystical or cosmically oriented sensibilities. Black is black, right? Not so, according to a team of NASA engineers  developing the blacker-than pitch material. The 'Portable Black Hole' is a carpet that consists of nanotubes--hollow, honeycombed tubes made from carbon atoms- standing vertically. The key to this creation of this material was finding how to create a long, extremely porous vertically-aligned carbon nanotube array with certain surface randomness, therefore minimizing reflection and maximizing absorption simultaneously. which  put another way, absorbs 99.955 percent of the light.

Instead of being tightly packed together, there is a low density arrangement, complete with spaces and gaps, sort of like a box of dried spaghetti. Light striking the nano-tubes as well as the gaps gets absorbed. When light gets absorbed, black (the absence of light) results. The nanotubes were also specially manufactured to have a more random arrangement of atoms, further reducing reflectivity. Conventional black paint reflects 100 times more light. The previous record holder for darkness, a nickel-phophorus alloy pitted with light-trapping craters, reflected four times as much light.



Here is an art with a casually humorous take on quantum physics and material wonders, based on research and conceived with a lightness of touch. Conjuring up a Black Hole which is often associated with the laws of quantum physics also suggest the possibility of an alternative reality. And what better place to represent his cartoon-esque representation of an alternative reality than within The Guggenheim inverted Ziggurat with its domed skylight spiralling down like a vortex. But Estes hints too at his own effort towards this kind of rigorous but wry sublimity, the sort of pleasurable bewilderment and wonder that writers of  the sublime attributed to darkness in the eighteenth century. Yet Estes showcases the work with a comic atmosphere of almost naive wonder so that one might ask the question:


 "What is the use of creating a material that absorbs light? What good is this? Will Goths use it for Halloween costumes?"


The truth is it is a fascinating technology, and the discovery will allow us to increase the absorption efficiency of light as well as the overall radiation-to-electricity efficiency of solar energy conservation. that will help scientists gather hard-to-obtain scientific measurements or observe currently unseen astronomical objects, like Earth-sized planets in orbit around other stars. The material could help in advancing solar cells, which trap sunlight and convert it to energy. It could also one day be used by astronomers. Many believe the tubes will be used to deliver medicine in humans, build bridges, and conduct electricity inside of semiconductors someday.

Though it’s dreamed up in lengthy collaboration with scientific discoveries, it’s the connection with the context of display that truly intrigues. The work is inspired by Hilla Rebay and the The Guggenheim building. Though few people are familiar with the name Hilla Rebay and her championing of Non-Objective Painting she was the person who originated The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Rabey's vision for the Guggenheim was one strictly of Non-Objective art. Non-Objective art for Rebay was not only a new aesthetic that she believed was the only way to paint, but as a spiritual person, she felt Non-Objective painting held within a spiritual dimension. She made it quite clear that there was a difference between abstract art and Non-Objective art. According to her belief, abstract art was an abstraction of something: nature, an object, a figure, while Non-Objective painting was completely pure, devoid of any connection or association with what is seen in the world. 

According to Rebay, her belief was that abstract art was an abstraction of something: nature, an object, a figure, while Non-Objective painting was completely pure, devoid of any connection or association with what is seen in the world. Indeed the Guggenheim Foundation's first museum, was called "The Museum of Non-Objective Painting" and it was intended that the museum we now know as "The Guggenheim" was to be called the same. For her "temple" of art, Rebay envisioned a circular building with no stairs where the paintings especially of Bauer and Kandinsky would be shown to their best advantage.

From the very begining Rebay acted as Solomon Guggenheim's guide and art adviser pushing forward the collection right through the the creation of The Guggenheim Foundation, The Museum of Non-Objective Art and finally it's outstanding museum building which is one of the 20th century's most important architectural landmarks and "the first permanent museum to be built (rather than converted from a private house) in the United States. In a letter dated June 1, 1943, Hilla Rebay, the curator of the foundation and director of the museum, instructed Wright, "I want a temple of spirit, a monument!"


A central concern for Rebay was that the building was more an architectural structure to enhance Frank Lloyd Wright's reputation and presence in New York, and less a "temple" for the paintings that she and Solomon Guggenheim were profoundly dedicated to and had spent years collecting. Yet The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with its spiral ramp riding to a domed skylight- which provides such a unique forum for the presentation of contemporary art- is still considered one of the most important buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s late career, with Rebay's name never mentioned. In the words of Paul Goldberger, "Wright's building made it socially and culturally acceptable for an architect to design a highly expressive, intensely personal museum. In this sense almost every museum of our time is a child of the Guggenheim." 

 After Solomon's death, his nephew, Harry Guggenheim became President of the Board of Trustees. It was now time for Harry and Solomon Guggenheim's wife, Irene and her daughters to get back at the Baroness for all the years they took second place while Hilla ran the show with Solomon Guggenheim as her partner and patron. The fact is, the family intensely disliked the Baroness because of her power and close connection to Sol, as she called him. More and more duties were taken away from Hilla, as the family pushed her into the background. By 1952, she resigned as Director of the Museum.

Estes states:

"The primary formation process for black holes is expected to be the gravitational collapse of heavy objects such as stars, but there are also more exotic processes that can lead to the production of black holes. And with Black Holes no light can escape. Like an imploding star Hilla Rebay, first Director of the Guggenhiem was a huge influence of which there is little evidence. The Guggenheim is very much Rebay's creation yet it was renamed in Guggenheim's memory, and finally there was no mention of her area of interest, Non-Objective art. The term was completely erased from any catalogs, lectures or history of the museum, as was the name of Hilla Rebay. Her achievements, persistence and single-mindedness in forming a unique museum, plus her assistance in helping artists in any way she could was eliminated from the literature, as her paintings, the paintings of Bauer and others from the original group were put in storage while all the credit for the Guggenhiem building is given to Frank Llloyd Wright. So what better way to represent Hilla Rebay-  Its almost as if she fell into a black hole.


Though based on real-life science, Estes' use of this new material is a playful response to a real life situation. Estes’ work seems keenly aware of the tradition of the void, with its Romantic corollary of poetical night thoughts. In his Philosophical Enquiry of 1757, Edmund Burke claims that darkness induces a literally painful straining of the eye in its search for light. Immanuel Kant, seven years later in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, recounts a dream narrative in which the dreamer is stranded in the ‘boundless void’ of outer space: ‘A fearful kingdom of eternal silence, loneliness and darkness! Unutterable horror overtook me at this sight.’ Among Kant’s formulations of the sublime is a mathematical variety: sublimity occurs, he says, when our urge to imagine the idea of great of infinite dimensions or distances, clashes with our ability to understand them.


Elsewhere, distance and duration are invoked with a minimalism whose modesty is as comic as it is cosmic. His work has something in common with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics: his 1965 collection of short stories in which scientific fact or conjecture is the occasion for playful allegory bordering on whimsy: life imagined before the condensation of matter, embarrassing revelations signalled across the vasts of time.



Objects whose gravity field is too strong for light to escape were first considered in the 18th century by John Michell and Pierre-Simon Laplace. The first modern solution of general relativity that would characterize a black hole was found by Karl Schwarzschild in 1916, although its interpretation as a region of space from which  nothing can escape was not fully appreciated for another four decades. Long considered a mathematical curiosity, it was during the 1960s that theoretical work showed black holes were a generic prediction of general relativity.There is general consensus that super-massive black holes exist in the centre of most galaxies. In particular, there is strong evidence of a black hole of more than 4 million solar masses at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. 



Despite its invisible interior, the presence of a black hole can be inferred through its interaction with other matter and with light and other electromagnetic radiation. From stellar movement, the mass and location of an invisible companion object can be calculated; in a number of cases the only known object capable of meeting these criteria is a black hole. Astronomers have identified numerous stellar black hole candidates in binary systems by studying the movement of their companion stars in this way.



Born outside of Boston in The U.S.A, Tom Estes moved to Paris and lived there for a couple of years before settling for London as his base of operations. As an artist Estes' work has been hung, played and performed in a few of the world’s right places and a couple of deliciously wrong ones. For Estes, fantasy and illusion are not contradictions of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives. There is a real Peter Pan Syndrome at play in his work and I suppose he would consider himself a carnival sideshow conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternal adolescent comic-prank DIY- approach. Although skilled in many disciplines, and often employing a wide variety of different media in his work, it is photography that is at the heart of Estes' practice. At the core of this work is an attention to the flickering, fading definition of our lives as dictated by the computer monitor and the rapid reply of instant messaging. Estes strives, not to break down these introverted, often self-imposed boundaries, but to look at how dataflow from the virtual realm impacts on the significance and symbolism of real-world human senses. But in doing so, he have begun to generate unexpected questions about how art might be able to inscribe itself on the surface of reality- not to represent itself on the surface of reality –not to represent reality, nor to duplicate it, but to replace it.

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Posted by Abel Magwitch on 4/19/12 | tags: mixed-media conceptual performance installation

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