Science as Spectacle


“Gary Nickard: Science as Spectacle”

May 1991

Gary Nickard: A Revisionist Natural History
Gary Nickard: A Revisionist Natural History

by Elizabeth Licata

Gary Nickard successfully courts two seemingly opposed mistresses in Science as Spectacle–its triumphantly pristine sterility is correct for both the esthetics of the art market and the imperatives of the laboratory. Not a lab rat is out of place, including the audience.

Some of the more delicate or dangerous apparatus in the exhibition is labeled with the words,”Please do not touch,” a technically necessary warning that no one is likely to ignore. Who would dare touch these neat, careful displays of tubing, circuitry, filaments and wires–ripped out of context, the equipment looks much more formidable than its worst case scenario of mild electrical shock. Function is very much a mystery here. Even though some of the work is activated by a viewer’s foot pedal, the resulting sparks and buzzes are a minor and meaningless sound and light show. Their presentation is the real spectacle, using carefully balanced interpolations of color and texture to play back Nickard’s keynote of empty homage.

At the Threshold (1987), for example, is surrounded by a handsome background of painted board and silver print “panes,” embedding the equipment within an austere shrine and exchanging its workaday possibilities for a formal and arbitrary framing. Nickard constantly uses copper panels and red, cobalt blue, and oxidization green coloring, beautiful decorative touches with a heritage of alchemic symbolism. A Day in the Life of a Lab Rat (1987) employs such touches, increasing the sense of stunned bewilderment emanating from the rats. They stare as blankly at us as we do at them, bereft of the context to explain their presence. The neat reverence that characterizes Nickard’s placement of his artifacts and representations dares the viewer to investigate their inherent political charge of exploitation and environmental damage.

When the mad scientist himself steps forward, as in Van De Graaf Generator (1987), he glows within the woven circle of his accoutrements. This work’s wierd elegance seems to place it beyond the pale of commentary as well, except that technology framed and hung is always a problematic commentary. In another, more recent series included here, Nickard has continued in this vein, exploring the possibilities of making photographic artifacts out of the detritus of scientific research, from cancer to outer space. Nickard exploits the parallels between studied abstraction and naturally produced forms so that a pretty Fujichrome print of blue and red sqiggles is called by the imposing name of Electronic Particle Detector’s Computer Display of Proton Antiproton Collision(Annihilation) Resulting in the Decay of a Z Particle into an Electron and a Positron (1990). There are several sets of such prints in the exhibition, many of them juxtaposing harmless decorative effects with ominous metaphorical names. Large Galaxies Capturing and Assimilating Smaller Neighbors in a Gallactic Cluster, (1990) is such a grouping–the images are the type normally seen illustrating a Carl Sagan book.

Ultimately, this work lives in a sterile twilit world of its own, offering a backhanded homage to both of its mismatched progenitors, but witholding any final allegiance. Whether Nickard’s dichotomous spectacle is a shotgun wedding or a heavyweight bout remains to be seen.