Pluto’s Cave




The mad artist tends to his devices in a metaphysical exploration of science and technology

Bill Wippert / Buffalo News. Some work and some don't: Artist Gary Nickard with his various scientific installments as part of the "Pluto's Cave" exhibition at the Big Orbit Gallery on Essex Street.
Bill Wippert / Buffalo News. Some work and some don’t: Artist Gary Nickard with his various scientific installments as part of the “Pluto’s Cave” exhibition at the Big Orbit Gallery on Essex Street.

Although you wouldn’t know it by looking into “Pluto’s Cave: Making the
Invisible Visible” at the Big Orbit Gallery, Gary Nickard is not a mad
scientist. He’s a mad artist.

Nickard – in league with two other high-voltage mentalities, Reinhard
Reizenstein and Robert Hirsch – has created a phenomenal, if somewhat
bewildering installation from scavenged scientific devices of obscure
vintage, old lab equipment and assorted enigmatic machines. It is a
display in which Frankensteinian machines spark and buzz and
fluorescent green fluids circulate through glass tubes while wall projections
show cryptic (to me) animated scientific diagrams and models.

At the dimly lit center of the gallery is a dead tree (courtesy of sculptor
Reizenstein) laid out horizontally and hooked up to a series of devices –
“oscilloscopes,” Nickard explains, to monitor the fluctuations in an
electronic field. To the novice eye, the bedraggled tree seems beyond
fluctuations of any sort.

Nickard goes around the gallery pointing out various scientific “marvels.”
Some are authentic, most fake.

In the “amaze-your-friends” department is a real radio telescope, a NASA
original, that picks up thunderstorm activity on Jupiter via an antenna
mounted in the gallery roof. (The metal roof is a plus, says Nickard.) What
you hear is nice, sharp static – but no matter, it’s impressive.

On the far wall is a linear electron accelerator, no less, complete with
cloud chamber. This is the real deal, says Nickard, in effect a fully functional baby atom smasher. (Not to worry, it’s safe.)

In one corner is a “spark chamber,” a stack of metal plates in a vacuum
jar. Luckily for our sanity, the millions of cosmic rays that shower down on
us are invisible. “But if a cosmic ray went through this device you would
see a magenta bolt of lightning,” Nickard says. “It would make the invisible

The non-working stuff is there to create an “aura.” That is, to make an
aesthetic impression. “We like that confusion between the functional and the non-functional,” he

Nickard has no idea what some items were made for – like a whirling gizmo
or a spiffy stainless steel disc that looks like an upside-down doggie bowl.
But they look good.

“This is old tech,” Nickard explains, his face captured in an eerie light
emitted by a huge crazy gaggle of equipment topped by mysterious
“horns” (microwave devices from the ’50s, actually). Beaming out at floor
level is what might look to the art-oriented viewer like a glass abstract
sculpture illuminated from within. What it really is, Nickard informs us, is
an old telescope mirror.

Bill Wippert / Buffalo News. Gary Nickard is the "mad artist" behind the Big Orbit Gallery's latest exhibit.
Bill Wippert / Buffalo News. Gary Nickard is the “mad artist” behind the Big Orbit Gallery’s latest exhibit.

Bill Wippert / Buffalo News. Gary Nickard is the “mad artist” behind the Big Orbit Gallery’s latest exhibit.

Completely useless but visually exhilarating, this marvelous, slightly Rube
Goldbergian heap is, Nickard observes, “a machine to help people capture
their lost imaginations.”

The whole show might be described as an incredible imagination-restoring
machine. Nickard and his cohorts are asking us to question those good
old fashioned common sense ideas about how the world is constructed.
Ever since quantum physicists demonstrated that microphysical particles
“act as quixotically as the characters in “Alice in Wonderland’,” according
to Nickard, et. al., assumptions about the reality of the physical world have
been turned on their heads.

The show both taunts science for its proclaimed priority on knowledge and
pays homage to it. Nickard notes that back in the days when this
outmoded equipment still served, science promised a better, more humane
world. “It was a time of faith in science, a greater optimism,” he says
about the era before nuclear physics released the horrors of the bomb. To
look back on that relatively innocent age calls forth “bittersweet, almost
romantic feelings.”

Hirsch’s contribution to the show shares none of these feelings. Hirsch’s
ominous Plexiglas tower holds a plethora of small photographic images
that form an unsettling portrait of our age. Images of atomic blasts, bomb
shelters and citizens in gas masks are disturbingly commingled with
pictures of politicians, sci-fi monsters and benign cult figures from pop
culture. Completing Hirsch’s indictment of an age is a deck of “Atomic
Playing Cards,” while in a claustrophobic back gallery, a projector with
Sputnik-like appendages cast ghostly images on walls and ceiling. Hirsch’s work, for all its imaging of real threats, deals closely with the psychology of the contemporary mind haunted by the dangers of technology and hounded by rapacious corporations that technology propagates. Nickard describes Hirsch’s work as a collage of the times that contains “reasonable fears and irrational ill-defined terror.”

The title “Pluto’s Cave,” Nickard tells us, refers to the famous scene in the
cave in Plato’s “Republic” via Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld
whose realm was invisible to piddling mortals.

Nickard didn’t say so, but because a fake corporation with the cartoonish
handle Acme Physics is the “presenter” of the show, the name may also
be a play on a certain animated dog. The installation, like Pluto the dog, is
certainly ingratiating enough.

It also comes with a nip, a snarl and a bite.