On the Radar: Linda Henderson, Meta-Reality and the Boundaries of the Real

On the Radar: Linda Henderson, Meta-Reality and the Boundaries of the Real

This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting with art historian Linda Henderson at the University of Texas,Austin:


We will be republishing in the Leonardo Book Series next year her seminal book The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton University Press, 1983

Henderson also published a conclusion to the book in Leonardo Journal Vol 17, 3 p 205 1984


Henderson has written a new introduction for the republication of the book which brings up to the present her analysis of how concepts of higher dimensions have driven both artistic and scientific imagination and developments with examples of contemporary artists such as Tony Robbins:

http://tonyrobbin.net/   )  and Marcos Novak: ( http://www.zakros.com/liquidarchitecture/liquidarchitecture.html ) among others. And in physics of course how string theory and its 11 dimensions has driven new insights into particle physics

One of the topics that comes up strongly in her new analysis is how the concept of the ‘aether’ had a parallel role in the artistic and scientific imagination: at a recent talk at IKKM ( http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=208698309152585&ref=  )

She argued recently:

»Repositioning the Ether in Early 20th-Century Art and Culture«

“It is remarkable that an entity as ubiquitous as the ether of space in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could be lost in histories of the cultural production of this period.

Contrary to standard narratives, it was only in 1919 that the popularization of Einstein and the theory of relativity began to challenge the public´s belief in the impalpable ether, which was understood to fill a space and to serve as the necessary medium for the various newly identified ranges of invisible wave vibrations. From X-rays to the Hertzian waves of wireless telegraphy – and their occult extensions in the telegraphy-telepathy-model -, modern artists found inspiration in these new modes of seeing and communicating based on vibrations and frequencies. At the same time, with the ether posited as the possible source of matter itself and radioactivity suggesting the continuous dematerialization of matter, artists faced a fluid new paradigm of interpenetrating space and matter in continuous cohesion and dissolution. It is little wonder that they responded so creatively – from the dematerialized forms of Cubism and Futurism, including Boccioni´s focus on the ether as »the unique form of continuity in space« to Duchamp´s decision to »make a painting of frequency« in his Large Class project and Kandinsky´s attempts to evoke the vibrating realm of ether itself in his abstract paintings.

Extending Albert Kümmel´s suggestion in the title of his 2008 anthology »Äther: Ein Medium der Moderne«, it seems increasingly feasible to argue that the ether was the cental medium of early 20th-century modernism.” (reposted from: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=208698309152585&ref= )
As an astronomer the connection of this discussion to the current crisis in cosmology, where over 95% of the universe is now attributed to “dark matter and dark energy’ of an unknown nature, is very intriguing. Though dark energy and dark matter are not theoretically connected to 19 century concepts of the aether, the underlying questions about the nature and content of space is an ongoing motivator of artistic and scientific questioning. And as she explores in the new introduction for her 1983 book, the concept of cyberspace as explored in fiction by William Gibson and others, and indeed in the foundational book “ Cyberspace: First Steps” edited by Michael Benedikt  ( (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=8999 ) and included an essay by Marcos Novak draws deeply on these cultural imaginaries.

In our discussion she referred to the terms ‘meta-reality” and “boundaries of the real” and in an email goes on to state:   “Boundaries of the real” was Iwan Rhys Morus’s phrase, and he was certainly thinking of it in Victorian terms.  But it’s absolutely true that there are highly relevant applications today. Like Iwan, I’ve also used my “meta-reality” term very specifically for modernism in the first 20-30 years of the century and haven’t tried to extend it through time. “

Watch out for the republication of Linda Henderson’s The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art in late 2012. Her thinking about the fourth dimension, the aether, meta-reality and the boundaries of the real have a contemporary relevance for all those interested in the interactions of the arts, sciences and technology.



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