Ideas, things and idea-things

February 10, 2006

ALCHEMY: THE ART AND SCIENCE OF TRANSFORMATION.
Cube3 Gallery, Portland Square, North Hill, Plymouth University. Until April 7

Driving into Plymouth, I can see the city is being transformed again. New buildings are replacing brave new postwar reconstruction. And, to the northwest, work continues on the university, a developing "knowledge centre" abutting the commercial centre and encircling those official centres of cultural memory and exchange, Plymouth's main library, its museum and art gallery.

I am heading for "Alchemy: The Art and Science of Transformation" and this word "transformation" is very much in my mind. The university is changing. Its arts faculty, for example, is moving to the city from Exeter and Exmouth. Will this transform the university? The cultural life of the city? The kinds and forms of knowledge that flow through the streets and buildings of both? And what of Exeter and Exmouth?

So the word "transformation" has come to meet me, even before I enter the gallery, along with conjunctio , a term used in alchemy for the bringing together of differences for the purposes of transformation. City and university. Arts and sciences. Knowledge and practice. Hidden and revealed.

Cube3 Gallery is not a conventional dedicated art space. It is a way of designating the open spaces of the recently completed Portland Square, where both the Peninsula Medical School and the faculty of science have bases. The building is in three conjoined blocks with roofed courtyards and interconnecting spaces too wide and high to be called corridors.

Those who use the gallery walk through and past the exhibitions without having to choose to do so. Others are drawn in specifically. It seems that alchemists were among those who saw knowledge as inseparable from the ritual procedures that produce and maintain it: to mix the vocabularies of different domains, certain practices of knowledge offer rites of passage.

Many believe this to be true of the experiences of art.

An exhibition puts things on display. Visual objects - that may also be textual -speak through their materials, the traces of their making process, their forms and iconographies, the captions attached to them. So here, in a place of ideas, these thing-ideas, these idea-things.

This exhibition is also an essay, an instrument for trying out ideas, carrying them in frames of text, imagery and cased artefacts that combine illustrative and documentary material on the history of alchemy in China, India, Egypt and Europe with recent artwork by invited contributors. These latter pieces include figurative images that could be given the shorthand epithet "Jungian", while other works, such as Heather Cowie's or Frank Beanland's, operate less through figuration than transformation of materials.

So, in a building for science and medicine, in an exhibition on a proto-science that hoped for a panacea, I have reached these very precise things, themselves signs and occasions of intensely localised transformations. In turning away from them, something comes away with me, because an exchange has taken place. Every building is a place of exchange, a site and occasion of transformations, and this is true too of the spaces around and between buildings. Aren't these multiple exchanges the things that make up a city and allow a university to be both of and beyond its city? The utopian double question I go away with is: how will these sensuous visual idea-things contribute to the conjoining of city? And how will the univer-city conjoin with them?

John Hall is associate director of research and lecturer in performance writing at Dartington College of Arts.

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