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If the Ether will never die——Li Xin’s “éther durée space”

By LIN Yunke

In 1887, Albert A. Michelson, who later became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in the sciences, joined Edward W. Morley to design one of the most exquisite experiments in the history of physics. They were trying to save a soon-to-extinct concept of medium: Ether (also known as “luminiferous aether”), an invisible but existent physical particle that was postulated to transmit factual contacts in the way of relaying them. The Michelson-Morley duo built the experimental apparatus on top of a huge marble slab, which was then floated in a pool of mercury, an element of high density, to pursue the most stable rotation possible on the horizontal plane. The scientists were hoping to capture even the tiniest shift in the positions of the interference fringes brought by the “ether wind”, which would then suggest that light collides with a substance that factually exists.
However, the experiment eventually negated the last possibility of Ether’s existence: as it propagates in space, light is obstructed by nothing – such a notion then became a new physical constant, and brought us a universe that’s a completely empty space. Since then, people have only been able to comprehend the relations of bodies through “action at a distance”: isolated from each other without direct contact, they are imagined to influence and even control each other in a miraculous manner.
The Michelson-Morley experiment was exactly what popped up in my mind when I was standing before Li Xin’s works and listening to the artist talking about how he had been developing his ‘canvases’ with extremely delicate processes over a period of more than six months. But few are aware that to prove Ether’s physical existence – a substance that’s supposed to be dense, homogeneous and infinite, the experimental platform built by the experimenters had already pre-simulated Ether’s physical properties. In an era when people still believed that motions and relations occur only through contact, it was the vortices, large circling bands of invisible material particles that could not be torn apart, that maintained the motions and relations between bodies in the space defined by René Descartes, and between these vortices, there were never gaps of emptiness that could lead to possibilities of catastrophe. Even when Sir Isaac Newton tried to use his theory of “universal gravitation” to tear open a weak gap in the infinite substance, he still insisted on Ether’s “solidness” and “impenetrability”, though he reduced direct contact into force between objects kept at an arm’s length. Here, the etheric world that has been forgotten by the modern world seems to have quietly found its way to sneak into Li’s works.
In Li Xin’s studio, his works are placed as if they were experiment benches. Not exploring color spectrum, line, agglomeration and blank in the realms of shape and light, Li has steered his works to emphasize the “density” of his “canvases”. What Li has devoted great energy to create are never vehicles that represent specific images, but a high-density space of painting that the artist himself describes to be “éther durée” (infinite of Ether) – images can’t attach to the space, nor can strokes penetrate it, so whoever tampers with the space can’t either utilize or destroy it. As the painter’s strokes swept the space like light, the “light rays” got captured by the space, thanks to the interaction between substances of close contact. The pure appearances seen in Li’s work are exhibiting the density and transmission of the space itself. Unlike cosmic black holes, Li Xin’s “éther durée space” doesn’t diminish his painted light rays – their stagnated part when passing through the space remains as light, allowing us to observe traces of how the deviation of light is formed. However, we need to keep in mind that the traces are not corrosions or scars of the space, but evidences that the space has accommodated the artist’s painting behavior.
In this so-called “éther durée space”, the interference effect is never limited to a local area, as any weak trace of light will trigger a transmission effect across the entire space – such transmission occurs in hair’s breadth, not allowing viewers to imagine even the smallest motion and the subsequent replacement. Differing with other works that pursue “emptiness” and “doctrine”, the “éther durée space” doesn’t leave an exact position for replacement by providing white space, nor does it use a pretentious approach of “non-intervention” or “abstraction” to highlight the artistic vehicle amid the barrenness. On the contrary, in a space seemingly of nothingness, the abundance of the world gradually emerges – on the border of every trace that seems to be physically present, the closest location is always filled with the appearance of another trace. This is what remains after the artist’s painted light gets eventually squeezed in the space, thereby revealing pressure, gravity, resistance, and fractal… Once the space’s self-expression is inspired, the works will tend to infinite in self-expression, and Li Xin has appropriately fulfilled his role as an inspirer.
Though constrained by physical canvases and confined to a limited scope for the time being, the “éther durée space” presented by Li creates a transmission effect that continues to visually spill over. That marks the reason why the consistency of the space will never break down, no matter Li’s works are executed either in the form of multiple frames of continuous paintings and fragments, or in the form of a single whole picture or large format. Undeniably, viewers may consider his works to be the abstractification of certain existents, such as rivers, clouds, muds or rubbles, but such abstractification only makes sense in the “contact-based universe” of the “éther durée space”. The traces in Li’s works remind people of river banks and isobars, and in these unobservable fragments used to understand nature’s tremendous changes, the world not only appears to be light and erratic, but also reveals a sense of solidness and resistance. Why the world can be seen by others is because it continues to overcome itself as an obstruction. In a field spurred by slices of Li Xin’s “éther durée space”, viewers, ensnared by the space, will inevitably trigger transmission of sight to overcome their own numb gazes. Working like a Klein bottle, the transmission that spills over the canvases in the “éther durée space” will bring everything in the field, including the viewers’ perceptions, back to the canvases again, in an ever-repeating manner that results in infinity.
Isn’t what happens in this space what Michelson and Molly had hypnotized but failed to achieve? If, in their desperate experiment, even the slightest deviation of light had occurred to disturb a tiny corner of the universe by the slightest, people and matters could adhere to the belief that universally-existent contact is still the basis for understanding the existence of the world, therefore a world in which isolation and remote control become the norms would never have befallen.
Those said, I actually felt a kind of humanistic sadness in a neutral, objective scientific experiment that’s associated with Li Xin’s works. But if we don’t focus our attention on the hegemony of the constant speed of light – The devil, howling “Ho. Let Einstein be,” restored the status quo (in which Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night) – and instead, appreciate the experiment itself, what will happen then? Compared with light’s tap-and-go attribute, the stable state in which mercury and marble are embedded in each other while floating, a phenomenon produced by the experimenters, is already a monument to the Ether in itself. People are so obsessed with such an “obsolete” scientific concept, just because it used to extend our perception, rather than just indulging our fantasy. Given today’s development in physics, the outcome of the Michelson-Molly experiment seems to be non-extraordinary and reasonably deserved, but people are still able to fully preserve a world in which matters relate to each other thanks to a mechanism that inter-embedded mercury and marble, and the experiment is indeed remembered for its exquisitely-designed experimental platform. If the English word “art” had both the meanings of “craft” and “art”, why can’t art, exonerated the burden of scientific evidence, devote itself to the thorough preservation and resurrection of a certain world? A world that is most relevant to human life and emotions, though not “science-based”? Such memories of a sensible world of life as well as memories of a world in which loneliness has not yet become the matters’ universal state seem to be slowly reviving in Li Xin’s works.
This kind of memory loss about “duration”, “density” and “transmission” is just a part of the crisis that the art of painting encounters in the present day. As the etheric world got abandoned, the invincible light began to become the benchmark of time and space, and the universal contact with the world thus became unimportant and impossible. But few people have realized that abandoning the etheric world or the space of contact-based transmission has eventually resulted in photography’s threat to or even replacement of painting. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag defined photography as a quantitative explosion relative to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. With photography, the world is no longer contact-based, but partially relocated, copied and viewed. Therefore, the world gets collected, just as Sontag noted: “To collect photographs is to collect the world”. And with the intervention of the hegemony of light, the “action at a distance” of image-shooting began to affect how painting is perceived, and the art turned into a craft dominated by tracing, copying, and projecting. Images transcribed on paper from elsewhere, however abstract, would need to consider the viewers’ visual experience at a certain distance, but they are now besieged by the “world at a distance” of photography. To seek the internal differentiation between painting and photography, artists started to prioritize texture and spectrum, elements that may beat photography’s pixel values and acquire certain visual effects exclusive to painting – however, that still cannot change the fate in which painting is viewed in the same isolated way as photography: literally, with “sight” being a variant of “light” (light), viewing and gazing are therefore understood as a form of violence in the contemporary society.
Collecting, isolating and viewing, few people realize that the replacement of the etheric world by the hegemonic world of light can be understood as the root of crises for both painting and the world. Fragmented acts of tracing have made painting an infinitely replaceable trade. As long as painting cannot restore the world filled with physical contact and transmission, human beings cannot find shelter in the art of painting. To that end, trying to restore the “Ether” of our world and end the vicious circle of replaceability should be one of the present-day missions for the art of painting, just like Li Xin’s series Oooooooondes that has replaced the lost paintings at the Musée Rodin, which should never be replaced again. However, that irreplaceability isn’t because the lost works won’t be recovered ever, but because Li Xin’s works don’t take up those spots as “replaceables”.
All appearances in the “éther durée space” just represent a “hypothesis” about the etheric world, but the world is more real than visible fragments. Not a single paragraph of language or a single piece of work can portray an entire world, but if the world is able to transmit our concrete perceptions, without any emptiness to be filled by powers beyond us – authority, capital, formula and speed of light, everything will then be accessible and experienceable, just like what happens in the field formed by the “éther durée space” that entangles both its inside and outside. If Ether didn’t die, our current “hypotheses” or artistic creation would be works that provide an overview of the laws of the etheric world, as in Sir Isaac Newton’s famous phrase “Hypotheses non fingo” (“I do not frame hypotheses”). Through the Oooooooondes series, what people see are not the original works or their replacements, but how the original works appear in the etheric world. I haven’t been able to collect any original work or object, nor their images, but as I activate that world, I’m having a direct contact with it.
In the “éther durée space”, the ether wind that Michelson and Molly had been fascinated by will breeze again. When the speed of light stagnates, all traces of light seem to emerge from within.