Culture | Cosmic rays and meteorite strikes

Nicolas Baier’s solo exhibit recreates nature’s grandeur with technology

Astérismes, or asterisms in English, refers to “constellations created without scientific basis.” Renowned Quebecois artist Nicolas Baier uses this concept, as evocative of the celestial as it is idiosyncratic, to explore how “natural and man-made systems” merge into epistemological frameworks that construct meaning. Hosted by Division Gallery, Baier’s solo exhibit, “Astérismes,” raises an important question: with recent technological developments, can mankind recreate nature’s sublime?

Division Gallery is a strange, swanky contrast to the brownstone buildings and abandoned lots that surround it in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood of Montreal. Its high ceilings allow plenty of wall-space for Baier’s sprawling works. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer encounters Rayonnement fossile, which was stippled black and white to evoke the static of a television screen. In the label beside the piece, Baier informs us that the traces of cosmic rays, dating back to the Big Bang, are still perceptible in television monitors. The work was also reminiscent of a grainy photo of a wind-blown and choppy sea, suggesting that Baier undermines rigid distinctions between the man-made and the natural by making us recall that everything — from televisions to oceans — is the progeny of the Big Bang. The piece forces viewers to acknowledge the awe-inducing immensity that lurks all around us, even in those parts of our lives that we consider the most banal.

[With] recent technological developments, can mankind recreate nature’s sublime?

The piece beside it, Forêt, reflects on the immensity and infinity of both time and knowledge. The piece, in bas-relief and made of mousse and epoxy paint, was a monochrome white that, according to the label, “evokes the untouched, the original, the initial, and thus the unfathomable: colour without data, void of even zeros.” The piece depicted bookshelves stretching back eternally and crammed with dossiers representing “a forest of information storage devices — knowledge accumulated in an infinite library” reflecting the eternal “quest for knowledge.” If Rayonnement fossile excavated the fossils of the Big Bang embedded all around us, then Forêt was a metaphysical thought-experiment (What was there before the Big Bang?) meets the Library of Babel, Borges’ universe-as-library.

In Réminiscence 05 and Réminiscence 06, Baier shows the extent to which our ceaseless quest for knowledge has developed. We’ve gone from gawking at the sublimity of eons-old fossils to tackling the task of conjuring epochal immensity in all its majesty. The works are computer generated images of the moment 66 million years ago when a meteorite fell to Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Réminiscence 05 shows a crimson cloud-bed, roiling and tumultuous, looming in angry pillars. The dramatic shadows and yellow haze add to the sense of fatal grandeur. On the other hand, Réminiscence 06 is beautiful for its serenity. It depicts gently rising and falling, sediment-brown clouds stretching back to misty sunlight.

We’ve gone from gawking at the sublimity of eons-old fossils to tackling the task of conjuring epochal immensity in all its majesty.

With displays like this, “Astérismes” draws our attention to how advances in technology are opening up a new dimension of experience and meaning via its ability to reconstruct nature in all its grandeur, capturing moments that may not be registered by the human eye. But it also raises the question: just how genuine are these digital analogues of the natural sublimeÉ Baier even admits that the two Réminiscence pieces, though they give us the “point of view of God,” are “only artifice since this image is but a supposition of what the sky looked like.”

Perhaps “Astérismes,” with its large amount of research on physics, would answer the question of whether mankind can create a sublime to match nature’s by reminding us that the universe is ever-expanding, its circumference an eternal elastic, and that though humanity will invent new technologies to simulate its grandeur, it is the universe that will implode and destroy all. And what’s more sublime than that?