The Allegory of Just About Anything:
Victor Raphael’s and Clayton Spada’s From Zero to Infinity
Science and spirituality: it is a recurring quest in our time to see them as kindred, at least potentially kindred, modes of perception. There has long been a collective unease as to whether such harmony is possible; the two arenas — one built on rationality and methodology and the other on intuition and faith — are antagonists as often as allies. Yet their divide isn’t as stark as some would have us believe; archaeological findings have the power to confirm or undermine the scripture of any faith; this may disturb those who read religious texts literally, but doesn’t subvert the faith of the devout who think that greater historical knowledge enriches us. Science itself doesn’t provide a guide to acting ethically in the world; knowledge can be applied in disparate ways, depending on our view of how to act well in the world. Industrial pollution is an outgrowth of applied science, and yet the knowledge and practices that scientific disciplines yield also offer ways of co-existing with the natural world. The other side of the equation is equally conflicted. Faith doesn’t stop some from thinking it is the right of humans to take from the Earth what we wish, while for others their spiritual ethos tells them they have a responsibility to protect the natural world at all costs. So, if neither the scientific nor the spiritual realm offers explicit instruction about how to conduct ourselves in the world, it becomes doubly difficult to define parallels.
Nonetheless the quest to harmonize the scientific and spiritual realms endures, as unclear as the path to it might be. The late Carl Sagan, often an eloquent commentator about the bond between the two “worlds,” spoke for that quest in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. “Science is not only compatible with spirituality,” he wrote, “it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
Awareness and understanding of the sheer grandeur of time and space, along with the human desire to comprehend it, is an ambition that pervades the images created collaboratively by Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada. Even the name of their many- faceted series, From Zero to Infinity — begun in 2002 and at this stage consisting of four portfolios and related pictures — underscores the panoramic focus of its imagery. In so much of their work, ancient thought meets contemporary knowledge, just as spiritual icons converge with imagery culled from scientific photography. Time is malleable in the pictorial universe of From Zero to Infinity and so is space. The kind of wonder and speculation they wish to evoke in these images does indeed mix elation and humility. The landscape of their art, as they have written in an essay about this project, is “the terra incognita between the indefinably metaphysical and the strictly analytical.” They see this as “fruitful territory from which to launch their investigations.”
This description is a good guide to their aspirations, though “investigations” might be a tad too clinical a term to describe the works they have produced. Their approach is investigatory, to be sure, in terms of the way they fuse and overlay images to see what symbolic sparks such combinations can and could create. As Aristotle put it, “To think is to speculate with images.” And this process of speculation fuses with their investigatory ambitions. Their images are layered with history, myth, symbolism and pictures that mingle fact with fiction. Their enterprise is to see how art can be a conceptual and emotional bridge that spans the realms of science and spirit. And in the process, they have produced pictures that often have the quality of waking dreams.
In the heyday of Conceptual Art — 1970 to be specific — the late Douglas Huebler stated his desire, “[to] photographically document the existence of everyone alive.” He knew that fulfillment of this notion was impossible, of course, even preposterous; but it was the idea that counted, the sheer extravagance of it. And he kept adding pictures to the “project” until his death in 1997. It may be just as improbable for Raphael and Spada to envision their extended series as, in their phrase, “a story of everything.” Yet like Huebler, they realize that the extravagant concept is also a source of inspiration: the grand ambition is a catalyst for real work that is visually seductive and intellectually engaging. It may not be a “story” that can include everything in the end, but it can touch on anything. That, it would seem, is the underlying point. As Raphael and Spada have put it, “This may seem on the surface to be quite impudent. Be that as it may, expect no apologies for such hubris. It is an indispensable component in the equation that permits us to impartially question and examine everything and how we place ourselves within the context of everything else.”
From Zero to Infinity, which includes four portfolios and related images — 45 in all — is thick with symbolism about knowledge and its limits. It is useful to think of it as a kind of allegory, in which the artists are the protagonists, on a quest to find their own links, their own parallels, between empirical knowledge and spiritual speculations, between science, spirit and art. This sort of quest probably requires a measure of hubris. Raphael’s and Spada’s multi-faceted art is the record of their thought process, as they combine imagery from their own works, archival sources, diagrams, maps and anything else that pertains — shaping this “vocabulary” into elegant and seductive inkjet prints. They have made effective use of gold leaf and other metallic hues in a fair number of works that heightens the visionary quality of the imagery and evokes earlier works with a spiritual intent such as devotional icons and illuminated manuscripts.
Genesis (2006), part of the first portfolio, combines image and word in a way that echoes pages from such manuscripts. It presents the artists’ preoccupations in a way that anticipates many other selections in this series, with its synthesis of science and spirituality, its uses of history and its meditation on the meanings of the past for our time. Its scriptural text in Hebrew is black, but the backdrop is contrastingly bright, suggesting a molten state of things in the implied cosmos. Diagrammatic lines within the image map the movement of subatomic particles. As much as photographic imagery dominates, the overall effect of Genesis also puts one in mind of Renaissance era emblems, which meld image and text in the service of an idea or theme. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the emblem as a “fable or allegory that might be expressed pictorially.” Many of their prints, this one included, are often as concisely allegorical as the emblems of the 16th and 17th century. The imagery within From Zero to Infinity is laden with symbolism about the cosmic dimension of the visible world and advances in science that have led to our ability to photograph the world beyond the limits of the unassisted human eye. Raphael’s and Spada’s Genesis pictures subatomic particles, imagery that cuts two ways. This composition suggests the marvelous nature of scientific discoveries and scientific photography, even as it underscores the way new knowledge undercuts old facts. These particles, themselves emblematic of Quantum Mechanics, remind us of the way such knowledge superseded the Newtonian model of the universe. In parallel fashion, the Biblical story of human origins had to be adjusted to take account of advances in the history of Homo sapiens and their ancestors — the protestations of Biblical originalists notwithstanding — even as the value of Genesis as a story endures. Origin stories in general, Genesis among them, are a source of interest to Raphael and Spada. In an arresting image entitled Origins (2009), they allude to a Taoist tale of beginnings, in which a deity breaks forth from a cosmic egg and is responsible for light as well as darkness. The emblem of this story is the yin-yang symbol. The artists are also keenly intrigued by the notion that these creation tales have in common the notion of a sacred constructor of all things. Such stories also point to a scientific equivalent for them: the aspirations of physicists like Einstein, Steven Hawking and Richard Feynman to articulate a “grand theory of everything.” Parallels like these recur in From Zero to Infinity, if we are inclined to look for them.
The cumulative effect of From Zero to Infinity is to create a procession of images, in which symbolism takes on a cumulative weight: the images embody the artists’ quest to represent the ways, to paraphrase their jointly written essay, that rationality and reverence can co-exist. In their Genesis, time is rooted in scientific knowledge. Yet this doesn’t negate the impulse to find beginnings, even if the Biblical timeline has been rendered irrelevant in a factual sense. The story it narrates has endured as an allegory of humanity in its infancy, a highly symbolic short tale in a symbolic setting. The story of Genesis, we might also recall, is a tale that includes the beginning of history itself. Leave the Garden (as Adam and Eve must do, of course) and time — as in the timeline of history — begins. In Eden, time means nothing, of course; it is prehistoric and exists only in a mythic realm. Once Adam and Eve are banished from their bucolic setting, they enter the world governed by time and all the vagaries of nature. As with the origin stories that exist in numerous cultures, this one is about a beginning. Like their Genesis, Raphael’s and Spada’s version of Expulsion (2012) suggests gain rather than loss from exiting the Garden; the color is dim in Eden, but bright in the world beyond.
Given their separate, accomplished histories as artists, it seems inevitable that convergences of different kinds of knowledge would become a primary subject of these complex pictures, which are mostly but by no means solely photographic. If there is a message to their use of medium, it is that their combining of photographic imagery and media such as gold leaf blurs the distinction between an original and a multiple, between photography, print and painting. Raphael’s own work has demonstrated a strong spiritual dimension, a desire to see the connection between physical and metaphysical realms. There is a questing quality to his image-making, in works made about Jackson Pollock and in others that create the illusion that we are gazing upon the space of constellations and distant galaxies. Adapting a famous phrase of Pollock’s, Raphael wanted to make the energy of the physical heavens visible. He also used metal leaf in his Spectra Polaroid images, the technique that has carried over marvelously to The Zero to Infinity project. Spada had a long career as a research scientist in the biological sciences before devoting himself to photography, though it must be said he had a passion for photography and an extensive knowledge of it before he ever attended college. The iconography of scientific photography frequently populates the works in this series, carried forward in a more speculative fashion. It seems, given his interests in expanding knowledge through research in the scientific realm, that Spada would be strongly attracted to investigating and testing the limits of the photographic image. Such would be the case with The Great Picture. Beginning in 2002, he, along with five other noted photographers, became participants in what was called The Legacy Project. Their collaborations yielded the largest print photograph in existence. In 2006, they turned an unused F-18 hangar in Irvine, California, into a giant pinhole camera that created a visual panorama of the El Toro Marine Base on which the hangar is situated. The results of that artistic experiment were chronicled in a touring exhibition and an excellent book, both carrying the title The Great Picture. Their general mission was to produce a highly detailed look at the history of the base, destined to be demolished. Spada’s images of this project exude the same passion for history as From Zero to Infinity, but with this difference: their focus is on a place rather than on a panorama of human history, knowledge and speculations.
To call these the works in From Zero to Infinity “pictures” is to offer something of a cursory description for their collaborative compositions, since the images themselves are, in actuality, complex constellations of imagery — both original and archival. It’s not necessary to know all their sources for imagery to recognize the layered nature of their iconography, with its varied roots in the history of religions, the history of science and history itself. The richness of references is evoked by the richness of the images themselves. Angus Fletcher, in his brilliant and enduring study, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, speaks of the open-endedness of allegory as a narrative structure, whether in word or image. The quest need not have a tidy conclusion. That insight applies here, since the journey, as Raphael and Spada envision it, is a kind of visual odyssey through the sweep of history and the long and continuing evolution of knowledge and beliefs. In symbolic form, they picture the aspirations of humankind for and knowledge of the universe that, with seemingly inevitability, push beyond reason into the realm of philosophical speculation and mystical yearnings. The quest need not be a physical one, as Fletcher points out. It can be, “an introspective journey.” Or, to extend his argument, it can be a conceptual quest. The Journey (2009), in their second portfolio, underscores the allegorical impulse embedded within this work as well as a focus that cuts across time and cultures. The figure in motion at the center of the image is from an aboriginal petroglyph. The artists have placed him at the center of a diagram of planetary phases in relation to the Sun. The script that stretches across the picture plane is one invented by a European missionary, so the large North American tribe, the Micmac — their territory encompassed parts of the United States and Canada — could read the Bible more easily. This effort at conversion largely failed. But, as the artists point out, the script has another intriguing aspect: it bears a curious resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Surely that reveals something about the mind and the structures it invents, that runs deeper than any single language and that transcends place and time. The journey is one to understand the nature of cultures, of the mind and of the solar system, a broadly conceptual one.
The artists relish such convergences, both visual and conceptual. They can stretch across time; they compress millennia into a single image. The paintings on cave walls from Lascaux, as shadowy contours, appear in Odyssey (2006) from the first portfolio, in the land and sky of a symbolic landscape. The sky is filled with seemingly repetitious algebraic expressions, which in fact are excerpted from pages of calculations leading to Einstein’s most renowned equation, expressing the General Theory of Relativity, an arrangement of numbers and letters as iconic as any image from 20th century culture. The odyssey here is an epistemological one, embracing different modes of knowledge and suggesting time as elastic more than linear. The invention of the images on cave walls was surely as revelatory in its epoch as Einstein’s equation has been for ours; that is a story conveyed by this image. And, of course, you are free to find others.
One of the great pleasures of experiencing this project, as a whole, is to see how the iconography of so many cultures, so many epochs and so many faiths surface in the work. The figure might be from an aboriginal petroglyph, as in The Journey, or it could a kneeling cloaked man from a well-known allegorical landscape, the anonymous Flammarion wood engraving from 1888, for a book about meteorology. This second image is included in the artists’ 2012 composition, The Machinery of Heaven — part of their third portfolio — in which he is trying to make his way from the sky to Earth. The heavens themselves take many forms in Raphael’s and Spada’s works: radiant in The Machinery of Heaven; dark and mapped by radio astronomy in Pioneer Greeting (2006); diagrammatic and billowy, with Renaissance era archetypal figures in the image entitled From Zero to Infinity (2015).
What do they hope we see in this project, with its phantasmagoric vision of the universe? If we view it as a journey or odyssey, then it is one that takes us in many directions: into subterranean realms and into the vast space beyond Earth. But most of all, the space is metaphysical as well as physical, philosophical as much as visual. The imagery mingles and fuses scientific and spiritual world-views, while suggesting that the divide between them may be real but not as large as collective assumptions would have it.
That collective skepticism about a harmony between science and spirituality, between science and art, has a history with intense roots, reaching back to the early 20th century. The carnage of World War One, made possible by advances in military technology, produced a deep-seated suspicion of what a culture rooted in rationalism and science has yielded — a view reinforced many times over with another World War, innumerable other smaller wars as well as the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The other dimension of a rationally structured society, as Max Weber outlined in his influential writings, was one deeply committed to bureaucracy and, by extension, conformity. With World War One as recent history, Dadaists and Surrealists saw the advanced societies of their day as producers of mass carnage and mass production, as the enemies of creative freedom and critical thinking. Though the present-day global economy remains fixated on technological progress and hyper-efficiency as means to prosperity — the latest iPhone, efficient robots in factories and so on — there is also a collective unease about the environmental cost of waste, of exploding population, of extreme pollution leading to climate change that in turn may ultimately prove to be the demise of civilization, though advanced warfare is an equal peril.
In this context, which is the backdrop to any art that looks at the way science and art can overlap in vision and sensibility, From Zero to Infinity is a brave attempt to suggest a different slant on our collective unease, at least in a philosophical and aesthetic fashion. It is a sustained effort to see beyond the quotidian present of advances in smartphones and everything else technological — to look at the philosophical bonds that link different modes of seeing and seeking, to reflect on how, in the words of the artists, “the mind relates to the contingent.” In the artists’ essay containing this phrase about contingency, they take delight in speaking of “disciplines that do not yet exist,” which have been suggested by their imagery. The list they provide: allegorical astrophysics, cartographic cave art, mythological microbiology and cabbalistic quantum mechanics. It’s irrelevant whether such pursuits will ever exist. What matters is the imaginative act that conjures them up, that perceives links between different modes of vision. And they account for the dimension of technology that is visionary: imagining flight since ancient times and then finding a way to make it actual. This is what Aerial Navigation (2009) emblematizes, with its celebratory early 20th century image of a plane aloft, looking as if it is flying toward the viewer, and a dirigible floating above it. Including both signifies the long history of aviation, since the dirigible first flew in the late 18th century and the Wright Brothers launched plane flight in 1903. The artists’ image, from their second portfolio, appropriates the cover of a French history of navigation by J. Lecornu, published the same year as the Wright Brothers’ flight. The artists discovered its cover in fruitful research in the collections of the University of Southern California libraries, research that enriched the range of references in their project and led to an exhibition in 2009 of selections from the project at the university’s Doheny Memorial Library. The golden hue of the skies in this image and the added spherical lines that diagram the mineral stephanite lend an atmospheric grandeur to the picture, which evokes the past ebulliently and with a subtle sense of whimsy. So many of the images in From Zero to Infinity tilt our mind’s eye toward the heavens, toward space beyond Earth, while the image of stephanite implies our unbreakable connection to the landscape of the planet. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously advised in his essay “Civilization” (first delivered as a lecture in 1862). His point, it would seem, is that we need to look skyward to have a philosophical perspective on everyday life. But part of that perspective is to realize that the pull of the stars needs to be counterbalanced with a link to the Earth.
The most accurate way to describe From Zero to Infinity, in its entirety, is as an assertion of vision, as a story of possibilities. The artists’ reflections, research and collaboration have yielded a plethora of images, seductive in their complex combinations of sources that span eras and cultures — constructed scenes that exist only in pictorial form. These scenes are allegorical, in that they symbolize a quest to connect past to present in new ways, connect science to speculative thinking about the cosmos that extols our imaginative capacities as human beings. In our era, when unease about the future is palpable, when dystopian views outweigh utopian ones decisively, their images for this project remind us that the better part of our nature is not only worthy of our attention; From Zero to Infinity is a many-faceted rejoinder to anxieties and doubts, collective and individual. These images can provide a map that helps us to locate the better angels within us.
1. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York, Ballantine Books, 1996), 29.
2. Clayton S. Spada and Victor Raphael, “From Zero to Infinity: A Story of Everything,” in Biologically-Inspired Computing for the Arts: Scientific Data through Graphics, ed. Anna Ursyn (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2012), 357.
3. Aristotle, De Anima, as quoted in John Manning, The Emblem (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 13.
4. Douglas Huebler, Crocodile tears: (brief fictions re-sounding from the proposal in Variable Piece #70:1971 "to photographically document the existence of everyone alive") (Buffalo, N.Y.: Albright-Knox Gallery and CEPA Gallery), 1985.
5. Spada and Raphael, “From Zero to Infinity,” 369.
6. Manning, The Emblem, 15.
7. The artists who created the Legacy Project and The Great Picture were one and the same; along with Clayton Spada there were Mark Chamberlain, Rob Johnson, Jacques Garnier, Jerry Burchfield, and Douglas McCulloh. The locale for the immense photograph, measuring more than 31 feet high and 107 feet wide, was on the shuttered Marine base that was the subject of the Legacy Project. It was decommissioned in 1999 and the photographers gained unfettered access in 2002 to document its history. They made more than 240,000 images. Subjects of The Great Picture were the control tower of the base, its twin runways, and the heart of the future Orange County Great Park, with a backdrop of the San Joaquin Hills and the Laguna Beach Wilderness. See https://www.legacyphotoproject.com
8. Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 153. Also see Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (Boston: David R. Godine; New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 203-235; Owens saw a subtle resurgence of allegory in Land Art such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and works by Sherrie Levine, Troy Brantuch and others that employ borrowed imagery.
9. Spada and Raphael, “From Zero to Infinity,” 358.
10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), 27.
Robert L. Pincus served as the art critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, beginning in 1985. From 1981 to 1985, he was an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has won many journalism prizes for his art writing, including the Chemical Bank Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism.
He has a combined Ph.D. in English and Art History from the University of Southern California and is the author of a seminal book on American artists Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, entitled On a Scale that Competes with the World. He has contributed essays to many other books and exhibition catalogs, including Behold, America! Art of the United States from Three San Diego Museums, Sophie Calle: The Reader and Robert Wilson: Space/Time.
He has written regularly for magazines, including Art in America and Art News, for four decades and has contributed commentary and stories to many other publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Pincus teaches courses in writing, theory and criticism for the graduate art program at California State University, Long Beach and has also taught at the University of San Diego since 1998.